The government of Canada wants to give the Canada Border Services Agency the power to open your mail – without a warrant or permission.
Bill C-37 is now through second reading in the House of Commons and is set to become law as soon as next year.
What is Bill C-37?
Last year, the Trudeau Liberals tabled the modestly-named Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other Acts, better known as Bill C-37. The omnibus bill would amend several pieces of existing legislation, including the federal Customs Act.
Bill C-37 would repeal subsections 99(2) and 99(3) of the Customs Act, which read as follows:
Exception for mail
(2) An officer may not open or cause to be opened any mail that is being imported or exported and that weighs thirty grams or less unless the person to whom it is addressed consents or the person who sent it has completed and attached to the mail a label in accordance with article RE 601 of the Letter Post Regulations of the Universal Postal Convention.
(3) An officer may cause imported mail, or mail that is being exported, that weighs thirty grams or less to be opened in his or her presence by the person to whom it is addressed, the person who sent it or a person authorized by either of those persons.
Currently, the Canada Border Services Agency is authorized to seize and open mail coming into Canada from other countries that weighs over thirty grams. This legislation would allow officers to open any letter that is sent to Canada from another country, regardless of the size.
But that’s not all the it would do. Bill C-37 is an omnibus bill, meaning it does many different things and amends many pieces of legislation at once. The other major aim of the legislation is to allow safe injection sites to open across the country.
What is the Role of the Canada Border Services Agency?
The Canada Border Services Agency is the federal body that deals with border enforcement, immigration, and customs. If you’ve ever travelled outside of Canada – be it by car, by boat or by airplane – you’ve dealt with the CBSA. They are the ones who check your documents and toss you questions on your way back into the country.
In addition to screening people who come into Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency stations officers at the Gateway Postal Facility in Mississauga, Ontario. The CBSA works alongside Canada Post to sift through and analyzing incoming mail. If an officer finds something suspicious, they can set it aside to be x-rayed and opened, then send it off for further inspection.
Why Does the Government Want to Open Our Mail?
According to the federal government, Bill C-37 will make it easier for the Canada Border Services Agency to catch people sending illegal drugs into the country by mail. Their main target is the fentanyl, an potent opioid responsible for a growing health crisis in western Canada.
Unlike other street drugs, like marijuana and heroin, fentanyl is small and light enough to fit inside a standard-sized envelope. Since the Customs Act prohibits the CBSA from opening mail under thirty grams, that makes it difficult for officers to stop fentanyl from coming into Canada.
At least that’s what the government claims.
In truth, the Canada Border Services Agency isn’t forbidden from opening standard-sized letters. They just need a warrant to do it.
Under section 11 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, officers can get a warrant to search anything the officer believes on reasonable grounds to contain or conceal a controlled substance, including mail. In Ontario, officers can obtain a search warrant by appearing before a Justice of the Peace or a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice. All the officer needs to do is present a document called an information which lays out the officer’s suspicions about the mail. If the judge or justice finds it credible, he or she issues a warrant.
Getting a warrant is not as easy as ripping the letter open on sight. But if the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the mail contains drugs, it’s far from difficult to get that authorization.
Why Bill C-37 Goes Too Far
As a minority opposition, the federal Liberal Party was frequently critical of the former Conservative government’s penchant for introducing bloated omnibus bills. But Bill C-37 is exactly that. Half the bill is about streamlining safe injection sites (known as supervised consumption sites in government-speak.) The other half is a broad violation of Canadians’ privacy.
Safe injection sites are proven to reduce overdose deaths. There is no similar guarantee for the Customs Act amendments. The government has offered no proof that ‘streamlining’ the search and seizure process will have any similar effect. If the Canada Border Services Agency has reason to believe that a letter contains fentanyl, they already have the power to deal with it in a measured way. But if a tainted letter passes through undetected, it’s gone – and Bill C-37 can’t do anything about that.
Allowing the Canada Border Services Agency to sift through our mail unsupervised would do little to fight the fentanyl crisis. But it would certainly create the potential for widespread infringement of our civil liberties.