On October 5 it was revealed that nine people have died in the custody of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) since 2000. Some of those incidents were previously unreported and much of the circumstances around the deaths remains unknown.
CBSA has a transparency problem, but it’s not the only federal agency that’s come to routinely hide information from the public.
Stories like Dene Moore’s mission to report on rock snot have attracted attention to the extent to which Stephen Harper’s Conservative government muzzles scientists and blocks the communication of even mundane information related to the environment.
But similarly exasperating experiences happen every day and involve every federal agency with which I’ve had dealings. CBSA is in the news this week and it’s as good an example as any.
In January 2014, CBSA began receiving negative attention after it was revealed a Mexican woman named Lucia Vega Jiménez died in its custody in December 2013.
A number of B.C. reporters are waiting on freedom of information requests filed with CBSA in relation to the death. It’s unclear exactly how many, but I know of four, so it’s safe to say there are more than a few.
Those FOI requests were filed in early February.
Nine months have passed and in response, CBSA information and privacy officers have not released one document, according to a government website that tracks completed FOI requests. (In the meantime, a B.C. Coroners Service inquest found serious problems with how CBSA handled Vega Jiménez’s case.)
Despite federal legislation stating FOI requests should be answered within 30 calendar days, CBSA has not given reporters anything related to Vega Jiménez.
It can be equally frustrated trying to get a CBSA civil servant on the phone for a simple interview.
In October, I sought to speak with a CBSA representative about U.S. war deserters living in Canada.
My request was not a difficult one to meet. My deadline was flexible and extended over a period of two weeks. And I was not seeking to speak with a specific high-level official; my request was for anybody who would talk to me.
Here’s how that went:
October 2, 3:55 p.m.: Sent email to CBSA media requesting an interview
October 3, 9:35 a.m.: Received email from CBSA requesting questions submitted in writing.
10:20 a.m.: Sent email to CBSA explaining questions will not be submitted in writing (as per Georgia Straight editorial policy) and requesting a telephone call.
10:30 a.m.: Spoke with a CBSA representative, explained that questions submitted in writing do not qualify as an interview, and provided additional information regarding the nature of my request.
12:25 p.m.: Received email from a different CBSA representative asking that questions be submitted in writing; responded explaining that questions will not be submitted in writing and provided additional information regarding the nature of my request.
October 7, 9:45 a.m.: Sent another interview request to CBSA spokesperson communicated with previously.
10:45 a.m.: Received email from a different CBSA spokesperson stating an interview would not be granted; responded and said timeline for project was flexible and another interview request would be filed.
10:50 a.m. Spoke on the phone with same CBSA spokesperson and explained questions submitted in writing do not qualify as an interview.
10:55 a.m.: Received email from a CBSA spokesperson requesting questions be submitted in writing.
October 14, 12:00 p.m.: Sent email to CBSA spokesperson requesting an interview.
October 15, 12:35 p.m.: Received email from CBSA requesting questions be submitted in writing; sent email to CBSA explaining questions will not be submitted in writing, and provided additional information regarding the nature of interview request.
1:25 p.m.: Spoke with a CBSA representative via phone; spokesperson refused to answer questions; repeated talking points in response to all questions.
Here’s the story for which I used all of those CBSA staff hours. Your tax dollars at work.