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Borderline offensive: The CBSA and reality television

On Wednesday, at least three construction sites were raided by Canadian Border Service agents looking for undocumented workers. Some reports indicate that up to sixty agents, some armed, some in plainclothes, emerged from black SUVs and performed floor-to-floor sweeps of the sites, interrogating workers and foremen, and demanding identification. CBSA has so far refused to disclose how many sites were raided yesterday, and how many agents were involved.

If the above scenario seems dramatic, it might be due to the fact that the CBSA were allegedly accompanied by film crews for the reality-television show Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, which claims to follow CBSA agents as they "keep Canada safe from threats of all kinds, big and small." The show airs on the National Geographic channel -- presumably because of its gritty portrayal of reality.

On the morning Immigration Minister Jason Kenney concern-tweeted about the "regrettable" evidence suggesting that the deplorable American right-wing trope of "birth tourism" is a "real industry in Canada," perhaps Canadians should be relieved that the daily violence suffered by immigrants in this country, particularly undocumented immigrants, has now earned a place on our satellite television waves. Yet already social media and activists are musing about the all-too-possible scenario that the presence of Border Security's cameras nudged the CBSA towards a much more glamourous, which is to say violent, execution of their responsibilities. This is not to say that such a raid was requested by the show's producers or even hinted at, but as any fan of reality television knows, we don't always show good judgement when the cameras are rolling.

Certainly the report that two agents appeared at one site looking for two Hondurans, who were quickly found, only to return with almost 20 agents to storm the premises, raises hackles as well as questions. CBSA recently added firearms to their c.v.'s -- it's dismaying to think that they may have added filming location scout as well.

Of course, the exploitation of immigrants over media is nothing new, south of the border or here in Canada. Perhaps CTV's The Border simply wasn't gritty enough, and the National Geographic Channel detected a market gap for caricatures of brown-skinned people acting like terrorists. If reality itself didn't satisfy the market's expectation, the second season of Border Security appears to have taken care of that minor setback with a made-for-TV moment.

But while the sensational demonization of immigrants and propagation of Canadian white supremacism is alarming enough, in a city drunk on real estate expansion and Olympic nostalgia, there is more to this story which, at its heart, is about the unrecognized yet indispensable labour force transforming this city. An estimated 3 - 5000 undocumented or migrant labourers lived and worked in Vancouver in the years preceding the 2010 Olympics and continue to provide the human labour to our speculation-driven economy. As usual, however, the human lives which accompany that desperately needed labour has now proven itself inconvenient.

Harsha Walia (whose tireless activism was recognized last night by the CCPA) wrote on Facebook this morning to promote today's demonstration in protest of the CBSA's actions, that these workers "are escaping structural violence and poverty only to be exploited and commodified and disposed" by the Canadian system. When that structural violence is at last made visible by a reality-television show, it becomes perverted into a source of casual mainstream pleasure, generating profit for television producers and propaganda for the hired guns who abuse, intimidate and threaten the livelihood of families and workers tacitly invited into this province out of necessity and who have lived here for years.

In fact, as we observe the cluster of velocities at play in this appalling scenario -- immigration, media representation, labour and development -- we begin to perceive the internal contradiction of Vancouver's principle driving force, gentrification. The endless urge to demolish, rebuild, develop and transform is combined, impossibly, with the desire to erase the human labour which created it and disavow the vulnerable people displaced as a result. Neoliberalism's greatest and most insidious talent, after all, is concealing its victims.

So it should come as no surprise that this displacement is now paraded on our television screens, enriching the people responsible for it, a commodified spectacle of brown faces and handcuffs herded into SUVs by border guards dressed like navy SEALs -- as muted, soda-drunk cheers erupt from Canadian couches everywhere.

Write Immigration Minister Jason Kenney (jason.kenney@parl.gc.ca), Force Four Entertainment (tv@forcefour.com) and the Canadian Border Services (contact@cbsa.gc.ca) and tell them what you think of their latest foray into reality television.

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