UPDATE JUNE 14, 2016: VICTORY! The CBSA has finally agreed to end its participation in this controversial television show after the federal privacy commissioner ruled that it broke the law.
As the smoke is beginning to clear from Wednesday’s made-for-television raids of several Vancouver construction sites by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and their camera-crew partners looking for undocumented workers, the rage of British Columbians still burns bright. While it’s easy to castigate Force Four Entertainment, Inc. for choosing to produce such a monstrosity, this story isn’t just a question of the moral depravity of tabloid television, or even of the general commodification and passive enjoyment of systemic violence against racialized peoples (although it is that); it is critical to point out that the conditions which made Border Security: Canada’s Front Lines possible are the deliberate result of almost a decade of Conservative policies by the Harper government. Xenophobic and fearmongering immigration practices, the increased use of migrant workers and attendant reduction of their rights, and the militarization of Canadian border all unswervingly led to the appalling scenario we witnessed this week.
When Jason Kenney became Immigration Minister in 2008, you could be forgiven for recalling John Leonard Orr‘s promotion to Glendale fire chief. It’s impossible to list Kenney’s offences in so little space, but a few lowlights could include his active persecution of the Roma people, his celebration of the Pakistan – India World Cup cricket match while Sri Lankan Tamil refugees aboard the MV Sun Sea awaited deportation, his staging of citizenship ceremonies and his recent concern-tweet which prepares the Canadian political landscape for the introduction of the deplorable American neoconservative trope of “birth industry” and “anchor births.” Apart from vastly expanding the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) while simultaneously changing immigration targets and increasing the number of deportations and detentions, Kenney and his press corps allies are responsible for amping up anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric in Canada, which in turn creates space for even more racist policies and practices.
In 2009 alone, nearly 40 000 Temporary Foreign Workers entered Vancouver and the population currently stands at just under 200 000. This migrant workforce now outnumbers immigrants and refugee claimants in Canada. Many of the applicants to this program enter Canada with the intention of remaining in the country permanently, as other avenues to residency or citizenship are increasingly being narrowed and cut back. They frequently pay the same share of taxes and fees as regular citizens but do not enjoy the same rights. Since workers are generally tied to a single employer when they enter the country, frequently experience many other barriers to full integration such as language and culture, and rely on employment not just to support their families in Canada and abroad but as a path to citizenship, this population is one of the most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
While existing under various guises since the 1970s, the TFWP has expanded almost three-fold under the Harper Government — with virtually no public consultation or oversight. Between 2007 and 2011, the TFWP accounted for almost 30% of all new jobs in Canada. The list of documented abuses, racist practices and worker deaths is massive and getting longer. It should come as no surprise that many of these workers choose to evade the systemic racism keeping them as second-class citizens in a country to which they contribute culturally, economically and socially, and “escape” to other work once their contract runs out, or once they tire of exploitation. The workers asked to sign film release forms while being detained by the CBSA were not there by accident, but as a consequence of this choreographed situation. The phrase “undocumented workers,” while a much better euphemism than “illegals,” still conceals the fact that the proliferation of migrant workers who find themselves in the contradictory position of being needed by the economy while hunted by the state, is a direct result of racist and mercenary Conservative policy.
Not to be outdone, Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, has done his part to demonize racialized people and encourage the organizations under his control, the CBSA in particular, to target “foreign criminals” apparently entering this country in droves. Last year, Toews inaugurated the CBSA’s new $57.7-million training facility which plans to more than double the number of armed guards at Canadian borders to 5000. He has increased the amount of surveillance at land and air border crossings, including endorsing the surveillance of travellers’ conversations without their knowledge or consent. Incredibly, Force Four Entertainment insisted that Border Security is not a “reality” series, but a “documentary” one. I wonder if Toews is happy about this apparent outsourcing of citizen surveillance — it’s not like he hasn’t dabbled in privatizing aspects of border security already.
You could almost detect a scent of bemusement behind the disgust of onlookers who described Wednesday’s raids. Witnesses used terms like “sensationalized,” “shocking” and “American” to describe the attacks, which still can’t shake the insinuation that the whole operation appeared staged or amplified due to the presence of the cameras. At one site, two CBSA officers entered quietly, asking for two specific individuals who were quickly located. Almost immediately after this calm affair, the site was inexplicably invaded by the cast and crew of the National Geographic Network’s now-infamous show.
There was something cringingly Canadian about the whole affair, a quiet nation’s law enforcement agency trying to shed its Keystone Cops reputation by dressing up like Navy SEALs, jumping out of shiny black SUVs and yelling “Go! Go! Go!” while the cameras clicked away. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an episode of CTV’s hyperbolic The Border — real people with real families were frightened, handcuffed, detained and now await deportation.
The cosmetic nature of the raids was not only the result of Force Four Entertainment’s brainchild, although Canadian culture’s addiction to the bizarre phenomenon of reality television certainly bears some blame. The fact is that the militarization of the border has been an ongoing project of Canadian Conservatives for years. Any border crossing is festooned with more cameras than St. Peter’s Square at Pope Francis’s inauguration. (Don’t worry, Tom Flanagan might say, they’re only pictures.) Get your passport ready and prepare to be electronically scanned, analyzed, probed and photographed long before a black-uniformed, heavily-buckled officer begins interrogation.
And of course, in 2006 the Harper Government announced that Canada would arm those Border Security agents for the first time in its history. Who wouldn’t feel the need to strut a little, to imagine their name in lights, now that their wardrobe has been given such an upgrade? Unfortunately, the extras cast as villains and undesirables weren’t actors.
Lastly, I tried to suggest yesterday that Vancouver’s addiction to development and real-estate speculation are also responsible for the exploitation and deportation of these workers. The fundamental dynamic of gentrification, defined by its insatiable desire to transform urban topography while consciously ignoring or disavowing the social cost of this transformation, can easily been in the play between superficial enjoyment and hidden human suffering displayed on reality-television screens. None of these forces at work — immigration, security, labour or gentrification — are here by accident. They are the result of government policies buoyed by cultural and media discourses which choose certain values over others: skyscrapers over homes, profit over jobs, militarization over co-operation, and the flow of commodities over the flow of people.
If you, like most people in Vancouver and elsewhere, are disgusted by Border Security and the Canadian Border Services Agency’s participation, we need to do more than cancelling this show and litigating against its producers. We need to change the way we think about the issues this series is simply bringing into our homes.