Less than a year ago, a reality TV program called Border Security: Canada's Front Line premiered on the National Geographic channel. Following the work of the Canadian Border Services Agency's law enforcers, the show promised viewers "a front row seat to high stakes, bizarre reveals and comical conflicts that are part of everyday life for border security officers."
Six months after its debut, Border Security captured national attention after eight migrant workers were arrested at a Vancouver construction site on March 13 while being filmed by the show's production company.
The incident generated intense criticism and led to campaigns calling for the show to be shut down. Lawyers and advocates raised concerns about privacy issues and the use of vulnerable people to make a profit. Critics were also doubtful that consent given after a stressful event like an arrest could be considered informed and voluntary.
Activists looking to stop the footage from airing claimed their first victory this past Sunday when Rob Bromley, president of Four Force Entertainment, the production company in charge of the show, said that it has no plans to use any footage obtained during the March 13 arrests. Migrant justice group No One Is Illegal called the statement from Bromley a "collective victory."
Yesterday, a new change pushed by activists was made public. Maria Ivancic, a communications advisor for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), told The Tyee in an emailed statement that "as a result of recent inquiries," the CBSA requested Force Four Entertainment to "update" the content of a sign posted at the CBSA offices at the U.S.-Canada border.
The now retired sign alerted people crossing the border that entering the CBSA office served "as [their] voluntary agreement" to appear on screen for the TV show. The agreement, the sign said, was valid "worldwide, in perpetuity, in any and all media now known or hereafter devised."
New sign 'better communicates' consent
The reason for the update, according to the CBSA, was "to better communicate" how consent is obtained from people the production company wants to identify on the show.
The new sign informs people that they won't be identifiable in the show without their permission. To obtain permission, Force Four has a consent sheet available in 14 different languages. The sign also indicates that the image of those that don't want to be featured on the show will be altered so they are "not recognizable."
More specific wording on how the show seeks consent wasn't the only change introduced with the new sign. Instead of the claim featured on the old sign that the crew "will make every effort to accommodate" people who don't want to be filmed, the new one promises the accommodation. The new notification also guarantees that if a camera crew is not on site, no filming is taking place.
Andrew Poon, a spokesperson for Force Four Entertainment, said in an email statement that the new signs were placed in B.C. last Friday. Poon also said that the replaced notifications used "standard wording for location film signs used by production companies on location."
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has openly criticized the TV show since the presence of the camera crew during the Vancouver raid was made public. A day after the arrests, the BCCLA sent a letter to the president of the CBSA expressing concerns about the agency's methods in obtaining consent. The letter called the intention of using vulnerable individuals for entertainment purposes as "morally repugnant."
One week later, the BCCLA filed a complaint to the federal privacy commissioner on behalf of one of the workers arrested. The advocacy group alleges that the CBSA violated the worker's rights under the federal Privacy Act. They are still waiting to hear back from the privacy commissioner.
Micheal Vonn, a policy director for the BCCLA, believes that the willingness of the CBSA to change the contents of the sign is a step in a positive direction. Vonn was not available to comment on the specifics of the sign before publication.
The BCCLA issued a complaint to the CBSA when they first learned about the original sign.
"[We were] certainly concerned about informed consent, concerned about people's privacy," Vonn said. "What you've got is this troubling notion that your mere presence in this place -- that you can simply not avoid if you are planning to cross the border -- constitutes your consent to something radically different."
Zool Suleman, a lawyer representing six of the workers arrested during the raid, was also against the presence of the sign. Like Vonn, he said that the sign automatically implies consent has been given, rather than giving people a chance to say whether or not they want to be on the show. He was concerned about the possibility of people failing to notice the sign and being unaware that a TV crew could be filming them.
"[People are] entering a public building owned by the Government of Canada for a public purpose," he said. "They're not agreeing to enter a film studio, that's not where they think they're entering."
Vonn said the BCCLA will wait for responses about its complaints to the CBSA and the federal privacy commissioner. The advocacy group's final goal, she said, is that no one feels they have to appear on a TV show just because they need to go across the border.