Border Security from the Frontlines

Dec 15, 2006

In 2004, the Martin government formed the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) by moving parts of the former Customs and Revenue Agency and parts of Immigration into this entity as a Separate Operating Agency under Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. In August 2006 in Vancouver, Prime Minister Harper reiterated his government’s commitment to reinforce the security along our border with the United States, and in recent months both U.S. President Bush and Ambassador Wilkins have reinforced their country’s intent to enact border security measures, such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, by July 2009 at the latest.

In light of these massive changes, FrontLine’s Executive Editor, Clive Addy, took the microphone to Ron Moran to find out how Customs and Immigration employees on the frontlines are adjusting to these major changes and how they see themselves operating in this new reality.

You have been at the Union head office before, during and after 9-11. As the representative of these employees, you have first hand knowledge of their opinions of the changes that have occurred and of their expectations. How do you and your members view these changes?

You mean the creation of CBSA, of course. We consider the creation of CBSA a work in progress, but one which was essential. We applauded then Prime Minister Paul Martin for having created it on the same day he and his new government got sworn in. As you know, we got members from Customs and from Immigration consolidated into this focused separate Operating Agency.

More importantly, we are moving from an organization focused largely on taxes and immigration to one oriented more towards security and law enforcement. This transition is by no means complete, but we feel that being under a department with the RCMP, CSIS and Corrections is the right place. However, we believe that Agency management has not yet hoisted this major shift into its policies, as much as we feel is necessary. We are preparing a position paper to this effect, and we intend to present it to the Minister in the coming days or weeks.

At times, issues are treated by the Agency with a certain nonchalance, which appears, to us, to be incompatible with our new role as a law enforcement, and security agency of government. For instance, until pressured into doing so, the Agency wasn’t keeping track of statistics on “port-runners” (people who go through border points without stopping). Following a study by an outside risk analysis firm, these have been estimated at between 600 to 800 a year, and, though the Agency acknowledges the lesser amount, it has not deemed this important enough to allocate resources to either count these accurately or deter them. They consider this an acceptable risk. We do not.

How would you and your members like to see this “whole border” operate on the Canadian side?

CBSA Officer uses a Fibre Scope (camera-type equipment) to check for the presence of contraband in a vehicle.

I am glad you asked, as there are many opinions on this. In fact, I will be briefing Minister Day on this very topic in the next days. I have voiced my opinions ­frequently to the Senate Committee, the media and others; much of this will not come as a surprise.

First, I believe that it will prove more effective and economical if we focus the resources in personnel and infrastructure of the present CBSA on this new law enforcement and security role as soon as possible and relegate our former tax collector focus to a secondary duty. It is obviously a new reality for us. In the U.S. it is definitely how they view this. The U.S. Ambassador reinforced this today, suggesting that his country wants what we all want: prosperity and security. President Bush himself has said that you can’t have trade and tourism without security; they are not mutually exclusive.

There is not much realism in dreaming about a return to a wonderfully undefended, porous and laissez-faire border. Our $1.7 billion in daily mutual commerce would suffer tremendously.

Think of what would happen to this trade if the Ressam incident of the year 2000 would occur now in this post 9-11 world? The border would slam shut! We have to effectively control and patrol our border and demonstrate this to our neighbour. BSE and softwood lumber would be nothing compared to what would happen in this case.

Passenger is greeting by a CBSA officer.

Therefore, and in our own interest, we must show that we are in fact doing much more to secure our border and its points of entry.

Second, we must do this efficiently with absolute minimal disturbance to the legitimate passage of people and goods. There are many innovations in the mill and anything that speeds up legitimate travel across borders is welcome. While we still have some issues to resolve with initiatives such as NEXUS or CANPASS, these are nevertheless welcome as are other initiatives and measures being developed within the Security and Prosperity Partnership such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Much of this relies on technology of all types, but I would want all to know that technology does not replace people, it makes them more effective. I say this because many do not recognize the scope and porous nature of our very long border and the increase in criminal activity, both ways, that is going on. We must have the capability to deter, respond and protect along our Canadian side.

Ten years ago, I would have laughed at people who suggested that our major concern would be with organized crime but that is now a cold hard fact. The flow of top grade marijuana south from Canada and the flow of weapons and other drugs north from the U.S. are major industries controlled on both sides by organized crime who often share common routes and facilities… and the amounts involved are enormous. As a small example; the recent seizure of 250 pounds of marijuana near Cornwall, at $4,000/lb, is a routine thing but it gives you the scope of the challenge.

CBSA officer verifying international parcel mail.

We also need a pursuit and arrest capability on our border. Response from local municipal or federal police hours after the incident is certainly not acceptable.

Some think that this can be done by other agencies or forces…the RCMP for example… but I believe that this task is sufficiently important as to require the professional focus of a singular federal agency such as CBSA. I certainly believe that we must work together, as we do with the sharing of information through IBETS with the Mounties, CSIS and our American friends, but the law enforcement and security along our border requires a constant professional focus that we can bring to the table.

This brings us to he question of arming your guards. What is the CEUDA position in respect of this issue – one that is still being debated behind doors in parliamentary committees?

CEUDA has stated for over two decades that this is a health and safety issue and that customs agents – in fact all frontline border services personnel that deal with the public and risk getting involved with armed criminals – should be armed for their protection and that of others. In that recent risk analysis study I mentioned, there was a revealing parallel made by the consultant who stated that none of the police that were interviewed would approach a car pulled over in this day and age without an acceptable means for close protection, which is normally a pistol. We feel we need the same.

Canine Units assist in detecting banned substances.

There are all sorts of scary scenarios being dispensed to limit this. Some think that each border post will end up like Dodge City in the Wild West.

I have great respect for the professionalism of our people. In addition, as you know, the RCMP will assist us by establishing the standard, and by training the trainers. I remind people that when we got air bags in our cars there wasn’t a wild rush of folks crashing their cars to see if they work. Don’t expect similar horror scenarios to materialize on our borders.

 Most police will serve their whole career and never use their weapon, and there is no reason to assume this won’t be the case at the border, although the recent independent research of our border clearly showed that guards had been threatened and shot at, as had their buildings, by port runners and others.

And not unrelated to this issue of course is the fact that Mr. Harper has agreed to double up manning at the various ports. Bottom line… we need to be armed and trained to use these weapons safely and we will, with the assistance of the RCMP. We are still lobbying to have the implementation period reduced from its suggested ten years, but arming will be done.

Lab technician examines print characteristics of a cigar box label to verify authenticity.

What are CEUDA’s thoughts and positions regarding the adequacy of technology and information getting to the guard at the border, in a form and at a time that would be useful?

Well, in this day and age, I believe it is shameful to spend so many dollars on acquiring intelligence while being unable in so many ways of getting it to those who can really use it, as you say, “in a form that is useful and timely.”

Here are some of the sad facts at this time. For what we call “look-out” for known criminals and terrorists we have some 83 posts that do not have the needed computers to get on the network to access such vital information. Second, the various security firewalls and authentications necessitate about a half hour to log on get what you need to search for. Much of the available information is literal and therefore not readily useable and we are not given as much information as we should, from what is said to be available. There seems to be a real fright on behalf of intelligence agencies to give us what they have that could prove useful. There appears to be, in other cases, a concerted effort by some to limit all information – for whatever reasons.

It seems strange that, in this day when someone in the desert can reach his stockbroker from his lap-top on his camel, that we make the sharing of law enforcement information so difficult for those that need it. This has to change. I know it will.

This can be resolved by biometrics and I see this being the key mechanism for “look-out” five years from now, when we will wonder what we did when we did not have this reader that can pick a criminal out of a crowd getting off of a bus without even one agent being visible to scare him or her off.

Do you have any last comments?

In fact I do. I spend a lot of time on behalf of our members lobbying MP’s and applying pressure to be recognized as a legitimate and interested stakeholder in management discussions on where we are going in CBSA. I am not instinctively sought out for consultation.

I truly believe that this is due, in large measure, because management has not adapted as well as the frontline members have to the great change from tax agency to law enforcement. I also strongly believe that there is a corollary need for management to have people with law enforcement expertise sitting across the table from us when we discuss these issues. This is key to addressing the mind-set problems.

Thank you very much Mr. Moran for your candour and collaboration. I wish you and your CEUDA members well with this difficult, necessary and urgent transformation.

Clive Addy is the Executive Editor at FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2006