Published in the Toronto Star, March 26, 2013
Lots of good news these days if you’re hoping to break into show biz: British music mogul Simon Cowell is now accepting YouTube auditions for his global talent search. And the news is even better if you’re a newcomer to Canada and are yearning to be discovered. Merely through your presence on Canadian soil, you stand an excellent chance of landing on the latest hit show, “Ottawa’s Got Talent.” That exuberant clicking and whirring of camera lenses across the land is our federal government seeking out people with interesting immigration situations to help burnish the Harper team’s image and become media stars at the very same time.
In case you’ve missed out on these exciting developments, here’s a recap. A couple of weeks ago, armed agents of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) conducted raids on Vancouver construction sites, arresting and interrogating undocumented migrant workers under the eye of cameras filming for a commercial television series. That reality show about the CBSA’s work, Border Security, was personally approved by none other than Public Safety Minister Vic Toews himself. In response to criticisms of the show as exploitative and sensationalistic, he has defended the immigration-raid filmings as duly respecting privacy laws (on the premise that just-arrested detainees will freely and lucidly consent to have their arrest footage used for broadcasting).
Using people’s images – with dubious consent, no consent at all, or in a wholly misleading way – is a lousy approach to gaining publicity for the government’s chosen slants on citizenship and migration.
On another front, as the Canadian Council for Refugees recently reported, since 2011 the CBSA has been fine-tuning a website called “Wanted by the CBSA.” That site provides names, birthdates and mugshots of people being sought for deportation in order to solicit public tips about their whereabouts and publicize CBSA successes at locating them. Originally focussed on violators of human or international rights, the program has now expanded its eligibility criteria for featured criminals due to “difficulty in receiving a sufficient number of referrals from the regions for consideration and inclusion on its website.” Plans for an energetic public relations and media campaign to publicize the program appear to be in the works.
And let’s not forget that fine episode of October 2011, in which six federal bureaucrats were drafted to pose as oath-taking new Canadians at a citizenship ceremony taped at the Sun News studio and later broadcast on that network. The event was organized at the request of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s staff. When the deception came to light several months later, however, Kenney blamed it on an overzealous bureaucrat and claimed his office had no prior knowledge of anything untoward.
All in all, it would seem that Ministers Toews and Kenney have encouraged their two departments to view the comings and goings of migrants to Canada as a glorious opportunity for the visual arts – albeit one dedicated less to art than the enrichment of private networks and corporate images. Not to rain on their parade, but such filming and portraiture of Canadians should really be the turf of the Heritage minister, shouldn’t it?
Here’s the real point: every spin-driven tactic of this sort undermines the credibility of this government’s claims to protect the privacy and dignity of individuals, as well as the gravity of changes in individuals’ citizenship or migration status. Using people’s images – with dubious consent, no consent at all, or in a wholly misleading way – is a lousy approach to gaining publicity for the government’s chosen slants on citizenship and migration. The habitual Harper government motif of “we’re welcoming the grateful chosen newcomers and kicking out the freeloading bad guys” is bad enough for the way it sometimes rides roughshod over legal and human-rights complexities. Adding to this with exploitative, non-consensual and misleading camera work makes it all the worse.
Needless to say, the problem doesn’t lie in the use of imagery per se. Does CIC want to make an ad campaign warning against marriage fraud using videos of real-life Canadians who’ve been duped by foreigners seeking quick entry to Canada? Fine; bring on the cameras. In this case the content is driven by public-service motives, the individuals’ participation is clearly voluntary and the only profit goes to the ad agency making the spots. But if you’re helping a commercial production company and network profit by filming the terror of a construction worker who’s just been arrested and is facing imminent deportation, something’s gone awry.
In my household, sad experience has dictated a policy that small children are forbidden from playing with camera-containing devices except under close adult supervision. It looks like certain federal ministers, and the staffs and departments they direct, are in need of a similar rule.