EXCLUSIVE: Children traumatized in Canadian detention centres

For an eight year-old girl with a violent background, 48 hours of detention in Canada was enough to prompt their development of selective mutism.

The Laval Immigration Holding Centre is walking distance from the Prairie River that brushes past Montréal-Nord. The centre has been a point for migrant detention, sometimes stretching years without charges, since 1999.

The majority of the building's cells are small. At 7m2, they are about the minimum size of similar units placed in Canadian correctional facilities. In 2019, these cells held the majority of some 2000 migrants detained in Quebec, while larger rooms held about 100 children.

Within viewing distance from the 1999 centre and across the railroad tracks that separate it from the Leclerc’s women’s prison, are the grounds upon which a new migrant detention centre is being built, to have its doors opened by 2021. This new facility includes plans for the holding of children and of adults.

Children and trauma in detention

Interviews, discussions, and psychological assessments of former child detainees have revealed the horrific circumstances surrounding their experiences.

According to Rachel Kronick, a researcher in McGill Universities department of psychiatry, even a new or improved facility would risk harming the young that it puts into holding.

One child interviewed by Kronick came to Canada on a boat of Sri Lankan refugees. “This was a terribly traumatized child,” she described. “He had experienced shellings, and bombings, and the death of family members in Sri Lanka. During their long boat ride to Canada they had had people board the ship with guns... There were poor sanitary conditions, little food, general precarity and stress.” At the age of three he was detained for six months with his mother after their boat docked in Canada.  

Another child was detained separately from his father upon arriving in Canada. In his home country, he had experienced the kidnapping and murder of his brother. Although having been detained for only 48 hours, the experience stuck to the boy. He became scared of people in uniforms and scared of vans (a security van had taken him to detention). His anxiety was serious enough to stop him from attending school; having become frightened to leave his house.

“Here we began to see how detention became a trauma in the context of cumulative trauma. Each trauma became layered on top of the other, making life increasingly difficult for these children,” said Kronick in way of context. “and ‘difficult’ is an understatement.”

For an eight year-old girl with a violent background, 48 hours of detention in Canada was enough to prompt their development of selective mutism.

Psychologist Rachel Kronick uses the “Sandplay method” as a way of having children explore their experiences of detention - Provided by Rachel Kronick

Hanna Gros is another researcher and lawyer who has spent time interviewing former detainees.

“Without exception parents expressed deep anguish about the detrimental consequences of this experience on their children’s wellbeing,” Gros told The Post Millennial. “Children developed difficulty sleeping, they lost their appetite, they lost their interest in play… Some of them developed depression, separation anxiety, and psychosomatic [disorders].”

For instance, Gros interviewed a Jamaican woman held by Canadian authorities for nearly six months with her newborn child. Fleeing her abusive husband, she had left her home country. During her detention, she was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Major Depressive Episode, and began experiencing severe panic attacks. Her child, on the other hand, stopped eating almost entirely, experienced regular nosebleeds, and became the focal point for both his mother’s stress and purpose.

“I never really slept [well] because I was so scared. I always thought they’re going to take him away…. I was scared that I would lose it, but then I had to be strong for my baby,” the mother told Gros. She was later able to make a successful ‘humanitarian and compassionate’ application for stay in Canada.

For parents separated from their children, some refused to see their kids from detention. “It was too painful to only be able to talk to them through the plexiglass. They couldn’t hold them, they couldn’t touch them. They couldn’t embrace them,” remembered Gros.

Being put in immigration holding can exacerbate symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety in adult detainees. Former detainees have reported adverse treatment in holding centres ranging from early wake up times (3:45AM) to poor meal quality.

Documents obtained through an access to information request reveal the frequent outbursts and suicide attempts that occur in immigrant holding centres. In short officer reports, these attempts are described. In February 2019 a write-up reads: “client threaten[ed] to kill herself.” The same month, a man being held in Canada “cut his forearm with a plastic serrated knife.”

In April 2018, a woman was found “picking small pieces of sharp wire out” of her window. When asked, she stated that she wanted to “stick them in the electrical socket so it could electrocute her.”

Also in April, a man was taken to medical when he was found “attempting to bang his head against the bathtub.” After being placed in a wheelchair he began using a “small piece of metal to cut his left arm.”

A year later, a behavioural report details a different person: “client was uncooperative and slammed head against metal bed post.”

During his detention review hearing, one detainee began “banging his head against the table,” and when he was calmed down confessed having “trouble sleeping” and that he was “going crazy in detention.”

These migrants regularly report that fears of being deported prompted their breakdowns. They are often thrown into “wet cells,” a colloquial term for observation and solitary confinement rooms.

There have been several cases of suicide in CBSA facilities. In an early case, a woman working as a cleaning lady, sending most of her money back home to her family, hung herself by her bed sheets after being detained for failing to pay a train fare. Her guard, who was supposed to be checking rooms, was busy playing video games.

A “Homey” Design

This grim picture of detention contrasts with the designs set out for the new Laval holding centre. Preparatory documents from the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA), the organization that manages immigration detention, outline initial sketches for the building.

Heavy timber or engineering wood are planned for use throughout the facility to encourage a “warm and homey feeling.” The main entrance is to have a “dignified and impressive feature,” while living units are to be built from smaller sized brick to “express the classic domestic nature of the space.”

Any windows in these buildings are to be lined with iron bars. A separate internal document stipulates that these bars must be “designed in a manner that makes them as inconspicuous as possible to the outside public.”

An initial design for the exterior of the 2021 Laval Immigration Holding Centre - Retrieved from a 2017 CBSA Schematic Design Report

A recreation yard is contemplated as containing a “small play structure” and a “play area appropriate for children.” Surrounding this space, a “minimum 8m high fencing with barbed wire top”: designed to prevent any passersbies from seeing the detained children. Other barbed fencing is imagined as being “esthetically covered by foliage” with the hopes of “limit[ing] harshness of look.”

Designs for fencing surrounding the new detention centre - Retrieved from a 2017 CBSA Schematic Design Report

In line with a longstanding practice in Canadian holding centres, the new facility will also contain areas where video games can be played and detainees can watch TV.

When asked how the building’s design impacted her view of the new detention facility, Gros responded: “I think the best way I can respond to that is to quote a mother I interviewed who said that, ‘a golden cage is still a cage. It doesn’t matter what you put into that cage, I still don’t have my liberty.’”

“It’s not just about being able to leave and come back and to live your life, it’s your daily routines, it’s your daily schedule, it’s your daily choices, about when to eat, when to sleep, what to do at school… You can’t make up for that with toys or whatever it is you put in there. You can’t make up for the deprivation of liberty.”

Kronick, who see’s the basic setting of detention, and the exacerbated interplay of parent and child trauma as factors that collude to “shatter the family,” responded on the same score: “children are being held in medium security prisons for administrative reasons. They are deprived of education, socialization, and liberty... in conditions wholly unsuited for children. The facts speak for themselves.”

Detained Indefinitely

The impetus behind the construction of the new Laval immigration holding centre came from a hunger strike in 2016. In two Ontario correctional facilities, more than 50 migrants went without eating for 19 days. Largely, they protested against their indefinite imprisonment without charges. For some, this imprisonment had lasted over a decade.

Adding to the unrest, within the six months leading up to the strike, three people had died in immigration detention. As an article in The Guardian remarked, the circumstances of their deaths, like previous deaths of people under CBSA custody, were “shrouded in secrecy.”

Pushed further by public outcry, a new framework for detention was announced by the Minister of Public Safety with a price tag of $138 million.

In 2017, the CBSA released their summary report for the framework. Their stated goal was to “enhance alternatives to detention,” and, notably, to address “failing and inadequate immigration holding centres” across Canada.

The CBSA expressed the intention to limit the housing and detention of children, as well as the separation of minors from their parents. The border service agency promised to look into reducing the length of detention and to avoid the use of imprisonment.

Since the implementation of the 2017 detention framework, the number of  adult detainees has actually gone up. In the fiscal year of 2018-2019, more migrants were held than have ever been since CBSA started formally recording detention numbers. In fact, a spike in detention was felt in the 2017-2018 period, adjoining the then fresh announcement of the new framework.

Meanwhile, the number of children seperated from their detained parents remains undocumented.

Nonetheless, the average and median lengths of detention have fallen significantly. Detention in provincial correctional facilities has dropped and the detention of minors has progressively edged downwards.

However, according to data provided to The Post Millennial through an access to information request, people in migrant detention continued to be held for several months throughout 2019. Up until December of 2019, around 70 migrants were detained without charges for periods longer than six months. Six men, from Tanzania, Liberia, France, Egypt, China, and Haiti were detained for longer than 340 days.

A snapshot from CBSA statistics on migrant detainees with their information broken down by location of detention, sex, country of origin, and detention length - Provided through an access to information request

“Technically there are no limits,” said Toronto lawyer Mac Scott, referring to the absence of legislative ceilings on long term detention.

In a case, now in the federal court of appeal, Scott has helped argue for a greater burden on the government when they move to force long spells of detention. He refers with deference to a UN report condemning Canada’s immigration laws that “limit the review of decisions ordering detention.”

In the UK, detention is limited to 28 days, barring a court’s decision to the contrary. Prior to legislative changes by the Trump administration, after six months, within US borders, the onus switched onto the state to prove that an immigrant should remain in detention.

“A Blind Process”

Approaching 2021, still other issues remain that threaten to leach into the handling of the new Laval holding centre. The most notable of these problems, surround the behaviour of CBSA agents and security officers working in holding centres.

Matters of ambiguous identity, threats of danger to the public (uncommon), and suspicions that a person will not appear for deportation-related proceedings, are the grounds on which CBSA officers put a person into detention.

Migrants being put into holding centres do not go to court and face criminal charges.

Rather, a standardized tool, known as an NRAD, is provided to officers. On sheets of paper, filled with checkboxes and rubrics, field personnel must justify their assessment of the risks they believe a person poses. From then on, a decision on detention is put to review boards.

In a written exchange with a CBSA spokesperson, they outlined the scientific vision behind NRAD’s. They are, as the spokeswoman put it, tools to ensure “national consistency in the placement of individuals” in a way that is “transparent and objective.”

Yet, officers have demonstrated difficulty in using the NRAD. And though judgments on detention are open for dispute, lawyers are not usually told when a person is being sized up for confinement. The chance for input by a lawyer on the risk their client poses—for, essentially, a say in what enters this formal document—is then obstructed.

A copy of one court redacted NRAD provided to The Post Millennial. The officer filling it out admits, “I have not received any training on the completion of the form.” They go on to say, “[t]his assessment is cursory in nature and should not be construed as an accurate representation of the subject’s risk or mental health status.”

“It’s basically a blind process,” explained Scott with exasperation. “In theory you could take it to federal court for a judicial review, but you don’t even know when [an NRAD is] happening, nor do you even get a copy unless it’s released through discovery in a court proceeding.”

Scott communicated the sometimes awkward decisions by the CBSA surrounding a person’s threat to the community. One of his clients was picked up for smoking on a bus platform. Another was detained and deported after calling the police on her abusive husband.

Once in detention, security guards and CBSA officers supervise and manage migrants.

Jobs in immigration holding centres are advertised as an “entry level position” with “great potential for career advancement in a correction and law enforcement environment.”

As of recently, border security officers have been required to carry batons, pepper spray, and bullet proof vests in holding centres. No incidents warranting these measures have been publicly documented.

However, incidents of guards and officers mistreating migrants have been noted. As far back as 2007, a report headed by Conservative MP Norman Doyle recommended the appointment of a “correctional investigator” to “investigate alleged mistreatment by guards.” The report expressed particular concern over alleged “threats of psychological harassment” from guards at an Ontario holding centre.

In a letter, detainees at the Ontario facility wrote, “[guards] have implied that they have the power to accuse us of bad behaviour when they frisk us or when they are walking alone with us… As a result, we decided we had no choice but to refuse to leave our unit… and have therefore had no fresh air, exercise, or visits.”  

Today, Canadian citizens in criminal holding can file grievances against staff. Yet, it is still a different story for people in immigration detention wanting to report the behaviour of a detention facility’s staff.

“The CBSA is the only law enforcement body in this country that doesn’t have an ombudsperson,” Mac Scott stressed, going on to highlight how practices like solitary confinement continue to be used within CBSA facilities.

In recent hunger strikes, guards threatened to isolate immigrants living in close quarters who were protesting their continued detention during the coronavirus epidemic. Later, it was revealed that one guard had, in fact, contracted COVID-19.

Sometimes aggressive, sometimes mocking, and sometimes intimidating; in an archived interview secured by The Post Millennial, one migrant, who was a minor when he was in the current Laval holding centre, explained the difficulties in exposing officers' antagonistic behaviour. “You don’t have the right to complain, you’re not even a citizen,” he recalls one border service agent telling him.    

When the young man asked a more approachable security guard whether the facilities personnel had the authority to treat him as poorly as they were, the guard responded: “‘No. They don’t have the right to treat you this way but they do it anyway.”

The new Laval Holding Centre will increase the number of people that, at any one time, can be kept in CBSA conditions. From a previous 144, the planned site will allow 158 residents to reside in the building.

Starting in 2018, the border service agency has had its sights on increasing deportation by 25-35 percent every year. As internal government emails have indicated, these are plans that keep existing—and possibly future—detention centres full.