A Canada Border Services Agency officer walks to a primary inspection booth at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday February 5, 2020. A newly released memo shows Canada’s border agency signed off on rules to guide its most intrusive intelligence operations months ago, but the federal government has yet to issue the ministerial direction. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A Canada Border Services Agency officer walks to a primary inspection booth at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday February 5, 2020. A newly released memo shows Canada’s border agency signed off on rules to guide its most intrusive intelligence operations months ago, but the federal government has yet to issue the ministerial direction. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Federal guidance for border agency surveillance and sources drafted but never issued

Border officers can stop travellers for questioning, take blood and breath samples, and search, detain and arrest people

A newly released memo shows Canada’s border agency signed off on rules to guide its most intrusive intelligence operations months ago, but the federal government has yet to issue the ministerial direction.

The memo, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, describes efforts stretching back seven years to introduce formal government instruction on the Canada Border Services Agency’s use of surveillance and confidential sources.

One civil liberties group called the delay in issuing guidance “deeply concerning.”

The border agency’s 14,000 employees manage the flow of millions of travellers and 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 people.

The agency also covertly observes individuals, vehicles and places to gather information when there is reason to believe laws have been broken. And it gives money to confidential sources whose information leads to significant enforcement actions.

Written directions from the public safety minister have long been considered key measures to ensure accountability on the part of security agencies, given their extraordinary powers.

In September 2013, the Conservative public safety minister at the time agreed to issue a direction to the border agency concerning its sensitive investigative techniques, says the memo, prepared earlier this year for border agency president John Ossowski.

In 2014, Public Safety Canada, in consultation with the border agency and the Justice Department, developed such a direction but it “was never formally issued,” the memo adds.

In August last year the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians recommended the public safety minister provide written direction to the border agency on the conduct of sensitive activities.

“That direction should include accountability expectations and annual reporting obligations,” said the committee’s report, which became public in edited form in March.

The memo to Ossowski says a draft ministerial direction prepared for the president is aligned with the border agency’s policies and “ensures enhanced oversight and accountability for the agency’s risk-inherent activities.”

Officials recommended Ossowski approve the draft, the text of which was exempted from release under the access law.

The memo shows Ossowski signed off on the draft direction in late February. A month later, the federal government was seized with the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage, a spokesman for the border agency, said the direction had not yet been issued. “For any further questions, please contact Public Safety directly, as this is their policy.”

Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said direction to the agency was forthcoming and would be made public.

“It is critical that there be clear direction given to our agencies on controls for officials engaged in sensitive national interest activities,” she said.

“Government and agency officials must be accountable to our laws, the oversight mechanisms that ensure their effective functioning and the ministers responsible for them.”

Formally setting out expectations in a ministerial direction is at the very low end of accountability measures for a public entity, especially one that has the authority to covertly collect intelligence, said Meghan McDermott of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

“So it’s deeply concerning to us that it has yet to be issued,” she said.

McDermott acknowledged that COVID-19 has thrown all schedules off, but she noted the delay in this case seems to be part of a larger pattern, given that a draft direction was also developed several years ago.

“What is the holdup?”

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

border agency

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Labour Minister Harry Bains addressing Surrey Board of Trade digital meeting Friday. (Screen shot)
Labour Minister says Surrey businesses’ resilience through pandemic ‘impressive’

‘Surrey’s effort in bending the curve has been among the best,’ Harry Bains says

Volunteers from Semiahmoo Secondary joined with members of the Lower Mainland Green Team and the White Rock and South Surrey Naturalists Wednesday to remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Students, volunteers remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park

Day-long project a collaboration between city, Lower Mainland Green Team

South Surrey’s Kirk Arsenault has started a new company, Str8laced, that sells cleat wraps that aim to keep athletes’ shoes from coming untied during games and practices. (Contributed photo)
South Surrey sports equipment entrepreneur tying up loose ends before Alberta move

Str8laced wraps keep laces from coming loose in the middle of play, says Kirk Arsenault

Raj Singh Toor (left) with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudea after an official apology for the treatment of Komagata Maru passengers in 1914. (Contributed photo)
Request made for City of White Rock to honour Komagata Maru passengers

Raj Singh Toor confident city will rename ‘street, park or city asset’ in honour of 1914 tragedy

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

The driver of a pickup truck failed to stop after knocking down a wooden fence on March 3, 2021. (screen grab)
VIDEO: Footage catches pick-up driver smash fence on Abbotsford/Langley border

Driver came forward after video circulated on social media

Lower Mainland teens with Ocean Wise’s YouthToSea program have launched an initiative called Clean Coastal, Eat Local, through which they’re offering restaurant gift cards to individuals or households that organize a coastal cleanup in the month of March. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise)
Teens challenge Lower Mainlanders to clean up their act

YouthToSea offers restaurant gift cards in exchange for a cleaner coastline

Kevin Haughton is the founder/technologist of Courtenay-based Clearflo Solutions. Scott Stanfield photo
Islander aims Clearflo clean drinking water system at Canada’s remote communities

Entrepreneur $300,000 mobile system can produce 50,000 litres of water in a day, via solar energy

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

Most Read