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Discriminating against mental illness: Part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan

A week ago, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird released a report describing the results of the government’s public consultations on the perimeter security negotiations with the United States. If nothing else it’s a beautiful piece of design. At 6.5 x 10 inches it defies the dull legal standard for most government documents. Its 100 or so matte white pages make it easy to read. On the cover, bold robin egg blue and white all-caps contrast beautifully with the deep, dark grey-blue background. In other words, it’s more art gallery guide than prescription for North American security policy integration. It would even look nice on a coffee table.

Of course it is much more than a pretty brochure. In fact, the familiar blue, green and grey arrows of the Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness logo (see below) tell us its contents are part of Canada’s Economic Action PlanTM. Harper wants to increase the amount of personal information on residents of Canada that is shared with U.S. customs and security agencies. In exchange the U.S. will promise to shave a few minutes off the time it takes for hubcaps to cross the border.

While the pretty report is flush with concerns about this trade-off from privacy experts and civil liberties advocates–concerns that Baird apparently shares–it has no prescriptions for the normalization of discrimination at the border. An infuriating story on CBC’s website today helps explain what I mean.

The report begins:

More than a dozen Canadians have told the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office in Toronto within the past year that they were blocked from entering the United States after their records of mental illness were shared with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The story is about a 65-year-old woman, Lois Kamenitz, who was pulled out of line by U.S. customs at Pearson airport in Toronto and told she couldn’t fly to Los Angeles because four years earlier she had tried to kill herself. The agent explained he didn’t have the woman’s medical records but a police contact note from the incident, which may have been entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre database, which is accessible by U.S. authorities. The article explains:

RCMP Insp. Denis St. Pierre says information on CPIC not only contains a person’s criminal record, but also outstanding warrants, missing persons reports and information about stolen property, along with information regarding persons of interest in ongoing cases. It also can contain individuals’ history of mental illness, including suicide attempts.

The database contains anything that could alert authorities to a potential threat to public safety and security, and all CPIC information is available to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, St. Pierre says. There are a few exceptions, including information regarding young offenders, which is not available to American authorities.

“If a person is a danger to themselves and the police are dealing with that person in another jurisdiction … it’s valuable information, knowing that perhaps this person may harm themselves,” St. Pierre says.

Kamenitz tells CBC she’s “not a criminal.” Four days after the incident with the U.S. customs agent she was able to board a flight to L.A. but only after paying $250 for a clearance statement from a Homeland Security-approved doctor in Toronto. Kamenitz had to answer whether she had a history of substance abuse or diseases such as tuberculosis. “These are private and personal medical records that I’m now handing over to a foreign government,” she says in the article.

Canadians hoping that Harper’s perimeter deal with the U.S. will put a stop to this kind of screening should read the fine print. Trade facilitation, not personal trips across the border, is the focus. From conversations with civil servants, it’s clear the department of foreign affairs has a few no-go areas when it comes to sharing personal information. But will Harper listen to them, or to public concerns expressed strongly in his artful Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness report?

It seems clear from the CBC story on discrimination against mental illness at the border that existing integration of Canadian and U.S. databases, screening criteria and other security measures has already gotten out of hand. We need a full accounting of these kinds of incidents and how they might be rectified.

At the heart of closer security ties with the U.S. is an accountability chasm the Harper government has three-times been asked to fill (the Arar and Iacobucci commissions into rendition of Canadians and the Air India report). We need checks and balances on the types of information that is shared with foreign governments, as well as binding redress mechanisms for people who pose no threat to security, such as Maher Arar, but remain caught in Kafkaesque watchlists that restrain their mobility.

The Harper government will very soon deliver its joint action plan with the U.S. on perimeter security. This will be followed, according to Baird’s pretty 6.5 x 10-inch report, by another public consultation. The Council of Canadians shares many of the concerns of the federal privacy commissioner, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, BCCLA and others with what we’ve seen so far of the plan. We’ll be watching closely over the next few weeks for the expected release of the final action plans.

To read the government report on the findings of its public consultations, click here.

To read the Council of Canadians’ response to the report, click here.