People of color say Canadian border agents discriminate against them when they return home
Canadians who are not white say they are discriminated against at the Canadian border, and they believe it is because of their race.
A 33-year-old Winnipeg woman, whom the CBC has agreed not to name because she fears reprisals in the future, said that while she understands the need for national security and that border agents have a job to do, she believes she is having 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 of her experiences at the border.
« Every time I cross a land border in a car full of my [friends] who are not racialized, I am always amazed at how easy it is. »
A report published on the Canada Border Services Agency website indicates that in a survey, one in four border officers said they had directly witnessed a colleague discriminating against a traveler in the past two years.
Of these respondents, 71% suggested that the discrimination was based, in whole or in part, on the traveler’s race, and just over three-quarters of respondents cited the traveller’s national or ethnic origin.
The Winnipeg woman said she’s noticed that when she’s traveling alone or with other people of color, the process is much more difficult than when she’s with white friends.
One moment that remains etched in her memory is when she returned to Canada from a weekend in the United States with her mother, who is an immigrant from the Caribbean. She was also with her boyfriend at the time, an American citizen.
« We were arrested and brought in for questioning. We were supposed to traffic him, » she said.
They were separated and she was questioned by border officials who did not believe her story, she said.
« I was 17 and I had nothing else to say, [except] we were together because he’s my boyfriend. He comes to visit me in my city and meet my family. »
She said they were eventually released and allowed to enter the country.
She feels a lot of anger and pain as she thinks back on her experience – and it was just one of many instances where she was targeted at the border, she said.
She said she’s less bothered at the border now, but that’s probably because she’s figured out how border agents want her to act – and she’s taking every step to behave that way.
She said her whole demeanor changes when she interacts with border agents.
« If someone questions you, you don’t feel like you [have the right to get angry] if someone accuses you of something you know you’re not guilty of, » she said.
« You have to stay so calm in these situations. … It seems like everyone is allowed to have normal human reactions, but we’re not. »
She said that after the interaction ends and she is allowed to return to the country, she feels « an inappropriate anger, all of this inappropriate frustration and all of this inappropriate apathy ».
Although crossing the border is always a source of great anxiety for her, she believes that it is both the Canada Border Services Agency and border agents who need to re-evaluate how they treat travelers who are not whites.
She thinks inbound traveler screening policies need to be reviewed and updated.
« And that’s the hardest part to target, but inherently I think border agents need to have a fundamental shift in themselves and how they view people who look like me. »
Immigration lawyer Alastair Clarke, who has worked with immigrants for 25 years, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.
“I would say the vast majority of people who come to Canada are treated fairly and professionally. However, there are cases where officers could treat people who come to Canada a little better, with a little more sensitivity,” he said.
Clarke said border agents have a difficult role to play in protecting Canada’s national security. They are front-line officers who welcome people when they arrive in Canada.
« They have to balance the need to protect Canada, the need to do legitimate research, to do legitimate investigations, with the other side, where they also have to treat people with professionalism and courtesy, » he said. .
Clarke has asked clients to contact her firm, Clarke Law, with stories of potential racism on the border. He has escalated these complaints to superintendents at various 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 public complaints oversight body, but a bill would create another way for travelers to file complaints about their experiences with the CBSA.
Bill C-20, if passed, will create an independent public complaints and oversight committee for the RCMP and CBSA. The bill provides a formal procedure for filing complaints and having them investigated within six months.
« Systemic racism is mentioned in the bill itself, and so I commend the government for recognizing that there is potential systemic racism within the ranks of Canadian officers and that it is not fictional stories experiences and 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 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 because members of her family travel frequently to Canada and she fears they will face reprisals in the future.
She said she was returning from the United States with family members from Sri Lanka who had been in Winnipeg for a year on a visitor’s visa which was renewed at six months.
She said their interaction with border agents was negative from the start.
« He asked, ‘Where are you from? I said “Winnipeg”. Then once we gave the passport… he said to me, “You lied to me, you said you were from Winnipeg, but these two people are not from Winnipeg, they are from Sri Lanka”, did she say.
She said she tried to explain that she misunderstood the question, believing they were asking her where they were staying before traveling to the United States.
« So I said, ‘Sir…they’ve lived here for a year, so I don’t remember saying they’re originally [from Sri Lanka] because [their] passport already says they are Sri Lankan,” she said.
The family is scared
She said after that she got angry that she didn’t answer the question correctly. She saw that her family was scared and she feared that they would not be able to enter the country.
They were eventually released, but not before border officials told her she had to tell the truth the next time she crossed.
« When someone says, like, you lied and stuff, then it’s hurtful, and in front of the group you feel humiliated [and] shame, » she said.
She said the trip was ruined because of their treatment by border agents and everyone was upset during the short drive back to Winnipeg.
« We feel like we have no rights. We still fear immigration, including me, even though I have citizenship, » she said.
« The paper says you belong here, but still, the person you’re dealing with doesn’t give you that feeling. »
A CBSA spokesperson said in an emailed statement that it strongly condemns all forms of racism and discrimination.
He has developed initiatives to make the CBSA more inclusive, respectful and diverse. Among the initiatives is an anti-racism strategy that includes mandatory training courses on combating racism and prejudice.
The spokesperson said the CBSA will investigate all allegations of inappropriate behavior and take appropriate action, from discipline to dismissal.
« Discipline is handled on a case-by-case basis, and discipline is rendered based on the seriousness of the allegations and takes into account mitigating and aggravating factors, » the spokesperson said.