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Border Services union wary of reality-television exposure

Aug 30 2012

A new realitytelevision series debuting next week promises to give viewers exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the "high-stakes drama" faced by Canada's border officers in the Pacific region, including Vancouver Island.

But even before filming began, the union that represents border officers butted heads with Canada Border Services Agency officials over concerns that widespread TV exposure could make officers potential targets of organized crime and vulnerable to lawsuits.

In fact, a December 2011 memo issued by the Customs and Immigration Union "strongly" recommended that officers not participate in the show.

"CIU recognizes that the show could enhance CBSA branding; however, CIU cannot guarantee protection to members from problems, discipline or lawsuits that may arise from participation in the show," the memo read.

The issue of officers' identities has been an ongoing concern for the union. This fall, a new policy is expected to take effect that will require CBSA's 6,000 uniformed officers to wear name tags. The agency says the name tags will enhance customer service, but the union worries they will make it easier for disgruntled travellers who've been denied entry to seek retribution.

According to publicity materials for the show, cameras followed officers at air, land and marine crossings across the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

"Cameras document the officers as they interrogate suspicious passengers from around the world. They meet illegal workers posing as tourists and visitors smuggling contraband. They find toys packed with drugs and weapons disguised as cellphones," according to a press release.

In an interview Wednesday, Jason McMichael, first national vice-president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said he was able to screen all episodes of Border Security: Canada's Front Line.

McMichael said the series presents a "strong" and "fairly accurate" portrayal of the work that CBSA officers do. He added that the show agreed to identify officers only by their first names. But, he said, his concerns remain.

"In this day and age with social media and technology, it's possible to track someone down. They know where this person is working. You've given whoever is in organized crime an introduction to the member's identity."

McMichael added that because officers' appearances on the show fall outside their normal job descriptions, he's concerned how much protection officers will get from the agency in the event of a major incident or lawsuit.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, CBSA spokeswoman Amitha Carnadin said: "The health and safety of our officers and the travelling public was uppermost in the agency's consideration before agreeing to participate in this documentary series.

Employee and traveller participation was completely voluntary and the consent of all participants was obtained."

The agency provided testimonials from two officers, who said filming did not interfere with their duties and that the show will "reach more people and inform them about what we do - and why - than could ever be possible through traditional forms of communication."

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