The political implications of reviving Canada’s border reality show

Border Security: Canada's Front Line was cancelled for infringing on the privacy rights of a migrant crossing the border.
January 4, 2019, 6:16pm
Border Security: Canada's Front Line was cancelled for infringing on the privacy rights of a migrant crossing the border.

At the Vancouver airport, an Irish traveller arriving in Canada for the first time is pulled aside by a Canadian border agent. Their interaction is being filmed by a TV crew. We learn the man is in Canada to visit his brother, who lives in Edmonton.

“He’s coming here for 18 days… but when I asked him how much money he has, he basically admitted that he’s living on welfare right now in Ireland,” the border agent, speaking directly to camera, tells viewers.

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“He basically admitted that he’s flat broke, and that’s a big concern for me,” the agent says, after the man tells him he has no savings and hasn’t worked in three years. So how does he plans to support himself during his trip, the agent asks.

“The officer wants to make sure the man doesn’t have plans to work,” a narrator explains, off camera.

The man answers, and the agent tells the camera with a slight smirk, “He has return tickets to go back to his home and he also admits that he has to go home in two weeks because he’s gonna have to get his welfare check to sustain himself while he’s there.”

The agent calls the man’s brother and sister in law to see if his story checks out. He is then issued a visitor’s record, told there will be a warrant issued for his arrest if he doesn’t leave when he’s supposed to, and is sent on his way.

In the end, the man is allowed to enter the country and doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong. But details of his private life are now on TV.

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This is a typical storyline on the since-cancelled reality show Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, which followed the work of the Canada Border Services Agency and aired on the National Geographic Channel for three seasons from 2012 to 2014. Each episode of the show, produced by the Vancouver-based Force Four Productions, features several cases of agents interrogating people coming into Canada at airports and land border crossings, as well as inspecting packages arriving from abroad. The episode featuring the Irish visitor aired in 2013. The show is still available online.

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Sometimes, the travellers’ faces are blurred, and sometimes they aren’t.

The controversial program was cancelled after a ruling from the federal privacy commissioner found it violated the rights of a migrant worker in 2016 — but now the government is thinking of bringing it back.

"An important educational tool.”

The agency has been considering the idea since late 2017, CBC reported last month based on a briefing note from the CBSA president to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. A spokesperson also confirmed to CBC that they are “exploring the possibility of renewing the series."

A recent survey commissioned by the CBSA revealed that many Canadians learned about the border agency’s work through the show.

"The Border Security television program was commonly cited as a source of information that provided a window into the work that CBSA does and generally seemed to contribute to a greater appreciation of it," said the report.

In an email to VICE News, CBSA spokesperson Jayden Robertson didn’t refute the possibility of the show coming back, but wrote that the agency isn’t currently in discussions with any production companies to bring the show back.

“Any future projects would need to respect travelers’ privacy rights,” he continued.

The show “showcased the professionalism of Canada’s border services officers,” wrote Robertson. “While the series came to an end in 2015, it was, and continues to be an important educational tool.”

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While the agency stands by the program, legal experts and immigration advocates have been adamant that the show should be kept off the air, and questioned the motive of bringing the program back in a federal election year, in which immigration is sure to be a key issue.

“[The show] was a completely unwarranted, illegal violation of an individual’s privacy.”

“The government has, at its fingertips, a number of ways to inform the public about issues at the border,” said Michael Vonn of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which spearheaded the complaint that resulted in the show being taken off the air. “A reality television show is surely one of the most bizarre.”

Oscar Mata Duran was one of eight migrant workers arrested during an immigration raid at a construction site, which was filmed for the show in 2013. The episode sparked public outrage and Duran filed a formal complaint against the CBSA with the federal privacy commissioner, alleging that his privacy rights were violated.

Mata Duran was interrogated about his identity and immigration status and then brought to an immigration detention facility, where he signed the consent form an hour later. Mata Duran said he didn’t read the form, but signed because he was confused and afraid. Under the circumstances, he couldn’t have freely given consent, he argued.

“[The show] was a completely unwarranted, illegal violation of an individual’s privacy, and the notion — the one they promulgated — that this was somehow consensual, was clearly never going to pass,” Vonn told VICE News. “The people who were being incorporated in the show were under tremendous duress.”

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“If you need to return to Canada, you have no choice but to attend the border, so it’s fanciful fiction that somehow people were consenting,” she continued.

In 2013, after the episode aired, then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended his decision to allow the raid to be filmed, saying it’s “important to remember that illegal immigrants cost law-abiding Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars each year and thousands of jobs.”

“Any future projects would need to respect travelers’ privacy rights.”

While Border Security seemed to reflect the previous Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda, in an election year, it could serve the governing Liberals politically, too.

“If you look at the line coming out of the Conservative party and [opposition leader] Andrew Scheer, alleging that the Liberals are not strong on crime and they’re weak on the border and the criticisms of asylum seekers, a show like that would go to create a public perception about what’s happening at the border,” says criminal defense attorney Shane Martinez, whose clients include migrant workers. “And it may not be a correct perception, but they could at least fall back on that and say well, ‘People are learning about what’s happening at the border and they have the impression at least that officers are doing a good job and acting appropriately.’”

Martinez said the possibility of the show being brought back has been a hot topic of conversation among criminal lawyers, who have raised a number of issues with its premise — he pointed out, for one, that that the show focused on border crossers who were breaking the law, but rarely showed CBSA officers doing anything wrong.

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“The program is very one-sided, and it doesn’t look at the possibility and common reality that officers routinely overstep their boundaries.”

There’s also the issue of how cameras impact someone’s behaviour, especially in a setting like the border, where nerves are already heightened.

“There may be an impact, once these cameras are there and these production teams that are greeting people on their arrival, that could create a heightened sense of fear and self consciousness,” said Martinez. “And then an officer with the CBSA could misconstrue that as a sign of guilt. And that could then be used as a basis for a more intrusive search on the person.”

Martinez said if the show is revived, it could focus on other aspects of the CBSA’s work, like patrolling the border and looking at mail and doing other criminal investigations, that don’t put people crossing the border in the limelight.

“That’s a time when a person is particularly vulnerable,” he said. “Most people are nervous, even when they don’t have anything to hide when they’re crossing the border because they know they’re going to be subject to scrutiny. It’s a natural, human reaction to have.”

“While I think the Liberals could gain something from it, as a society, we must demand better and collectively hold ourselves to a higher standard than that.”

Cover image of Border Security: Canada’s Front Line/ via National Geographic Channel