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

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the Canadian government should consider sanctions on the U.S. if they refuse to reconsider the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Keystone XL officially cancelled, Kenney vows to fight on

U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled the presidential permit for the pipeline on first day of office

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said province’s test positivity rate for COVID-19 is steadily declining. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
669 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 21 additional deaths

COVID-19 test positivity rate down to 4.5 per cent

Kyla Gibson with her boyfriend Gavin Hardy. (Photo used with permission)
Sylvan Lake couple lose ‘fur babies’ to house fire

‘They were our world and nothing will ever replace them,’ Kyla Gibson said of her three pets

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported an additional 456 COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Five new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, two in Red Deer

Province reports 456 new cases of COVID-19

Businesses are getting creative to keep cash flowing. (File photo)
Central Albertan lobbying government to help those affected by CERB repayments

Catherine Hay says she received a letter in November saying she had to completely repay the benefit

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

(Thesendboys/Instagram)
Video of man doing backflip off Vancouver bridge draws police condemnation

Group says in Instagram story that they ‘don’t do it for the clout’

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canadian malls, conference centres, hotels offer up space for COVID vaccination centres

Commercial real estate association REALPAC said that a similar initiative was seeing success in the U.K.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States

About 25,000 National Guard members have been dispatched to Washington

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File
Alberta cancels coal leases, pauses future sales, as opposition increases

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed the suspension

File photo
Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit recovers valuable stolen property

Property valued at over $50,000 recovered by Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit.

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File)
First Nations seek to intervene in court challenge of coal policy removal

Bearspaw, Ermineskin and Whitefish First Nations are among those looking to intervene

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau vows to keep up the fight to sway U.S. on merits of Keystone XL pipeline

Canada’s pitch to the Biden team has framed Keystone XL as a more environmentally friendly project than original

Most Read