Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Deaths in Shadows: Lethal and Unaccountable Migrant Detention in Canada


Jeff Shantz


Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Jeff Shantz. Jeff is a faculty member in the Department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia (Unceded Coast Salish territories). He is the editor of Racial Profiling and Borders and Racism and Borders, and the author of several books and articles.

a sign towards an immigration holding centre covered with notes about abolition

Deaths in detention in Canada are numerous, but occur largely in the shadows, shrouded within secretive and unaccountable systems with no independent oversight and without even systematic formal reporting requirements. Moreover, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) detains a large number of migrants in provincial jails and prisons, which removes people from direct oversight by the federal immigration system and subjects them to conditions of further distress and trauma.

All of this means that family members, loved ones, and community advocates are left searching for minimal details and basic answers when someone dies in detention. It also means that calls for transformation are rendered virtually meaningless, since there is no independent mechanism for observing and documenting changes or evaluating their outcomes in effecting improvements. Instead, advocates have called for decarceration, and have pointed to releases from detention under COVID as a guide for how to do it.

Deaths in Detention

Since 2000, at least 18 people have died in immigration detention in Canada, most of them in provincial jails. This includes two deaths last year alone. However, because of the inconsistent and unsystematic nature of CBSA reporting, that number could be much higher. One analysis by Amnesty International concludes that CBSA detains a few hundred people in its immigration detention facilities at any given time, a lower number than the US, but the rate of deaths per capita among Canadian immigration detainees is several times higher.

On December 25, 2022, a person, later identified as 25-year-old Pan Yuan, died at the immigration detention center in Surrey, British Columbia. Notably, Pan Yuan, and the circumstances of her detention, was not identified publicly by CBSA or any Canadian media, but rather it was done by the Taiwan News, a news outlet in her country of birth. They reported her arrest and detainment in Canada in October, and  listed the cause of her death as suicide.

CBSA only announced her death on December 27. They did not release the cause of death or any additional details. In their only statement, CBSA said that first responders were called to the center, but “all efforts to revive the detainee were unsuccessful,” and the person was pronounced dead at the scene.

On January 28, 2022, Bryan Arthur Stone, a 56-year-old father, also died by suicide while in CBSA custody at the Laval Quebec immigration holding center. A year later, CBSA had still refused to release details about the case. Information only saw the light of day when media finally accessed the Quebec coroner’s investigation. Notably, the coroner concluded that “this death could have been avoidable.”

Mr. Stone, an American citizen who had lived in Quebec for years, had been in immigration detention for 53 days at the time of his death. The coroner’s inquest found that he had been “stressed and sad” and had warned detention center staff that he would kill himself if he were deported and separated from his son. Only four days before his death he had attempted suicide. CBSA’s response was to place him in solitary confinement, a not uncommon practice based on cases we know about.

Shadow Penality

Academic researchers studying Canada’s migrant detention system suggest that it forms a “shadow penal system.” This is, in part because so many detainees end up being placed in correctional institutions rather than in immigration facilities or community centers, despite not being criminally charged or convicted. Canada is also one of the countries that does not place time limits on detention, with some people having been detained for decades.

Human Rights watch reports that the number of migrant detainees incarcerated in Canada has increased each year between 2016 and 2020, reaching its largest number with 8,825 people in migrant detention in 2019-20. Of these, in 2019-20 alone 1,932 were incarcerated in provincial jails, many of which are maximum-security facilities. There they are subject to harsh conditions, including solitary confinement in which they lose contact with family and community members and legal advisors and advocates. This can keep them from gathering materials for their cases or seeking advice. They are also subject to violence.

CBSA statistics show that over the period between April 2017 and March 2020, roughly 20 percent of migrant detainees were incarcerated in 78 provincial jails across Canada. This proportion actually increased between April and September 2020, when the first month under COVID was 50 percent of migrant detainees held in provincial jails. The average length of detention also increased, more than doubling to 29 days compared with that period in the previous year. Of these, at least 85 people were detained for 100 days or more.

It is telling that the deaths of both Pan Yuan and Brian Stone were reported by CBSA as suicides. The negative effects of detention on mental health and wellbeing for migrants have been well documented. There is some evidence that migrant detainees experiencing mental health crises are more likely to be detained in provincial jails. In response to researchers with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, CBSA officials confirmed that people experiencing mental health issues may be detained in a provincial jail specifically to “effectively manage them in light of their behavior” or to facilitate “access to specialized care.”

Ongoing Practices of Secrecy and Unaccountability

Unlike other law enforcement agencies in Canada, there is no oversight agency for CBSA officers and CBSA is given the authority to review incidents of death in custody. What information does eventually come out usually follows  coroner’s investigations which are limited in scope to identifying cause of death.

Advocates have long criticized this lack of oversight and a system that, more than simply lacking transparency, has been called secretive. An Ontario Superior Court decision went so far as to call the system “Kafkaesque,” an inscrutable authority.

Prior to 2014, CBSA did no public reporting at all when people died in its custody, whether refugee claimants or immigrant detainees. They only began reporting when criticized publicly by media outlets, which had to resort to lengthy searches of coroners’ databases and reports to find this information.

Yet almost a decade later, CBSA still puts up barriers to media, remaining uncommunicative. Following Pan Yuan’s death, CBSA refused to provide details to inquiring news outlets about age or health concerns. CBSA would not say whether Pan Yuan was alone in a room or with other detainees, whether she had any interactions with other detainees or staff before her death, or whether the room I was monitored by video surveillance.

The search for justice within such a labyrinthine system can be long and arduous. In some cases, people have had to wait years to get even a glimpse into happened to their loved one while in detention. It took seven years for an inquest into Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan’s death in hospital on June 11, 2015, following a prolonged detention at a maximum-security facility.

In the meantime, in the Canadian context, broader calls for abolition have been expressed through mobilizations aimed at ending some of the most egregious practices. At the end of 2022, several human rights organizations across the country launched a “12 Days of Action” campaign targeting the federal government to end the practice of migrant incarceration in provincial jails, arguing that this is a violation of international human rights law.

This is not enough of course, as detainees, like Pan Yuan, are also subjected to inhuman and deadly conditions in migrant detention centers. The Surrey center itself was created in response to outrage at the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez in a migrant holding center at Vancouver’s airport in 2013. From an abolitionist perspective all borders, and border policing regimes, are violence—often deadly violence.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

J. Shantz. (2023) Deaths in Shadows: Lethal and Unaccountable Migrant Detention in Canada. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/04/deaths-shadows-lethal-and-unaccountable-migrant. Accessed on: 20/04/2024

With the support of