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Former PCO boss eyes border agency watchdog options for Trudeau Liberals

Last Updated May 18, 2017 at 9:20 am EDT

OTTAWA – The Trudeau government has hired a former top public servant to study options for more robust oversight of Canada’s border agency — the latest sign the agency could soon have new people looking over its shoulder.

Former Privy Council clerk Mel Cappe expects to complete his report by the end of the month on whether enhanced review of the Canada Border Services Agency is needed and, if so, how that could best be accomplished.

Civil libertarians, refugee lawyers and committees of both the House of Commons and Senate have called in recent years for stronger independent monitoring of the border agency.

The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in March of last year the government “is examining how best to provide the Canada Border Services Agency with appropriate review mechanisms.”

The Liberal government has taken a step in that direction by introducing legislation to create a committee of parliamentarians to oversee agencies with security and intelligence responsibilities, including the border agency.

However, the government has signalled that some kind of specially designed means of reviewing the border agency is also in the works.

Cappe, Privy Council clerk for three years during Jean Chretien’s tenure as prime minister, is looking at existing review and oversight of the agency, including any gaps, as well as potential models for more comprehensive monitoring.

He is keeping an open mind and is reluctant to say much at this point.

“Public confidence in the integrity of the protection of Canadians is important — and that’s what we’re working towards,” said Cappe, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

The border agency’s 13,000 employees manage the flow of about 100 million travellers — as well as some 16 million commercial shipments — entering Canada annually. They collect, analyze and distribute information concerning people and goods at border points, air terminals and seaports.

Border officers can stop travellers for questioning, take blood and breath samples and search, detain and arrest citizens and non-citizens without a warrant. The border agency’s role in immigration detention has come under intense scrutiny following in-custody deaths.

The agency’s internal recourse directorate handles complaints from the public, and other bodies including the courts, the federal privacy commissioner and the Canadian International Trade Tribunal examine various concerns about the agency’s work.

But unlike the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the border agency is not overseen by a dedicated review or complaints body.

The lack of independent review of border officer conduct “is a gap that definitely needs to be addressed,” Goodale said last year to a Senate committee studying a bill, sponsored by now-retired senator Wilfred Moore, that would create an inspector general for the border agency.

Goodale said that while he agreed with the spirit behind the bill, he could not support it due to uncertainties about its scope and how the new inspector general would work with existing review bodies.

The minister also said he did not want to pre-empt overall federal consultations on the national security framework.

Goodale’s department is sifting through the results those consultations with the aim of introducing a first wave of legislative proposals as early as next month.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter