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

Langford Fire Rescue (Black Press Media file photo)
Langford looks to strike out on its own for emergency fire dispatch services

Mayor Stew Young says the city is large enough to negotiate solo

Sidney Lions Club is currently selling 50/50 raffle tickets for a virtual fundraiser to send kids and adults with disabilities to Easter Seals Camps like the one at Camp Shawnigan. (Easter Seals/Submitted)
Sidney service club raises funds people with disabilities to have some summer fun

Raffle helps fund in-person and online summer camps for adults and children

The Capital Regional District hopes to be a national leader in zero waste and the circular economy, but getting there will take curbing construction waste and addressing challenges brought on by the region’s growth. Pictured is the Hartland landfill. (Black Press Media file photo)
CRD aims to be zero waste national leader, reduce enough to curb landfill expansion

Capital Region will have to reduce major waste sources: construction, organics from apartments

Colwood city council voted to give the next council a 7.5 per cent pay increase following the federal government's decision to eliminate the 1/3 tax free allowance normally afforded to councillors. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)
Sean Hart, 34, unexpectedly left the Seven Oaks Tertiary Mental Health Facility in Saanich on Nov. 6, 2020 and has now been missing for six months. (Photo courtesy Penny Hart)
Search continues for Saanich man Sean Hart six months after his disappearance

Support from community, police keeps his mother hopeful

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, hosts an update on efforts to contain B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Valley and protect hospitals in the Lower Mainland, May 6, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate slowing, 20 more people die

Deaths include two people in their 40s, two in their 50s

Most Read