A former Sunday school teacher who was falsely accused of being a drug smuggler, detained at Vancouver International Airport and eventually strip searched says she is still traumatized by the treatment and is calling for greater oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency.
Jill Knapp’s run-in with CBSA agents took place on Jan. 9, 2016, on her way home to Calgary, after visiting her husband in Mexico City. The 39-year-old says she is only now speaking out about her experience because she was diagnosed with anxiety after her airport ordeal.
“It was traumatizing,” Knapp told Go Public, explaining that no one told her why she was red-flagged as she attempted to make her connecting flight in Vancouver.
She said she has no criminal record and had nothing in her luggage that would prompt a closer look.
“Within two minutes he called me a drug smuggler, mentioned a strip search, and even said that he was going to send me to the hospital for an X-ray [to look for drugs],” says Knapp. “And that was before he even asked me any questions.”
A request under the Access to Information Act by the CBC reveals other airline travellers have officially complained about mistreatment by border agents including screaming, using foul language, belittling them, using racial profiling and physical force.
A civil liberties advocate says the complaints point to the need for independent oversight of the CBSA, the only major law enforcement agency in Canada that doesn’t have external review of employee conduct.
“When border agents operate — either at land crossings, at airports — there is very little oversight,” says Tim McSorley, national co-ordinator for the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, based in Ottawa.
Knapp says she had collected her luggage when she was pulled aside and directed to “secondary inspection,” where she says a border guard became instantly aggressive.
“Out of nowhere, he actually raised his voice at me and said, ‘I think you’re a drug smuggler,'” says Knapp.
“He said, ‘I deal with people like you every day.'”
Knapp says she told him she had been visiting her husband in Mexico and that she had applied for him to live in Canada, but says the agent didn’t believe her.
She says the agent also didn’t believe her when he asked what her job was and Knapp told him she worked with law firms as a software instructor.
“He actually scoffed at me and said, ‘You don’t do that type of work.’ How would he know what kind of work I did? He was getting angrier and angrier.”
The agent confiscated her phone and demanded her password.
Finding nothing incriminating on her phone or in her luggage, the agent called in a drug-sniffing dog, which also didn’t detect anything.
Knapp says she was eventually placed in detention, but says she wasn’t told why. She requested to speak with a lawyer and was told staff placed a call on her behalf, but she never heard from anyone.
She hadn’t eaten for 14 hours, but was only offered half a glass of water and no food. She says CBSA staff denied her requests to use the bathroom.
Knapp was growing increasingly concerned about her parents, who were picking her up in Calgary. Her father is a heart attack survivor, and she worried about causing him stress.
In desperation, she says, she offered to have the strip search the agent had mentioned hours earlier.
“At that point, I was so scared of what they would do if I stayed, it was like … if this is what it takes for me to leave, I’m going to do it.'”
The strip search
Knapp says two female officers entered the room and told her to strip from the waist up. She told them she was a Sunday School teacher before complying.
Finding nothing, they ordered her to remove her clothing from the waist down.
“They actually made me turn around, open up my butt cheeks and squat,” says Knapp. “I was just in shock. I didn’t quite understand what it involved.”
Knapp was finally released, and her phone returned. She found half a dozen texts from her anxious husband wondering where she was.
CBC requested an interview with the CBSA, but the agency declined.
In a statement, it said it couldn’t discuss Knapp’s case due to privacy concerns.
After Knapp filed a complaint, she obtained internal documents through the Privacy Act, in which CBSA spokesperson Isabel McCusker wrote: “The review of Ms. Knapp’s clearance established that the [border services officers] involved in her examination followed standard procedures and guidelines.”
Complaint documents heavily redacted
CBC received over 1,700 pages of documents, most of the material heavily censored, after submitting a request under the Access to Information Act to find out how many other travellers have filed complaints about their treatment at the hands of the CBSA.
We asked for complaints the agency classified under “Officer/employee conduct,” “Questioning” and other categories, for Vancouver International Airport, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2018.
The documents contain more than 800 allegations investigated by the CBSA about border agents and inappropriate behaviour, including the following:
- “Officer commented, ‘People like you who can’t afford to travel always traffic drugs.'”
- “Threw me on the ground, yelling ‘Don’t resist’… [other] agents loved this and were laughing.”
- “Hauled into the airport jail and treated like trash.”
- “He called me moron more than once … mocked my … accent.”
- “I was roughly frisked … detained/held for questioning for seven hours.”
- “He attacked me in the baggage claim area … made anti-Semitic remarks.”
- “He was pushing me with his hands … started using foul language.”
- “They broke my iPad.”
- “Pulled out a knife in a threatening manner … stared at me and then thrust the knife into the cardboard box.”
The CBSA has a code of conduct, which says officers will act with “professionalism, integrity and respect.”
“It’s completely unacceptable and … kind of repulsive that people go through this when they’re simply trying to travel to their destination,” says McSorley, who reviewed the complaints.
“It’s … just common courtesy and decency that you wouldn’t swear, use racist terms, use anti-Semitic terms, use physical force against someone who hasn’t broken a law.”
A CBSA spokesperson said during the calendar years 2016 to 2018, it investigated 821 allegations of misconduct by agents at all border crossings, of which 615 led to disciplinary action — including termination.
Government bill to introduce CBSA oversight
McSorley’s organization has been pushing for years for external oversight of the CBSA.
“There are millions of people crossing our border, flying into the country,” says McSorley. “The public deserves transparency from [the CBSA].”
For three years, the federal government has been promising to bring in oversight, and a bill is currently before the House of Commons.
However, it has not yet received royal assent, and time is running out before the House breaks for the Oct. 21 federal election.
In another internal CBSA memo Knapp obtained through the Privacy Act, as part of an internal investigation into the complaint she filed, an officer wrote that she was detained because her eyes appeared to be bloodshot — perhaps raising suspicion of drug use.
Knapp says her eyes were red due to crying because she missed her husband.
The officer also noted she was wearing bulky clothing, which Knapp disputes, saying she was wearing a fitted yoga outfit.
Lastly, the officer questioned why she was flying through Vancouver on her way home to Calgary from Mexico.
“That was because I was using Aeroplan and that was the only route I could do,” says Knapp. “But the thing is, no one ever raised any of these concerns with me.”
Knapp says she is speaking out about what happened to her to try to encourage Ottawa to change how complaints about the CBSA are investigated.
“I’m a safe person to talk about it because I’m a Canadian citizen … and I have no risk of deportation or anything like that,” she says.