In Canada's major cities, Canada Border Services Agency enforcement officers are now outnumbered by private security hired to guard and transport immigration detainees.
As an inquest resumed yesterday into the suicide of a Mexican woman in the custody of CBSA-contracted private guards, the union representing agency officers is raising alarms over the growth in outsourcing -- pointing to poor training and understaffing -- while a coalition of immigration rights groups say the problems with Canada's immigration policies run much deeper.
According to CBSA data obtained by The Tyee, the agency employs 359 private security contract positions in its Pacific, Quebec and Greater Toronto Area regions, home to the federal agency's three immigration holding centres.
In comparison those same regions -- encompassing Canada's three most populated metropolises -- employ 287 inland enforcement officers.
In an email CBSA spokesperson Jennifer Lee said private border services contracts were common practice in the U.S. and U.K. She explained that private security companies' tasks for the agency include the "care and control of persons detained under the [Immigration and Refugee Protection Act] at a CBSA immigration holding centre," as well as "safe and secure transportation of detainees to and from the immigration holding centre" and "escorting detainees and confirming their departure from Canada." Other security duties may be performed "as required by the CBSA."
Current and former guards with Vancouver-based Genesis Security testified last week that the company's wages start at $15 an hour -- after a $13 probationary period -- and employees were expected to pay much of their own training costs. The only training related to suicide is a printed package staff are not allowed to remove from the airport facility.
'Too many jobs and not enough bodies'
Genesis Security Group provides a wide range of services, including at BC Place, music festivals and other public events, and construction worksites. Their contract is worth $6.2 million, reported the Vancouver Sun.
Under questioning from B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Jason Gratl, the Genesis guard who initially discovered Vega Jiménez hanging in a shower stall confessed he falsified overnight records logging how often he checked on prisoners.
"I notice that you write on your report that you did a room check at 5:00, 5:30, 6:00 and 6:30 -- those are all false entries, you made those up," Gratl put to ex-Genesis guard Jivan Sandhu, in regards to the mandatory checks on detainees every half-hour.
The witness replied, "Correct."
Since the suicide, Sandhu left the company for a job in corrections. He agreed when Gratl asked if Genesis had "too many jobs and not enough bodies."
"There were some busy times," Sandhu replied. "It would have been helpful to have extra people."
The inquest heard other guards testify that there often weren't enough guards on-site to adhere to the four guards required by CBSA's standing orders to Genesis. And the morning of Dec. 20, the female guard required under the same orders was off-site doing a detainee transfer.
In fact, the two other guards who assisted Sandhu after his grim discovery were only minutes from leaving him alone at the centre to transport another detainee -- had they not heard knocking at the control room window from women deportees concerned about how long Vega Jiménez was taking in the shower.
Private guards lack training, diligence: union
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) represents CBSA enforcement officers. Its inquest lawyer Chris Buchanan told The Tyee that private security guards displayed a "lack of proper training, lack of staffing, and lack of diligence with respect to room checks."
Another guard at the airport centre, Ronald Tabalujan, placed a panicked and breathless 9-1-1 call to report Vega Jiménez's suicide attempt. He had to repeat himself numerous times to be understood by the operator and appeared to have had difficulty providing the correct phone number and address -- even stating the centre was in Burnaby, not Richmond -- according to a recording played during the inquest. He told the inquest his previous role at Genesis was directing traffic at the airport.
"Unless the CBSA is directly responsible and directly staffing the detention facilities, then the safety and well-being of the immigrant detainees may be adversely impacted," Buchanan said. "So certainly, one of the things we'll be looking for in these [inquest] recommendations is that the CBSA have its own detention centre and no longer use the YVR detention centre."
Lawyer Phillip Rankin, representing the Canadian Council for Refugees, asked one of the Genesis guards on-site when Vega Jiménez was found hanging in a shower stall if low wages had anything to do with the high level of staff turnover at the facility.
"Would you agree there's a lot of coming and going from Genesis because they paid $15?" Rankin inquired. "There was a high turnover of guards?"
"Yes," replied David Li, who left the firm several months ago and was working with Tabalujan the morning when Vega Jiménez's body was discovered. Li testified that in total he spent roughly $400 on first aid and security training for the job, including half the cost of his bulletproof vest. He calmly described providing CPR on Vega Jiménez after she was cut down, and running out of the immigration holding centre to find an AED in an airport hallway.
Li had also paid out of his own pocket to upgrade from the job's required occupational first aid level one course to a level three certificate.
'The lowest bidder'
It's not only Genesis receiving contracts with CBSA. In other regions, the federal agency has contracted private companies such as G4S and Corbel Management Corporation, and Genesis itself was preceded in its airport contract by the Commissionaires.
Genesis guards testified that the airport job required them to obtain both a Basic Security Training and an Advanced Security Training certificate, both of which total four days of courses. As well, they needed an introductory level first aid certificate.
On the other hand, CBSA enforcement officers must complete more rigorous training, the CBSA said in an email. All agency officers must pass the introductory Officer Induction Training Program, following a "strict screening process, including a medical exam and psychological evaluation."
That is followed by an "intensive" training program lasting 22 weeks; it includes a Duty Firearms Course. But to become an inland enforcement officer, a CBSA officer must work for "several years" at border crossings before requesting an inland position, including removals officers.
"Inland enforcement officers follow specialized training based on their field of work, such as training in driving, tailing, dynamic entry and document examination," the CBSA told The Tyee in an email.
Other than to tell The Tyee that "nothing has changed" in Genesis Security Group's contract with CBSA, the firm's president and CEO Camil Dubuc would not comment on relationship, citing the ongoing inquest.
But in a previous interview he explained the training process for working at the CBSA holding centre. All Genesis guards take a Basic Security Training course, he said, and are placed in anything from guarding construction buildings to events at BC Place, he said.
"That's the first step we do with those people," he said. "If we discover that people have a higher level of experience or potential to be a police officer or that sort of thing, we give those people a second training that we call the Advanced Security Training. It's a bit more advanced, it's another 24 hours of training … definitely, with the type of job we do there's a lot of hours of training."
But being responsible for the lives and well-being of people being deported is fundamentally different than patrolling a shopping mall or doing an overnight shift at a construction site, Buchanan said in an interview. The high turnover of Genesis employees only made matters worse.
"There isn't a continuity of knowledge and experience at that facility in dealing with immigration detainees," Buchanan said, "which is different form looking after other types of security arrangements, whether it be buildings or what have you."
Genesis's relationship with CBSA dates back to 2010, in the wake of a strike by the contract's previous private firm, the Commissionaires. Genesis won the bid to replace them. Buchanan told the inquest "they were the lowest bidder in a tender process by the CBSA."
Michael Henke, Genesis Security Group's manager in charge of the CBSA contract, told the inquest the company cut back on its number of staff at the airport holding centre in an effort to cut costs. But he alleged that it was CBSA that had pushed for it.
Migrant advocates 'terribly disappointed'
Since Vega Jiménez's death, Genesis says it has modified its facility, including removing the shower curtain rod she used to hang herself, and replacing the blinds blocking guards' view into the detainee common area with a one-way mirror.
Likewise, the CBSA testified that they have begun mandatory training for its enforcement officers on preventing suicides, and improved communications internally to address some of the failures that led to Vega Jiménez not receiving mental health services while in its custody.
But for migrant rights groups whose lawyers were from the outset barred for participation in the inquest, it's simply too late for Vega Jiménez -- not to mention hundreds of other immigrants in detention across Canada.
As the B.C. Coroner's inquest met in a Burnaby courtroom only steps from the SkyTrain line where Vega Jiménez was first detained for transit fare evasion three weeks before she died, outside the building, members of the Coalition for Immigrant Rights said the tragedy is much larger than one woman's death.
Members of that group have also argued that the outsourcing of guard services to companies are only part of the problem -- but some say that no matter who guards detainees, Canada's immigration laws are themselves unjust and exclusionary, particularly when dealing with asylum-seekers fleeing danger in other countries.
"We're terribly disappointed with the system," Mexicans Living in Vancouver group member Rocco Trigueros said in a phone interview. "Since the first time we learned about her death, we worked hard to spread the news to people who could intervene, to pursue justice.
"We don't see Lucia as a refugee or someone whose civil rights were violated, though they had. We see Lucía as a member of our own community... who went through the immigrant experience."
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