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

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Alberta begins rolling out AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for those aged 40 or older

There are more than 70 pharmacies offering AstraZeneca, including 26 offering walk-in appointments

A child writes in their school notebook during a home schooling session in Cremona, Alta., Monday, March 23, 2020, amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of students in Calgary will shift to online learning as of today in a bid to curb rising COVID-19 infection rates in the city. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Online classes begin for some Alberta students amid rising COVID-19 cases

Alberta currently has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country

Volunteers participate in a work-bee at J.J. Collett Natural Area on March 27. (Photo Submitted)
J.J. Collett natural area proceeding with projects

The nature area appeared on a list of parks and nature areas that were “underutilized” by UCP

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Alberta joins Ontario in lowering minimum age for AstraZeneca vaccine

More than 700,000 doses of AstraZeneca have been administered in this country

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

A vial of some of the first 500,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada secured. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio
Canada’s 2nd blood clot confirmed in Alberta after AstraZeneca vaccine

The male patient, who is in his 60s, is said to be recovering

The funeral of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Philip died April 9 at the age of 99. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip laid to rest Saturday as sombre queen sits alone

The entire royal procession and funeral took place out of public view within the grounds of Windsor Castle

Most Read