Border Security & Organized Crime

Canada’s new Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister, Bill Blair, finally has a mandate: What should Canadians expect?

When Prime Minister Trudeau shuffled the federal Cabinet on July 14th, the entire country was taken by surprise when Bill Blair was named as the Minister for the newly-created portfolio of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction. At the time, Blair was serving as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and had been placed in charge of the Government’s challenging initiative to legalize possession and use of marihuana. As such, Blair had worked with several federal departments, with Provincial and Municipal governments, with police organizations, the RCMP, CBSA, and also with U.S. officials who, understandably, were, and are, concerned about cross-border smuggling.

By all accounts, Blair did an exemplary job of working with the multiple stakeholders to identify and ‘solve’ the many problematic issues involved with marihuana legalization. He was ably supported in this task by officials from Public Safety Canada’s Border Strategies and Law Enforcement Division – those skilled policy people who understand and prioritize operational results.

Mr. Blair’s success on the marihuana file was no doubt a significant factor in being chosen to handle this new responsibility. It is also clear that his lengthy career of law enforcement, including as the Chief of the Toronto Police Service and President of the Canadian Association of Police of Chiefs, was also instrumental in his selection for this new role.

Bill Blair in front of Parliament Buildings. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

As someone who has been involved in the national law enforcement and public safety world for over 25 years, I can say without hesitation that Bill Blair has a deserved reputation for being able to “get things done.” That is encouraging, given the importance of his new mandate, which was released by the PMO on August 18th, five weeks after his appointment.

The Trudeau government should be congratulated for making Ministerial mandates public. Doing so increases public awareness and accountability, which, regrettably, the former Harper government refused to do. Providing clarity on Minister Blair’s new mandate is especially important in light of the highly unusual and unprecedented subjects specific mandate of the new Ministry, and the clear political importance of the assigned duties.

The initial absence of a specific mandate following Minister Blair’s appointment created multiple questions and awkward situations as people tried to figure out exactly what he would be responsible for and if, for example, the CBSA and RCMP’s border and organized crime units would be reporting to him. It was also unclear if an entirely new Department, and supportive bureaucracy, was to be created. It is now confirmed that Minister Blair is part of Public Safety Canada but that he will operate as a separate Minister with his defined mandate.

Prime Minister Trudeau in Question Period (photo: Golbal News)

The detailed specificity of Minister Blair’s new portfolio is without doubt a reflection of the current political priority of border security and the dramatic increase in urban guns and gang violence which is also linked to illegal drug smuggling and trafficking. The federal government is rightly concerned about the voter impact of these issues in the upcoming 2019 election and recognize that claiming there is no ‘crisis’ of people entering Canada illegally or that the solution to illegal gun violence is more rules for legal gun owners are not effective strategies.

By appointing a person with Bill Blair’s background, the Government clearly hopes to change the channel on these issues and re-establish the public confidence and demonstrate that it is capable of taking effective action, which has been lacking to date.

The Minister’s mandate letter contains eight remarkably specific assignments:

Mandate Assignments (edited for length and highlight)

  • Lead the government’s plan on irregular migration. Your leadership of this initiative will be fully supported by the Ministers of Public Safety; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; and Foreign Affairs for this responsibility.
  • Represent the Govt of Canada on the Ad Hoc Intergovern­mental Task Force on Irregular Migration. You will be expected to work in close collaboration and partnership with provinces, territories and municipalities to help address this ongoing challenge.
  • Lead conversations with the United States on the Safe Third Country Agreement, working closely with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
  • Support the Minister of Public Safety on the passage of Bill C-71, and work together on additional policy, regulations or legislation that could reduce crime involving the use of firearms and keep Canadians safe. You should lead an examination of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians.
  • Lead work across the government to reduce the smuggling of opioids across our borders, and work in partnership with provinces, territories, and municipalities, as well as the United States per the Joint Prime Minister – President Statement of February 2017.
  • Working with the Ministers of Transport, Foreign Affairs and Public Safety, seek additional opportunities to expand pre-clearance operations for travelers to the United States.
  • With support from the Ministers of Health, Justice, and Public Safety, lead the legalization and strict regulation of cannabis across Canada, including working with the provinces and territories to develop and implement these regulations. Your key priorities are public safety, responsible usage and keeping cannabis away from children.
  • Lead work across the government to develop new policies and legislation to reduce organized crime and gang activity in Canada. You will be expected to work closely with provinces, territories, and municipalities, as well as community organizations, law enforcement and border agencies. This work should include a focus on cutting off money laundering which, as we have seen recently in British Columbia, supports our efforts to counter guns, gangs and opioid distribution.

These will require informed analysis of current situations to develop operationally effective changes to help achieve the stated outcomes. Because of the nature of the issues, this will also require meaningful consultation and cooperation among all three levels of government. As Minister Blair himself has noted since his appointment, there is no single solution. It is encouraging that the Minister tasked with these goals appreciates that reality.

It is also important to appreciate that the worlds of border security, fighting drug smuggling and guns and gang activities are almost always inter-connected in one way or another. Hence the need for the multi-Ministry, Agency and government authority granted to Minister Blair. While that complicates things, the good news is that actions taken in one area can have positive impacts on others.

Border Security
The recent release of relevant data regarding illegal border crossers, in answer to a series of questions placed on the House Order Paper by four Conservative MPs, should assist Minister Blair in his efforts.

This is a complicated subject and the Minister needs to ensure that actions are based on facts. The data below relates to illegal entries into Quebec from the U.S. between 30 June 2017 and 3 June 2018. In that time period, there were a total of 25,857 illegal entries for all Canada and 24,657 (~95%) of those happened in Quebec.

Of those 25,857persons:

  • 13,867 (56%) were in the U.S. on a valid visitor visa or other valid visa
  • 8622 (35%) were illegally in the U.S.
  • 1,632 (7%) were U.S. citizens or permanent residents (and those who were U.S. citizens were typically the children of non-U.S. parents)
  • 3,937 (16%) made asylum claims in the U.S. before entering Canada (data is from Quebec only and from 30 June 2017 to 17 June 2018)
  • 891 (4%) were under a removal order in U.S. before entering Canada and making asylum claims in Canada (data from 1 April 2017 to 17 June 2017)
  • 861 of the 891 persons identified above are still in Canada awaiting a hearing
  • 55 of those identified above have been ordered removed, but only 6 have ­actually been removed
  • Of those who have been removed from Canada, the average time for that to have happened is 126 days.

Asylum seekers enter Canada (https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/asylum-seeker-claims-to-be-processed-faster-immigration-minister-1.3945229)

Such information is illuminating, and Minister Blair should invoke his new mandate to get straight answers from officials on clearly relevant issues including:

  • How many of the identified 25,857 people that entered Canada illegally from the U.S. since 30 June 2017 were found to be inadmissible under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, on what grounds and, of those people, how many have been ordered deported and, of those, how many have actually been removed from Canada?
  • How many people entered Canada illegally between ports of entry from the U.S. since 1 January 2017, and at which locations other than Quebec?
  • How many arrests warrants have been issued for non-attendance for persons that entered Canada illegally from the U.S. since 1 January 2017 and how many are outstanding?
  • What are the countries of origin for persons that entered Canada illegally from the U.S. since 1 January 2017, and what are the countries of origin for such people who were lawfully in the U.S.?
  • How many of the persons that entered Canada illegally from the U.S. had lawfully entered the U.S. on a visa within 60 days of their entry to Canada?
  • How many of the persons that were illegally in the U.S. that entered Canada illegally were subject to removal for criminality?
  • How many adult citizens of the U.S. entered Canada illegally and have sought refugee status and, of those, how many have been removed from Canada?
  • How many hearings, appeals, reviews, assessments, applications for discretionary relief are available in total for persons who enter Canada illegally from the U.S.?
  • Has there been a delay in the time for processing refugee claims for persons outside of Canada since January 1 2017 and, if so, what is the delay and how many outstanding claims from this group are there today by comparison to 1 January 2017?
  • What is the estimated total cost of dealing with persons entering Canada from the U.S. illegally since 1 January 2017?
  • How many CBSA officers have been re-assigned on either a full time or part time basis to locations deal with the increased number of persons illegally entering Canada from the U.S. between designated ports of entry?

Borders, Guns, Gangs & Drugs
Minister Blair can recommend actions that, if taken, will immediately deliver on his mandate related to Borders, Guns, Gangs and Drugs:

Deliver on the long-promised Canada-U.S. enhancement of border domain awareness through joint procurement and deployment of advanced surveillance technologies including sensors and automated analytical radar systems. First promised in the Beyond the Border Action Plan, followed by the RCMP’s failed Anti-Tobacco Smuggling Plan and then its undelivered Border Integrity Technology Enhancement Project, this intelligence-led approach will greatly improve our cross-border interdiction and enforcement capabilities and reduce gun, drug and people smuggling. Such a deployment will also enhance marine port security and Transport Canada’s Trade Corridor and Ocean Plans Protection goals.

Modernize the Canada Border Services Agency by amending the CBSA Act to:

  • create an independent review Agency with a defined mandate;
  • expressly authorize CBSA officers to perform interdiction and enforcement duties between designated ports of entry and add CBSA to the cross-border enforcement ‘Shiprider’ program;
  • authorize CBSA officers to use vehicular pursuit to apprehend port runners;
  • authorize CBSA officers to carry their sidearms at Class 1 airports;
  • update the CBSA ‘peace officer’ definition to maximize public safety by eliminating outdated restrictions
  • direct CBSA assistance to law enforcement agencies in defined circumstances.

Work with U.S. officials to modernize the Safe Third Country Agreement and remove the current exceptions for persons entering either country (illegally) between ports of entry or who are from visa free countries and develop expedited refugee claim determination and removals of failed claimants as well as a joint Canada-US operational program to interdict, detain and remove illegal border crossers that are inadmissible on criminality or security grounds or already subject to a removal order in either country.

Amend federal legislation to expedite the removal of criminally convicted non-citizens from Canada.

Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to create a special Charter-compliant expedited process for refugee claims, risk assessment and discretionary exception determinations for persons entering Canada illegally from the U.S.

Work with local law enforcement to improve source identification of firearms used in crime and assess how criminals are illegally gaining access to domestically owned firearms and what regulatory measures can be taken to address this. Some options include:

  • ensuring firearms registry database security;
  • prohibiting owner address availability at firing ranges;
  • equiring notification of defined volumes of firearms possession and authorizing compliance checks;
  • requiring reporting of all firearms transactions;
  • restricting ammunition acquisition in defined circumstances.

Work with Provinces, Municipalities, local law enforcement and appropriate community groups to restore proactive information gathering by police for defined purposes and provide funding for anti-gang strategies to prevent recruitment and assist gang exit.

Amend s. 719 of the Criminal Code to expressly authorize no pre-trial custody credit where the accused has a previous record of gun, gang, drug trafficking crime or was on bail at the time of commission of new gun, gang, drug trafficking related crime, and amend s. 743.6 of the Criminal Code, to expressly authorize reduced parole eligibility for persons convicted of such crimes.

Provide federal funding for enhanced supervision, including electronic monitoring, of persons released from custody on gun, gang or drug trafficking related crimes.

Work with the U.S. to get China to take real action to stop the production and export of fentanyl and carfentanyl from China.
These are complex issues of immense public importance. Cross-border issues will be especially challenging given the current political climate south of the border, which is why the selection of Bill Blair for this unique and precise Ministerial mandate is encouraging. It’s time for informed and effective action.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, Vice Chair of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime, Director of Operations for Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the governments of Ontario and Canada.

An earlier version of this article was published by the Macdonald Laurier Institute.