Reality TV should not be a government public relations project

Posted by admin on Apr 5th, 2013

Joseph Leivdal — The Peak (Simon Fraser University)

BURNABY (CUP) — In a political climate where the Conservative government has implemented numerous xenophobic (often racist) immigration and refugee policies, including the mandatory detention of “suspicious” asylum seekers for up to one full year with no guarantee for refugee status, we should be highly suspicious of a government-funded reality show featuring the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). On March 13, dozens of CBSA officers, accompanied by cameras from Force Four Entertainment, raided a Vancouver construction site, arresting dozens of migrant workers despite the stated intention of the CBSA to detain one particular man with a lengthy criminal record. Eight remain in custody and are facing hearings and deportation.

The cameras were collecting footage for the television show Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, a production of Force Four Entertainment and National Geographic, and recorded the arrests. More disturbing is the complicity and aid of the government in the show’s production.

A document signed by public safety minister Vic Toews back in May of 2011 recommends that Toews supports filming a pilot and teaming up with Force Four. The line stating how much government funding the show received is, unsurprisingly, whited out.

Furthermore, The Globe and Mail stated that the show “received funding through the Canadian film or video production tax credit, a federal program run through Canadian Heritage, and the B.C. production services tax credit.”

Given the forces behind the development of this show, it is worth considering the effects it will have on the public’s recognition of the harsh realities faced by migrant workers and refugees. The show consists of the portrayal of CBSA officers on the job, often accompanied by fast-paced music and quick cuts, implying a sense of urgency.

By focusing on the actions of the CBSA, the audience is encouraged to identify with the CBSA agents, who are given air time to justify themselves with embarrassing mistakes edited out. Thus, the show positions itself on the side of an authority that is exercised in highly controversial ways, removing the original context of the controversy.

Furthermore, by following the typical framework of conflict leading to a resolution, the show establishes a narrative framework of protagonist (CBSA agent) versus antagonist (the person of suspicion), who raises a conflict that must be resolved with the use of the law, portrayed as justice. This creates a binary that misrepresents both parties.

In fact, it perpetuates xenophobic tendencies and racism by obscuring the social, political and economic realities of the people portrayed on the show. It values entertainment over human dignity, and promotes government policies, doing the government’s dirty work for it.

In defence of the show, Toews stated that “it is important to remember that illegal immigrants cost law-abiding Canadian taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year, and it costs our constituents thousands of jobs”.

Far from costing taxpayers millions of dollars, migrant workers (legal and otherwise) are doing jobs that no one else wants to do, are consistently paid less and are subjected to abusive employers and a nearly impossible visa application process.

Renata Kobek, an immigration consultant and representative of one of the workers, stated “As a matter of fact, there are Filipino nurses working as food vendors, East Indian engineers driving taxis and doctors working as janitors.”

The activist group No One is Illegal held an emergency rally shortly after the raids, protesting this gross violation of rights and privacy. A petition has also been circulation through social media channels from the “Change” organization, calling for a cancellation of the show, and for the CBSA to cease their involvement and to end violent deportations. The petition has gathered nearly 20,000 signatures at the time of writing.

Stephen Collis, professor of English at SFU, sums it up well: “It’s hard to see this as anything other than ideology. This show presumes guilt, demonizes immigrants, and encourages xenophobia and racism. I hope all Canadians can see through this, and condemn the Conservatives actions here.”

So do I.

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