VANCOUVER - A migrant worker who unwittingly starred in a reality television show about Canadian border guards was already back in Mexico on Thursday, when a rights group filed an official complaint with the federal privacy watchdog over his treatment at the hands of the Canada Borders Services Agency.
In the complaint, Oscar Mata Duran said he felt a surge of adrenaline March 13 when about a dozen immigration officers pulled up at his Vancouver low-rise condo construction site with a television camera in tow.
Running upstairs to hide, Mata Duran hoped he'd be overlooked in the raid. Five minutes later, however, he was discovered and bombarded with questions about his immigration and work status.
When found to be lacking the proper documents to work in Canada, the complaint filed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said Mata Duran and several others were taken into custody at a downtown immigration detention facility — the video camera trained on them the entire time.
"When he asked why there was a camera present, the officer told him 'not to worry, it's for a reality TV show,'" said the complaint.
Mata Duran was processed within the next hour, along with a number of others who had been rounded up in the raid.
The men were asked to sign "a piece of paper" and told the footage was for a new series called "Border Services" airing on Global TV and National Geographic.
"Confused and afraid about what would happen to him, Mr. Mata Duran signed the consent form without reading it," said the complaint.
"At no point was he given a thorough explanation about the uses to which the footage would be put."
Mata Duran was put on a plane home to Mexico on Wednesday.
The civil liberties association wants the privacy commissioner to recommend that filming in Vancouver and Toronto be halted, and the show be taken off the air.
While the privacy commissioner can not force a government agency to comply with the law, the BCCLA said it hopes its recommendations will publicly address the agency's violation of privacy rights. Lawyers anticipate a ruling in a month or two.
Some of the complainants may also wish to sue the production company or individuals for damages and privacy violations, the civil liberties group said, but no action has been filed at this time.
While the high-stakes border security scenario makes for exciting reality TV — at least in the minds of the show's production company at Force Four Productions Ltd. — the BCCLA said it's illegal.
"This is not responsible law enforcement," Josh Paterson, the association's executive director, said at a news conference.
"Law enforcement is not an action movie and it's not a reality TV series."
The agency's participation in the show and the collection of sensitive personal information "are against the law," he said.
Paterson said filming violates the workers' rights under the federal Privacy Act and seeks to profit from the spectacle of immigration woes.
"The actions of the CBSA affect real people," Paterson said. "The federal government must respect the rights of every person it deals with, regardless of their immigration status."
The complaint was launched with the support of a broad range of groups, including the Agricultural Workers Alliance, Sanctuary Health, and No One Is Illegal Vancouver.
Paterson called the agency’s decision to participate in the TV series an attempt "to transform its operations into a source of commercial entertainment."
An initial statement from the agency defended its participation in the show and called it a valuable opportunity "to communicate Canada’s commitment to border security."
Twelve immigration officers arrived at the construction site with a warrant to arrest a single worker, according to one agency officer's statement at an immigration detention hearing for the workers last week.
A camera operator and sound technician accompanied them on the suspicion there may be others working without permits, and officers ended up arresting six men of Latin American descent. A number of the men are still in custody, one was released.
Officials insisted participation in the TV program was strictly voluntary, and that the agency had the final say in what material would eventually air.
Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews defended the use of the reality cameras earlier this week, having signed off on a contract to allow the agency's "active engagement in, as well as oversight and control of, all film shoots."
Toews said illegal immigrants cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, as well as jobs.