Following several weeks of Senate scandals in Ottawa, Vancouver got its own fair share of federal political controversy in the media last week after a reality TV raid on unauthorized migrant workers led by the Canada Border Services Agency was carried out at construction sites. An outcry of protest ensued across the country with many people aghast over a little-known TV show that would exploit the lives of vulnerable people for ratings. CBSA’s response has been limited, simply saying that it hopes to “educate” Canadians about the efforts of its border guard agents through its involvement in such a program. It is now known that each episode of the show is vetted by the agency and that it went for approval right up to the public safety minister himself. CBSA has reiterated that it considers the TV program a documentary in contrast to critics who claim it is a reality television series. That certainly raises a debate in itself and, even putting semantics aside, it will be up to the viewer to decide in what genre to fit this television series.
This might not be such a big deal had it happened south of the border. American reality TV shows have long had the upper hand in the entertainment industry with Canadians being well exposed to shows like Cops, and even re-creating that to our own style in To Serve and Protect. Yet we haven’t raised much issue with watching suspected criminals or those involved in criminal acts be taken down by law enforcement. What’s different now?
Undocumented or improperly documented migrant workers permeate Canadian society, in both our largest cities and in our rural communities. They come to Canada through different paths, some as temporary workers, others as refugee claimants, international students, sponsored spouses, or tourists. Some avoid returning to places where they may face violence or marginalization. Others have partnerships that breakdown, or lose work authorization when the terms of a closed work permit are violated. With a rapidly growing temporary foreign worker population produced through government programs that provide little chance for hardworking participants to stay in Canada, it’s no surprise that more and more unauthorized migrants are making waves in the media.
Advocates protest that the filming of unauthorized migrant detainment is dehumanizing the individuals. One of the biggest issues is that this kind of programming is in fact creating two types of humans: Canadians with certain protections and rights to privacy, and those with precarious status who are being staged as criminals in a government discourse that is increasingly using terms like “illegal immigrants”, “bogus claimants”, and “passport babies” to denounce abuses in the immigration system. Let’s not beat around the bush: the reality TV show is portraying the "good guys" and the "bad guys" mentality, and CBSA agents as crime-fighting heroes will undoubtedly save the day for entertained Canadians sitting and watching TV at home.
Undocumented migrant workers often live in daily fear. By exploiting their fear and sensationalizing it for reality TV, CBSA is supporting an overall discourse that demonizes and divides those without authorized status. Reality TV is not education to the Canadian public; it is simply entertainment, and in this case at the expense of those who already live without a voice in our society. It begs the question why we might not have had the chance to see a reality TV crew (or documentary crew if you so prefer) share the ups and downs of the approving minister’s own personal life during a tumultuous time in 2008 after a Twitter attack last year exposed private details that could have very well made primetime reality potential. Or better yet, why isn’t a TV crew covering the far more exciting drama happening both inside and outside our Senate doors these days? The truth is that wouldn’t at all be Canadian, and neither is this.