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Canada: Border officials shed little light on Dziekanski's 10 hours at airport

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Customs and immigration officials at Vancouver airport in October of 2007 when Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died were all part of the same agency but couldn't access the same computer system.

The Thomas Braidwood inquiry into Taser use, now investigating exactly why and how Dziekanski died seconds after he was Tasered, heard this morning from Monica Kullar, the first border official who encountered him, that she had no phone, no access to paging, no access to immigration officials and only Asian-language translators.

Kullar, a Canada Border Services Agency official who now trains other border officers, said that Dziekanski was "sweating profusely" and speaking rapid Polish when he approached her cubicle at the "primary inspection line."

Kullar said she helped him fill in the landing card that every traveller arriving at Vancouver airport must complete and then directed him to a "secondary" area where he could access a manual that contained some Polish, the only language Dziekanski could speak.

Kullar admitted she did nothing further to contact her supervisor or any other airport official despite her observation that Dziekanski was "highly unusual" in that he was sweating so profusely that water ran off his chin.

Braidwood, a former B.C. appeal court judge, yesterday promised Dziekanski's mother Zofia Cisowski that the public inquiry will lay bare the "complete record" of circumstances surrounding her son's death, which occurred seconds after he was Tasered by four RCMP officers.

Nine employees of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) are slated to testify in the first three days of the inquiry, which began Monday and will continue until the end of February. The RCMP officers, who the B.C. criminal justice branch has decided will not face any criminal charges, are expected to testify within the next three weeks.

CBSA official Trevor Gross is now on the stand to explain the approximately 45 minutes of video footage that is all that border officials captured of Dziekanski during the more than 10 hours he spent in the airport - virtually all of it within an area that CBSA employees control as peace officers.

Gross said that only 11 of 13 cameras were working in October 2007, and that no one monitored or controlled the cameras, which had the ability to pan, or scan back and forth, but often recorded haphazardly in a fixed position.

CBSA spokeswoman Yvette-Monique Gray, who is speaking for the agency on improvements made since Dziekanski's death, said the customs hall now has "four times as many cameras" and one person continuously monitoring them.

Gray also said that with 4.5 million passengers at Vancouver International Airport annually, and "in anticipation of the Olympics" in 2010, the CBSA has vastly improved its access to language interpreters, with the "six top languages" spoken at all times in the airport and "access to a database of interpreters" for virtually any language.

Gray admitted it was "extremely unusual" for anyone to remain in the CBSA area for 10 hours, as Dziekanski did.

"Most people just want to pass through our area and get out as quickly as possible," said Gray.

No CBSA official has yet explained where Dziekanski was for the 10 hours he spent in their jurisdiction, or why they only have 45 minutes of him recorded on videotape.

The inquiry continues this afternoon at the downtown federal court, with improved security provided by a sheriff after yesterday's interruption by a man in camouflage and dark glasses shouting obscenities.

The man was released without charge after he was briefly detained by plainclothes RCMP and Vancouver police.

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