Well, it was one way to get Canadians talking about Canadian TV – but certainly not the kind of buzz the producers had envisioned. The series Border Security, produced in co-operation with the Canada Border Services Agency, caused an uproar last year after a raid on a Vancouver construction site, filmed (but never used) by the series. The producers said they felt shell-shocked and under attack in the media storm that followed. Despite demands that the show be cancelled – and "thorough" discussions inside the CBSA over whether to continue with the project – season three of Border Security began shooting this week.
In a wide-ranging interview, The principals of the production company that makes the program said regardless of the backlash, they believe in the show, the ratings are excellent and they wanted to bring it back.
"It's a major Canadian hit, so why wouldn't we?" said Rob Bromley, president of Force Four Entertainment. "And we love the show. We're very proud of it."
The CBSA considered not participating in a third season, but "after thorough internal discussion it was subsequently concluded that the benefits of the series warranted continued participation," wrote CBSA spokesperson Maja Graham in response to questions submitted by The Globe and Mail. The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness gave final approval to season three in January.
The CBSA grants the production company exclusive access to border crossings, including airports, land and marine crossings. In two seasons, the cameras have captured drugs stuffed into art packaging, guns in diaper bags and self-proclaimed tourists being turned back at the border because the CBSA didn't believe they were "genuine" – including one woman who said she was visiting family, but who raised suspicions because she had hairdressing supplies packed into her suitcase.
The show, which airs on Global and the National Geographic Channel, has caused concerns about privacy. But both the CBSA and Force Four say members of the public are asked by the camera crew ahead of time for permission to film; if they say no, the cameras are turned off. If they say yes, the person is asked to sign a consent form after the CBSA examination is completed. If they sign the form, the scene can be used. If they don't, the scene may still be used but their identity must be concealed (you see a lot of blurred faces on the show). Convicted criminals are an exception to this rule; they may be identified without consent (this is evaluated on a case-by-case basis). Refugee claimants may not be filmed.
"It's informed consent," says Bromley. The forms, the team explained during a lengthy interview, are in 16 languages and the production company provides a translator.
But the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the consent isn't meaningful because of the power imbalance of the situation. "There are many vulnerable people who present themselves at the border … who might not feel comfortable saying no to [someone] who hands them a consent form about whether or not they should be in some TV show," says Josh Paterson.
Paterson, who says he is "very disappointed" that the show is returning, was among the most vocal of the show's critics last year. It began with an inland-enforcement raid on a construction site, where the CBSA believed someone on a Canada-wide warrant was working illegally. The production company was invited to document the sweep, and sent a single camera to the site. When the unit arrived, the CBSA found a number of other workers believed to be there illegally, and arrests were made, ultimately resulting in some deportations.
"As good journalists, and that's what we are – this is a documentary series … we documented that," says Bromley.
The issue blew up into a media firestorm. The wife of one of the detained workers started an online petition calling for the show's cancellation, which attracted more than 25,000 signatures. The CBSA's involvement was debated in the House of Commons, where NDP public-safety critic Randall Garrison called the show a "dangerous and reckless PR stunt." The BCCLA held a press conference and fired off a formal complaint with the federal Privacy Commission. The Council of Canadians called the show "disgusting." At one point, protesters gathered outside Force Four's Vancouver office.
For the company, it was shocking. The first season of the series had aired with no trouble – but rather, all kinds of positive feedback. They were feeling good about it.
"I always expected to get criticized for making The Bachelor," says John Ritchie, executive producer at Force Four, which also made the first season of The Bachelor Canada. "Not for making this show."
The company, which has a long history of producing not just reality TV but also serious documentaries, felt unfairly attacked, and says a lot of the criticism came from people who had never seen an episode.
"At least please watch the show," says Force Four's third partner, Gillian Lowrey. "You have every right not to like a show. I totally understand that. But don't make assumptions about a show when you haven't seen it."
They are also quick to point out that they didn't use any of the footage from the raid. And they have not shot any inland-enforcement stories since.
"I think probably what got us through that [time] was knowing that we hadn't done anything wrong," says Bromley. "So that made us think, 'Well, hang on; that's not fair that we're getting put in this position when we haven't done anything wrong.' We had worked very hard with our legal teams, the CBSA's legal teams, to make sure that all our i's were dotted, t's were crossed. We knew we had all of this protocol in place.… So in fact we hadn't made any mistakes and that's ultimately why we're doing a third season."
Force Four says the ratings have been very strong. According to the CBSA, the series has been seen by more than 11 million Canadians and is being aired in more than 50 countries.
"I say it's a true Canadian hit," says Bromley.
The show has also been accused of being a CBSA public-relations exercise. When asked what benefits the CBSA receives from the series, Graham responded, by e-mail, that the show helps "to educate the public on border regulations and rules. This education, in turn, encourages compliance and creates a more efficient border as travellers and traders better understand the rules to follow when entering or leaving Canada.… Season three will continue to educate the public, both in Canada and around the globe, about the agency's contribution to keeping Canada safe and prosperous. The show also demonstrates the challenges that border services officers face day-in and day-out, and the professionalism with which they carry out their mandate."
Graham says while Force Four has ultimate editorial control, the CBSA reviews the content of each episode before airing "to verify that all operational, legal and privacy considerations are met." The CBSA has the authority to request the removal of footage that may break the law, compromise national security, compromise investigations, is defamatory or may prejudice an issue in pending or existing litigation.
"It actually is a show that does some good," says Force Four's Ritchie. "Because I think it's important that people know where their tax dollars go, what agencies like that do, how it works."
But there's no convincing Paterson. "We just have problems with this show really from top to bottom, and none of that has changed."