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Complaints show border agency needs outside watchdog: critic

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HALIFAX -- A complaints system run by the Canada Border Services Agency is documenting cases of travellers enduring rude behaviour and lengthy interrogations, as well as one case where someone was falsely identified as a person "with criminal ties."

According to quarterly reports obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, there were 1,105 complaints -- about six per day -- about the services provided by the agency's employees from Jan. 7 until the end of June last year.

A report by the agency on the revamped complaints system obtained under freedom of information legislation says .0025 per cent of all travellers complain about the service from its employees, adding "this rate will be used in future media calls as it puts the Canada Border Services Agency in a positive light."

However, a civil liberties advocate says he is concerned about the incidents that have emerged and believes it demonstrates an independent oversight agency is needed -- similar to arms-length commissions that oversee the RCMP and other police agencies.

In a separate record created from its database, the agency has documented 129 cases where complaints about "employee or officer conduct" were found to be valid by internal investigators.

Esme Bailey, a spokeswoman for the agency, says that doesn't necessarily mean officers conducted themselves improperly, as there are cases where the agency ruled the officer behaved properly but there was still an unnecessary wait or delay for a traveller.

One of the records says that a highway border agent accused a traveller of "being someone he's not."

Bailey says in an email the record shows the clerk's early description of the complaint and it may have been revised later.

In the email, Bailey says: "(The) client name matches one with criminal ties. (The) client is required to obtain documents from his/her local FBI office and have them present the next time he/she is seeking entry into Canada."

Another case says a traveller complained private information was given in a public area.

Bailey says in an email the traveller felt the officer was overly officious and rude, and the traveller was questioned in an area where others were waiting. She says the agency "apologized for the behaviour of the officer involved."

In another incident, the agency sent a refund cheque to the wrong address and it was cashed by an unknown person. When the person who was supposed to receive the cheque called the agency to complain, an agency employee "did not believe client," Bailey says.

"(The) client got upset," Bailey wrote. "(The) employee later apologized to the client directly for the misunderstanding. ... a new refund cheque was issued to the client."

Roch Tasse, the national co-ordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, said the complaints system should be shifted to an independent agency and more complete descriptions provided to the public.

In the case of a traveller being incorrectly identified as a person with criminal ties, he asked whether further questioning could have cleared up the confusion.

"Surely there's enough information in the system, or there should be if there's not, to show you're not the same person," he said in an interview. "What are the odds that you have the same birth date, live in the same city... I don't know why we have those incidents."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2012 A9

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