CBSA secrecy laid bare in Vega Jimenez case, say BCCLA and CARL

MONTHS after the inquest into the tragic suicide death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) finally released documents under the Access to Information Act to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and news media that were requested many months prior in early 2014.

The Vancouver Sun reported on Thursday in great detail on the contents of the documents, building on what we learned in an earlier Globe and Mail report, which suggest that the CBSA had no intention of letting the public know about the death. Rather, the documents suggest that CBSA made a decision not to notify the public, and deliberately worked to withhold information from reporters and the public about Vega Jimenez’s death once the news began to leak out. One email from a senior official expressed: “a concern that if we address specific questions, it might lead to more questions.”

“This secrecy and stonewalling is shocking and unacceptable for any law enforcement agency, and makes us question whether CBSA can be trusted,” said Josh Paterson, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. “We’ve been asking for months why the CBSA did not inform the public of Ms. Vega Jimenez’s death in their custody. It appears that CBSA actually chose not to reveal her death to the public, and simply prepared themselves for a possible leak.”

“The case was already rock-solid that CBSA needs independent oversight of its activities, and these evasions simply add to the case,” said Paterson, noting that the Coroner’s jury in the Vega Jimenez inquest recently recommended independent oversight of CBSA in general, and investigation of critical incidents involving CBSA. The BCCLA and other rights organizations like the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have advocated strongly for such oversight.

According to the report, once reporters starting asking about the death, the attempts to censor information reached the highest levels of government in Ottawa. In one email, the CBSA expresses concern about emailing employees who may need counselling services after the incident, worrying that the email was “inviting media scrutiny”. Another noted that “if any media are tipped off it would be by either inmates or employees.” CBSA notified the RCMP and the BC Coroner’s Service about the suicide, but it had decided to issue no public statement until it was forced to respond to media inquiries.

The president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, Mitchell Goldberg, added: “The CBSA has a sweeping range of powers, and clearly they are in need of supervision in the way they exercise their powers. They deal with some of the most vulnerable people in Canada, like refugee claimants and migrants who have little ability to complain about their treatment. It is well past time for the CBSA to have independent oversight, just like any other law enforcement agency. Why do we accept such a low standard from CBSA when we would never allow other police forces to act in this way?”