Alberta will no longer hold federal immigration detainees in provincial jails

The Canadian Press

Paige Parsons · The Canadian Press · Posted: Jan 18, 2023

The Alberta government has announced a deadline for ending an agreement to hold federal immigration detainees in provincial jails.

The province says that written notice has been given to the federal government to end the agreement with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The agreement entailed use of provincial correctional centres to house people being detained on immigration matters.

The federal government has until the end of June to come up with alternative arrangements.

Alberta says that between April 1 and Oct. 31 last year, the number of immigration detainees in provincial facilities averaged 15 people a day.

These foreign nationals, including asylum seekers, are subjected to the same conditions as the jail population, a practice that violates international law.

Mike Ellis, Alberta's minister of public safety and emergency services, said the change is in response to concerns about using correctional facilities to hold people who haven't been charged with a criminal offence or convicted of one.

Ellis said people who come to Canada for a new life deserve a better welcome than a jail cell while paperwork is sorted out.

"That is why we are also calling on all provinces to join us in ending this practice," he said in a statement Wednesday.

The announcement of a deadline is welcomed by Amnesty International, which has advocated for the change.

"It's really encouraging to see those human rights concerns being taken into account and really driving that decision," said Julia Sande, a human rights law and policy campaigner with Amnesty International.

Two other provinces have already announced the end of their contracts with CBSA. British Columbia was the first to do so in July 2022.

A review "brought to light that aspects of the arrangement do not align with our government's commitment to upholding human-rights standards," B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth said at the time.

Nova Scotia and Manitoba have also announced plans to end the agreement. 

Pushing for national change

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are now advocating for the federal government to move to end detention of immigrants Canada-wide.

Sande said that without provincial jails available, her group is hopeful that CBSA will opt to use community-based measures rather than detentions for people who are under consideration for removal.

CBSA does operate a handful of its own detention centres. 

Sande said that prior to the pandemic, about 8,000 foreign nationals were detained per year, but that unprecedented numbers were released once COVID-19 hit. 

"People were released and nothing happened, the system didn't fall apart. I think that really goes to show that another future is possible," Sande said. 

"Unfortunately, we're starting to see those numbers creep up again."

Sande noted that there is no legislative limit on how long an immigration detainee can be held in Canada, which in some cases, has led to people being jailed for years at a time.

In 2016, a CBSA detainee died in the Edmonton Remand Centre, where he'd been held for three years awaiting deportation. 

A 2022 fatality inquiry report found Peter Tut Khor, 24, was first brought to the Edmonton jail in May 2013 after being detained by the Canada Border Services Agency, and that he had a long history of mental illness.

While in jail awaiting deportation to Sudan, Khor was housed alone because of a series of assaults on staff and other inmates.

Khor's cause of death was fentanyl toxicity.