People of colour say Canadian border agents discriminate against them as they return home

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Canadians who aren’t white say they’re discriminated against at the Canadian border, and they believe it’s because of their race.

A 33-year-old woman from Winnipeg, whom the CBC has agreed not to name because she fears reprisals in the future, said while she understands the need for national security and that border officers have a job to do, she believes she has negative interactions with border agents because of her race.

“It just adds to your lack of belonging. I’m a Canadian citizen. I was born here,” she said about her experiences at the border.

“Every time I’m going through a land border in a car full of my [friends] who are not racialized, I’m always astounded at how easy it is.”

A report published on the Canada Border Services Agency website says that in a survey, one in four border agents said they directly witnessed a colleague discriminate against a traveller in the last two years. 

Among those respondents, 71 per cent suggested the discrimination was based, in full or in part, on the traveller’s race, and just over three-quarters of respondents cited the traveller’s national or ethnic origin.

The Winnipeg woman said she’s noticed when she travels by herself or with other people of colour, the process is much more difficult than when she’s with white friends.

A moment that stands out in her memory was when she was returning to Canada from a weekend trip to the U.S. with her mother, who is an immigrant from the Caribbean. She was also with her boyfriend at the time, an American citizen. 

“We were pulled over and brought in for questioning. We were assumed to be trafficking him,” she said. 

They were separated, and she was interrogated by border agents who didn’t believe her story, she said

“I was 17 and I had nothing else to say, [except] we were with each other because he’s my boyfriend. He’s coming to visit me in my city and meet my family.” 

She said they were eventually released and permitted to enter the country.

A 33-year-old woman says despite being a Canadian citizen, she’s often stopped by border agents before she’s able to re-enter the country. (David Ryder/Reuters)

She feels a lot of anger and pain looking back at her experience — and it was only one of many instances when she’s been targeted at the border, she said.

She said she gets bothered less at the border now, but it’s likely because she’s figured out how border agents want her to act — and she takes every measure to behave that way. 

She said her entire demeanour changes when she interacts with border agents.

“If someone is questioning you, you don’t feel like you [have the right to get angry] if someone is accusing you of something that you know you’re not guilty of,” she said.

“You have to remain so calm in these situations.… It feels like everyone else is allowed to have normal human reactions, but we’re not.”

She said after the interaction is over and she’s allowed to re-enter the country, she experiences “displaced anger, all this displaced frustration, and all of this displaced apathy.”

‘Fundamental shift’

Although crossing the border is always a high source of anxiety for her, she believes it’s both the Canadian Border Services Agency and border agents who need to reassess how they treat travellers who aren’t white.

She believes the policies for screening incoming travellers need to be looked at and updated.

“And this is the hard part to target, but intrinsically, I think that border officers need to have a fundamental shift in themselves and how they view people who look like me.” 

Immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke, who has been working with immigrants for 25 years, said he’s not surprised by the results of the report.

“I would say the vast majority of individuals coming to Canada are treated fairly and professionally. However, there are cases where officers could treat individuals coming to Canada a little bit better, with a little bit more sensitivity,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke is hoping for the implementation of Bill C-20, a bill designed to combat potential systemic racism by creating an independent public complaint and oversight committee for the RCMP and CBSA. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Clarke said border agents have a difficult role in protecting Canada’s national security. They’re front-line officers greeting people as they come to Canada.

“They have to balance the need to protect Canada, the need to do legitimate searches, to do legitimate investigations, with the other side, where they also need to treat people professionally and with courtesy,” he said.

Clarke has had clients contact his firm, Clarke Law, with stories of potential racism at the border. He’s taken these complaints to superintendents at different ports of entry on behalf of his clients, and the CBSA takes these complaints very seriously, he said.

The CBSA is the only public safety agency in Canada without an independent oversight body for public complaints, but a proposed law would create another way for travellers to submit complaints regarding their experiences with the CBSA. 

Bill C-20, if passed, will create an independent public complaint and oversight committee for the RCMP and CBSA. The bill includes a formal procedure for submitting complaints and having them reviewed within a six-month period. 

“Systemic racism is mentioned in the bill itself, and so I applaud the government for recognizing that there is potential systemic racism within the ranks of Canadian officers and that that these are not fictional stories. These are actual stories with people who are having actual negative experiences and I hope that [if] this bill [is passed], the oversight committee is formed, that it will be part of the solution to give more confidence in our system,” he said.

A close up picture of a Canada Border Services Agency badge.
In a survey conducted in March 2020 as part of an internal Canada Border Services Agency evaluation, a quarter of front-line employees said they had directly witnessed a colleague discriminate against a traveller. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A 53-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka who is now a Canadian citizen said border agents need to treat people with more respect and understand that for many people, English may not be their first language. 

CBC has agreed to withhold her name as she has family members who frequently travel to Canada, and she fears they may face reprisal in the future. 

She said she was travelling back from the States with some members of her family from Sri Lanka who had been in Winnipeg for a year on a visitor visa that was renewed at six months. 

She said their interaction with border agents was negative from the beginning.

“He asked, ‘Where did you come from?’ I said ‘Winnipeg.’ Then once we gave the passport … he snapped at me, saying, ‘You lied to me, you said you came from Winnipeg, but those two people are not from Winnipeg, they’re from Sri Lanka,'” she said.

She said she tried to explain she misunderstood the question, believing they were asking her where they were staying before travelling to the States.

“So I said, ‘Sir… they lived here for a year, so I don’t remember to tell that they are initially [from Sri Lanka] because [their] passport says already they are Sri Lankan,'” she said. 

Family scared

She said after that, she became upset that she didn’t answer the question correctly. She saw her family was scared, and she was worried they wouldn’t be able to enter the country. 

They were eventually released, but not before border agents told her she needed to be truthful next time she was crossing. 

“When somebody says, like, that you lied and all, then it’s hurtful, and in front of the group you feel humiliated [and] ashamed,” she said.

She said the trip was ruined because of their treatment by border agents, and everyone was upset during the short ride back to Winnipeg.

“We feel like we have no rights. We are still scared of immigration, including me, even if I have citizenship,” she said. 

“Paper says you belong here, but still, the person you are dealing with is not giving you that feeling.”

A 53-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka, now a Canadian citizen, says border agents accused her of lying to them when they asked where she was from and she said Winnipeg, where she’s been living since 2008. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for the CBSA said in an email statement it firmly condemns all forms of racism and discrimination. 

It’s developed initiatives to make the CBSA more inclusive, respectful and diverse. Among the initiatives is an anti-racism strategy that includes mandatory anti-racism and anti-bias training courses. 

The spokesperson said the CBSA will investigate all allegations of inappropriate behaviour and will take the necessary actions, from discipline to termination.

“Discipline is managed case by case, and discipline is rendered based on the severity of the allegations and take into account mitigating and aggravating factors,” the spokesperson said.



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