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'I'm appalled': Lawyers alarmed as Ottawa gives more powers to U.S. border officers at Canadian airports – CBC.ca

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Concerns are mounting over added powers Ottawa has granted U.S. customs officers to strip-search, question and detain U.S.-bound travellers — on Canadian soil.

The changes are part of Canada’s new preclearance act, which the federal government says will enhance border security and make travel to the U.S. easier.

But Pantea Jafari, an Iranian-Canadian immigration lawyer, fears it could make travel more difficult for her.

That’s because the act gives U.S. customs officers in Canada broader interrogation powers — at a time when the U.S. has toughened its stance on immigration and has increasingly hostile relations with Iran.

“I will not allow a border officer to have access to me and have unfettered right to question me to no end,” said Jafari, who’s based in Toronto and serves many Iranian clients. 

Since the preclearance act took effect in August, she has stopped travelling to the U.S. and says the country’s current standoff with Iran has only strengthened her resolve. 

“My concerns of going to the U.S. have now 100 times increased.”

Toronto immigration lawyer Pantea Jafari had laid out her concerns about the new preclearance act at a Senate committee hearing in 2017. (Senate of Canada)

Preclearance act explained

Canada’s new preclearance act overrides a previous agreement with the United States that allowed travellers to clear U.S. customs in preclearance zones at Canadian airports, before flying across the border. Eight major Canadian airports already have preclearance areas — and the new act paves the way for more zones involving all modes of transport.

Proponents say preclearance offers many benefits, including allowing Canadians to clear U.S. customs in their own country.

“They land in the U.S. as a domestic passenger, so you don’t have to go through long lineups,” said Gerry Bruno, co-chair of the Beyond Preclearance Coalition, an industry group supporting efficient Canada-U.S. border travel. 

A scene from a preclearance explainer video showing the benefits of clearing U.S. customs, before actually flying into the country. (Toronto Pearson Airport/YouTube)

While they don’t dispute the benefits of preclearance, some immigration lawyers claim the new act could jeopardize Canadian rights. 

The big concern is that American preclearance officers could now further interrogate Canadians who withdraw their application to enter the U.S., perhaps because they feel uncomfortable during a customs inspection.

Previously, law-abiding travellers could simply leave and return home, because they were still on Canadian soil. 

Now they could be detained — even handed over to Canadian authorities to face charges — for refusing to answer questions about why they’re withdrawing.

“You say, ‘I think you’re racially profiling me and I’m offended. I don’t want to go to your country, I want to leave,'” said Calgary-based immigration lawyer Michael Greene. “[U.S. officers are] entitled to examine those reasons and if they think you’re not being truthful, they’re entitled to detain you.”

Government defends changes

Jafari said the new rules are particularly concerning for racialized populations, such as those of Middle Eastern descent, who could be targeted for questioning. 

“We’re the ones that are deemed the threat, right; the domestic threat of some sort that they need to data mine.”

Public Safety Canada said the withdrawal rules were revamped to prevent bad actors from probing preclearance zones in search of a weak entry point.

“Allowing a traveller to withdraw without any type of examination creates challenges in terms of border security,” spokesperson Tim Warmington said in an email.

He added that U.S. preclearance officers questioning travellers who opt to withdraw can’t “unreasonably delay” them.

But what constitutes an “unreasonable” delay could be open to interpretation, argues Greene.

“When you look at it from the U.S. perspective of wanting to protect the security of the country, that could result in some very extensive questioning,” he said.

Protected by Canadian rights?

Bruno said that law-abiding travellers shouldn’t encounter problems at the preclearance zones, and maintains that it beats clearing customs in the U.S., where you “can’t withdraw.”

“You’re there. You’re subject to U.S. laws,” he said.

U.S. preclearance officers in Canada must follow Canadian laws, including the charter and Human Rights Act. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made this point when defending the new act — before it had become law. 

“There is extra protection,” he told The Canadian Press

However, Canada’s privacy commissioner has argued that protection appears to be “hollow” due to Canada’s State Immunity Act, which grants the U.S. government immunity in most cases.

“A Canadian who believes a U.S. customs official has broken Canadian law has little recourse in the courts,” states the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s website

Right to strip-search?

Immigration lawyers are also concerned that under the new act, U.S. preclearance officers can now strip-search Canadian travellers.

Public Safety spokesperson Warmington said that U.S. officers must have reasonable grounds to do the search and that it will only happen in rare circumstances “where Canadian [border] officers are unable to respond or decline.”

Immigration lawyer Len Saunders said he’s been swamped with calls from Canadians distraught and confused over receiving a five-year ban at a Canada-U.S. land crossing. He’s now worried about what might happen in airport preclearance zones.

Immigration lawyer Len Saunders said his concerns with the act are compounded by the fact that some customs officers appear to be getting tougher at U.S. land crossings along the country’s northern border.

In 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol doled out almost double the number of five-year bans to travellers crossing from Canada, compared to 2018.

“When the Americans are treating Canadians like this on American soil, why would you allow them so much autonomy on Canadian soil?” said Saunders, whose office sits close to the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash.

“I’m appalled by what the Canadian government has agreed to.”

Travellers who feel mistreated can submit feedback to a “preclearance consultative group” set up to provide oversight, said Warmington. 

He also pointed out that Canadian customs officers will have equal powers in U.S. preclearance zones.

Canada currently has no preclearance zones in the U.S., but Warmington said the government is “exploring the potential.”

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$1 billion and counting: Inside Canada's troubled efforts to build new warships – CBC.ca

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The federal government has spent slightly more than $1.01 billion over the last seven years on design and preparatory contracts for the navy’s new frigates and supply ships — and the projects still haven’t bought anything that floats.

The figures, tabled recently in Parliament, represent the first comprehensive snapshot of what has been spent thus far on the frequently-delayed project to build replacement warships.

It’s an enormous amount of money for two programs that have been operating for more than a decade with little to show for their efforts to date.

It will be years before the Canadian Surface Combatant project — which aims to replace the navy’s frontline frigates with 15 state-of-the-art vessels — and the Joint Support Ship program for two replenishment vessels actually deliver warships.

The numbers and details for each advance contract were produced in the House of Commons in response to written questions from the Conservative opposition.

A worker grinds a component at the Irving Shipbuilding facility in Halifax June 13, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The money was divided almost evenly between the federal government’s two go-to shipyards: Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, the prime contractor for the new frigates, and Seaspan of Vancouver, the builder of the supply ships.

The breakdown raises critical questions about at least one of the programs, said a defence analyst, but it also shines a light on promises made by both Liberal and Conservative governments to keep spending under control for both of these projects — which could end up costing more than $64 billion.

“I think there should be a level of concern [among the public] about whether or not what’s being delivered in practice is what was advertised at the outset,” said Dave Perry, a procurement expert and vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

A design still in flux

Most of his concerns revolve around the new support ships, which the Liberal government says are in the process of being built now.

The written responses, tabled in Parliament, note that the projected cost for the two supply ships — $3.4 billion — remains under review “as the design effort finalizes.”

Perry said he was astonished to learn that, “seven years and half-a-billion dollars into design work on an off-the-shelf design,” the navy doesn’t have the support ships, even though “the middle third of the ship is built” — and officials now say “the design effort isn’t finished.”

Usually, he said, ships are designed before they’re built.

The head of the Department of National Defence’s materiel branch said most of the preparatory contracts were needed to re-establish a Canadian shipbuilding industry that had been allowed to wither.

‘A lot of patience’

“I think we have to look at the totality of everything that’s being accomplished under” the national shipbuilding strategy, said Troy Crosby, assistant deputy minister of materiel at DND.

“Over that period of time, and with these expenditures, we’ve built a shipbuilding capability on two coasts, not just through National Defence but also through the coast guard, offshore fisheries science vessels. I understand it has taken a lot of patience, I suppose, and probably some uncertainty, but we’re really getting to the point now where we can see delivering these capabilities to the navy.”

The largest cash outlays involve what’s known as definition contracts, which went individually to both shipyards and were in excess of $330 million each. They’re meant to cover the supervision of the projects and — more importantly — to help convert pre-existing warship designs purchased by the federal government to Canadian standards.

Then-minister of defence Peter MacKay, right, and Christian Paradis, then-minister of public works, pause to look at a model of a Canadian patrol frigate as they take part in the opening session of the Government Shipbuilding Consultation in Gatineau, Quebec, July 27, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The choices on each project were made at different times by different governments, but ministers serving both Liberal and Conservative governments decided that going with proven, off-the-shelf designs would be faster and less expensive than building from scratch.

Now, after all the delays, it’s still not clear that choosing off-the-shelf designs has saved any money.

“I would be completely speculating on what it would cost to invest to develop the kind of expertise and capacity inside the government, inside National Defence and everybody involved, to be able to do something like that in-house,” said Crosby.

“The approach we’ve taken at this point, by basing both the Joint Support Ship and the Canadian Surface Combatant on pre-existing designs, allows us to retire a lot of risk in the way forward.”

When Crosby talks about “retiring risk,” he’s talking about the potential for further delays and cost overruns.

Among the contracts, Irving Shipbuilding was given $136 million to support the drawing up of the design tender for the new frigates and to pay for the shipbuilding advice Irving was giving the federal government throughout the bidding process.

Years ago, the federal government had enough in-house expertise to dispense with private sector guidance — but almost all of that expertise was lost over the past two decades as successive federal governments cut the defence and public works branches that would have done that work.

The last time Canada built major warships was in the 1990s, when the current fleet of 12 patrol frigates was inaugurated.

An artist’s rendering of the British Type 26 frigate, which is supplying the basic design for Canada’s patrol frigates. (BAE Systems Inc./Lockheed Martin Canada)

The federal government has chosen to base its new warships on the BAE Systems Type-26 design, which has been selected by the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy.

The hull and propulsion system on the new frigates will be “largely unchanged” from the British design, but the combat system will be different and uniquely Canadian, said Crosby.

The project is still on track to start cutting steel for the new combat ships in 2023. Crosby said he would not speculate on when the navy will take delivery of the first one.

Delivery of the joint support ships is expected to be staggered, with the first one due in 2024.

There will be a two-year gap between ships, said Crosby, as the navy and the yard work through any technical issues arising with the first ship.

If that timeline holds, the first support ship will arrive two decades after it was first proposed and announced by the Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin.

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CN, CP trains sharing rail lines to keep supplying Canada during blockades – CBC.ca

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Quiet talks brokered by a government desperate to stop a growing economic threat led to two rail rivals coming together with a workaround to bypass the Tyendinaga blockade site.

Since last week, Canada’s two largest railways — CN and Canadian Pacific — have been quietly sharing their rail lines to transport essential supplies to communities in need, according to multiple government, CN and industry sources. 

Protests by the Mohawks of Tyendinaga crippled passenger and freight train traffic on CN’s line near Belleville for more than two weeks in solidarity with anti-pipeline protests in northern B.C against the construction of the planned Coastal GasLink pipeline. Ontario Provincial Police officers on Monday arrested 10 demonstrators to get service back up and running on the line.

But as a result of what multiple government sources are describing as a very “rare” collaboration between the two rail giants, CN trains have been circumventing blockades using alternate routes — some through the U.S. — to continue deliveries to Quebec and Maritime communities facing shortages of essential goods such as propane, chemicals for water treatment facilities and animal feed.

Transport Canada and Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office approached the two companies and helped to negotiate the rail-sharing deal — which is still active in parts of the country dealing with blockades.

WATCH | OPP break up rail blockade:

CBC reporter Olivia Stefanovich describes how quietly the OPP moved in before arresting protesters at the blockade. 2:10

The deal was kept under wraps by all involved; even the industries affected weren’t told about the arrangement. The Retail Council of Canada told CBC News it didn’t know about the deal. Neither did associations representing propane suppliers in Quebec and across Canada. The groups had been warning of looming supply shortages in Quebec and Eastern Canada, where families, farmers and companies have been rationing goods. Many households use propane to heat their homes and barns.

Government sources say they didn’t advertise the deal, fearing that more blockades could pop up in response.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at the CN/CP arrangement yesterday on the way into question period in the House of Commons.

“Over the past number of days we’ve been working with rail carriers to ensure that many trains continue to use alternate routes to get through and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to avoid some of the most serious shortages,” said Trudeau.

Karl Littler, senior vice president, public affairs, of the Retail Council of Canada, learned about the arrangement from CBC News and commended it.

“We’re talking about foods, we’re talking about fuel to keep people heating in what can be a cold winter,” said Littler. “You’re talking about a lot of stuff that Canadians need everyday. I think it’s the responsible thing to look to see what alternative channels exist and if that means collaboration in these circumstances, so much the better.”

One CN conductor said they witnessed how covert the operation has been. The source said they saw specially trained CN workers use CP engines, with that company’s logo on them, to haul unmarked CN cargo.

CP told CBC News it didn’t have a comment to add. CN also isn’t commenting on the deal, saying only that it’s “pleased the illegal blockade in Tyendinaga has come to an end.” 

“We are also monitoring our network for any further disruptions at this time,” said CN spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis in a statement.

A Canadian Pacific Railway employee walks along the side of a locomotive in a marshalling yard in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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Chinese Canadians plead for third Canadian rescue flight from Wuhan

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Chinese Canadians whose family members remain in Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, are urging the federal government to send a third evacuation plane to bring home Canadians and permanent residents.

Wuhan and other cities across Hubei province went into lockdown on Jan. 23 as the Chinese government tried to contain the spread of the COVID-19, leaving citizens to have “close to zero” chance of leaving the city.

An open letter calling for a third rescue flight

Residents across the Lower Mainland who are originally from Hubei province, set up a WeChat group last week and sent an open letter to Global Affairs Canada on Saturday, hoping to reunite with their loved ones who are still trapped in Hubei.

Simon Zheng, a small business owner who works in Richmond and is also part of the WeChat group, told the Richmond News that at least 50 families are still stuck in Hubei, and each family has at least one Canadian citizen in it.

According to the letter, these families failed to board either of the previous chartered flights due to poor communication and misinformation, language barriers, isolation and mass panic.

“We estimate that the real number of Canadian families still confined in the province of Hubei is in reality much higher than what we have accumulated over the last three days… The longer this ordeal carries on, and the longer the lockdown continues for these unfortunate individuals, the more danger it will impose on the Canadians stuck there,” the letter reads.

“We cannot bear the thought of losing our family members if something were to happen in the next few weeks.”

People in Wuhan have been through a war without smoke: resident 

Melanie Huang, a former Richmond resident, is concerned about both of her dad’s and grandfather’s situation in Wuhan as the coronavirus has claimed more than 2,600 lives so far.

Huang said her dad flew to China on Jan. 13 to celebrate Chinese New Year with her 89-year-old grandfather, but now he can’t return to Canada since all train stations and airports have shut down.

“The virus has spread quickly over the past few weeks, and hospitals only accept coronavirus-related patients. If seniors slip at home or hurt themselves, they won’t get treatment in time,” said Huang.

There is also some confusion regarding who is qualified to board the Canadian evacuation flight, according to Huang.

“I contacted the Canadian embassy to check if my dad, who is a permanent resident of Canada, is allowed to leave on the fight, but the answer was ‘no.’ We were told that permanent residents who hold Chinese passports aren’t allowed to leave Wuhan.”

However, Huang later came across news from English media outlets saying that Chinese nationals who are family members of foreign citizens could board flights from Wuhan.

Huang said dozens of WeChat group members now count on the Canadian government to arrange the third flight.

“As family members, we are willing to chip in some money for the flight. The risk our loved ones currently face is very high. Basically, they have been through a war without smoke.”

Newly married couple face forced separation 

Meanwhile, Canadian citizen Zheng couldn’t celebrate the first Valentine’s Day with his wife after getting married late last year.

Zheng’s wife, who is in the process of getting permanent residency, went back to Wuhan to visit family members. Now, she is trapped there because the city has been locked down.

Zheng said they didn’t consider trying to board one of the first two chartered flights because they thought people who hold Canadian passports should be given priority to leave Wuhan. However, Zheng’s desire to reunite with his wife grows stronger as it’s uncertain how long the crisis will last.

“My wife has been self-isolating herself at home for the past few weeks. She is trying her best to stay safe, but long-time isolation might result in negative emotions,” said Zheng. “If there is another flight leaving Wuhan, I hope to see my wife on that plane.”

A spokesperson from Global Affairs Canada said they remain in regular contact with Canadians in China and are continuing to assist those in need.

In a written statement, the spokesperson added that Canadian citizens who require emergency consular assistance should contact the Embassy of Canada in Beijing at 86 (10) 5139-4000. Canadians can also call the department’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at +1 613-996-8885 (collect calls are accepted where available) or email sos@international.gc.ca.

However, Global Affairs Canada has not commented on whether it will send a third plane into Hubei to bring back the remaining Canadians there.

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