Interview article

Jean Pierre Fortin

Customs and Immigration Union
SCOTT NEWARK  |  Mar 15, 2013

The Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), as it is now called, has followed in the tradition of its precursor and remains at the forefront of adaptation to the changes implied and imposed by the Beyond the Border initiatives of Canada and the US. In October 2011, the National Convention of the CIU elected by acclamation Jean Pierre Fortin as its National President. He reflects on the border control changes past and those that lie ahead.

Q: The Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) and its predeces­sor, CEUDA, are unique in Canada as a union that is recognized as a major public policy player in all issues relating to border security and more recently immigration screening and enforcement. How did that come to be?

If we’re recognized as a major public policy player, it’s due in great part to our members and because they got involved. Our union’s membership is comprised of all the Border Services Officers and Immigration Screening and Inland Enforcement Officers, as well as Intelligence Officers and support staff who work both at the border and inland. Our members include those you see when you approach a land, air or marine port of entry (POE), and those you don’t see, who are hard at work developing and disseminating the intelligence on which enforcement actions are increasingly based.

Our name change from CEUDA to CIU reflects the evolution of our union’s role, and the change to CBSA’s mandate from tax collection to security that took place in 2000.

About 20 years ago, and as a result of officer safety concerns, our union began to make the public policy case to Government that enhanced enforcement authorities and tools were required for our members. Because of the nature of their work, there was, and is, an inevitable public policy aspect to the officer safety issues for which we have been fighting. This started with ensuring our officers were equipped with the right tools which, in the beginning, meant protective vests and the lawful authority under the Criminal Code to deal effectively with whatever might come their way. This expanded to include making sure members had access to relevant information in a timely fashion. Back in those days, Immigration Screening was separate from Customs Inspections, and there was a lack of communication between the two.

I wish I could tell you that after identifying and presenting our concerns to ­management, the problems were resolved, but that’s not what happened. We were ignored. Undeterred, we started communicating directly with the Minister’s office and had some success, although not on every issue. We also appeared before Parliamentary Committees such as the Senate Committee on National Security and Defense (SCONSAD), then chaired by Senator Colin Kenny. Anyone who appeared before SCONSAD when Senator Kenny was the Chair could expect pointed questions. The no-nonsense, factual reports that were issued by this Committee led to improvements for CIU members. At that time, it was clear that Departmental officials did not enjoy appearing before this Committee.

This entire process also put us in ­contact with Members of Parliament of all parties. In Opposition at the time, members such as Peter MacKay, Gord Brown and Brian Masse were interested in border ­security issues. The CIU’s approach has always been to talk to anyone about our recommendations and, while they may ­disagree with us, we’ll always tell them the truth about why we are advocating a particular change.

Our approach led to a productive working relationship with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day after the Conservative government came to power. That Government’s 2006 election platform had included arming border officers and ending workalone situations – issues the CIU had been championing. CIU had also commissioned its own border safety report, “A View from the Front Lines”, which was conducted by the Northgate Group. That report drew attention to the need for changes, such as an improved database that identifies dangerous individuals or those an officer would want to stop at the border (lookout system), and a joint force border patrol. Some progress has been made but there’s still work to do.

As we began to work for these changes, we realized that it was important to understand the various security technologies that are relevant to operational circumstances, because technology can be a powerful enabler when applied on an informed basis. Technologies such as automated analytical radar surveillance, face recognition biometrics and electronic monitoring can assist officers in their work, although we recognize that these cannot replace our members. In addition, these technologies would be useful to a future border patrol, if created, and led (hopefully) by CBSA.

It’s also important to look at our Government’s spending practices. How would taxpayers want their tax dollars to be spent? If we take a look at questionable spending and can identify wasteful expenditures or can suggest less expensive alternatives, I think taxpayers would want us to do so. For example, the CBSA spends over $250 million annually on vaguely explained contracts with third parties. Could these millions be reallocated to prevent frontline operational and intelligence cuts? When we hear that the Conservative Government takes $50 million from the Border Infrastructure Fund for non border purposes, would anyone criticize CIU for looking into this?

Over the years, CIU developed good working relationships with other law enforcement organizations and border-focused entities such as the Canadian American Border Trade Alliance and the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco. Working together with different groups and candidly sharing insights and experiences is a good way to reach common goals.

It’s also important that Canadians fully understand what the issues are and know what’s at stake. We’re not shy about speaking out and giving media interviews when we need to get our message across. This doesn’t always go over well with CBSA or the Government, but we need to strike a balance and, at the end of the day, our members are on the front lines and they know what’s working and what isn’t.

As is the case for those who work in law enforcement agencies, which is what our members do, there is a real connection between what affects their safety and what affects public safety.

I could give you many examples. When our members are put at risk because the lookout system deployed by the CBSA is grossly deficient, Canadians are also put at risk because people who should not be entering our country are doing exactly that, and others who should have been handed over to authorities when entering the country are crossing the border without being stopped. When our members are forbidden from pursuing people who run the border and because there is no border patrol, Canadian public safety is inevitably compromised. When insufficient numbers of officers are assigned to handle a high volume of traffic, less checks are done at the border in an effort to keep people moving. Again, this compromises public safety.

That said, and thanks in great part to the activism of CIU members nationwide, we were able to convince decision makers at the CBSA and Government to make changes that improved officer safety and border security. We’re proud to have played a part in these improvements. However, there’s still work to do and we’re determined to achieve even more.

Q: A few CBSA officers do not want to become armed. Is this a source of delay?

It is true that some veteran officers do not want to become armed. For obvious reasons, it is not in the interest of those about to retire to take a firearm training course, nor is it likely to be in CBSA’s best interest, given the costs associated with training.  Some officers do not want to become armed for other reasons (such as medical) and they should be “accommodated”, in accordance with the Human Rights Act.

The main problem for the delay, however, is a result of poor planning and management on the part of the Agency. Only two training locations have been made available for training purposes. Some members from the east coast are flying across the country for training, others from the west are travelling to the east. Training facilities elsewhere could have been put to use, which would have been far more cost effective. The CIU had proposed this years ago, but our suggestion fell on deaf ears.

We must also look at training targets that were set. A total of 5,500 members are scheduled to be trained by the year 2016.  In the last six years between 2007 and 2013, a mere 2,400 officers (400 per year) have been trained – that leaves 3,100 members to be trained by 2016 (approximately 1,030 per year, or more than double the number trained yearly in previous years).

Q: Arming officers has under­standably received signifi­cant public attention. What other specific changes have occurred or you’re working on?

Absolutely! At the outset, we have to remember that Canada’s first line of defence is at the border. We must also recognize that the world has changed since 9/11. This brutal awakening exposed many deficiencies at the border, and on many levels. Getting the Government to agree that it simply wasn’t safe in today’s world to require officers to work alone was a significant accomplishment for our members and for Canadians.

Another achievement was that of ensuring full internet connectivity at every port of entry to enable POE officers to access CBSA databases. Although CBSA managers told Senator Kenny at a SCONSAD hearing that everything was fine in this regard, CIU’s national survey of all land ports of entry painted a flagrantly different picture. CBSA would be well served by ­listening to its employees and our union more often. We had a 100% response rate from our members and, again, Senator Kenny’s Committee and the Public Safety Minister’s office played instrumental roles in ensuring internet connectivity was achieved.

We also helped refute the bogus claim that every POE had a formalized written agreement with neighbouring police agencies to deal with port runners. Certain clarifications have been made, but the issue of pursuing port runners and non-reporters remains unresolved and we intend to continue to work to have this fixed.

By citing examples of specific scenarios experienced by our members, we have been able to demonstrate to the CBSA how its policies are needlessly restricting the enforcement activities of our members. We believe these policies hold negative consequences for Canadians.

Ongoing issues include: modernizing the lookout system (finally); ensuring officers at primary inspection booths obtain the intelligence information they need; and having CBSA formally acknowledge the full powers and protections provided by peace officer status so that our members can enforce CBSA’s mandate away from ports of entry (such as port runners, inland immigration removals among others).

It can be frustrating at times because it seems that CBSA’s inevitable response to any issue involving lawful authority for our members to perform enforcement duties is that no authority exists. Our members rightfully expect us to counter this. We have, and will continue to do so. For example, we demonstrated that the decision not to have CBSA officers doing patrol and interdiction work as part of joint force operations such as the Shiprider program is not, as originally claimed, because of a legal restriction; it’s because of a 1932 Order in Council policy decision.

Despite CIU having emphatically and repeatedly pointed this out to CBSA management and the Public Safety Minister, the Government recently ratified the Canada-U.S. cross border enforcement Shiprider Agreement, which excludes the Canada Border Services Agency. In today’s world of scarce resources and enhanced operational needs, it makes no sense to exclude CBSA officers who are trained, equipped and ­otherwise authorized to do the job.

Finally, we are fully engaged to provide the CBSA and others with our members’ input regarding the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border (BTB) Action Plan. The initiatives of this plan will have an impact on our members, and clearly they must be consulted accordingly. We proactively engaged in the consultations and have made submissions since its release.

Q: Let’s expand on this Beyond the Border Agreement. Does it cover the relevant issues and how does the union feel about the goals of enhanced border security? Is that truly achievable or is it just political spin?

The biggest stumbling blocks to achieving the goals of the BTB Action Plan are the completely contradictory announcements from CBSA and the Government. On the one hand, the Government claims that border security is a priority while, on the other hand, CBSA managers are making significant cuts to front line and intelligence jobs. Few details are provided, but I can assure you that cutting these jobs is unnecessary, unwise and completely counter ­productive to the BTB Agreement that Canada signed with the United States.

Remember when Finance Minister Flaherty said that spending cuts would be directed at “head office bureaucracy”? Well guess what? At CBSA, all of the cuts were to our members in enforcement and intelligence jobs and none were to management. Last year, after the Government announced a $143 million budget cut, CBSA advised us that we would lose 1,350 jobs over three years. These cuts undermine any efforts the Government makes to interdict and prevent cross border smuggling of guns, drugs, tobacco and people. As any law enforcement officer will tell you, what gets through the border illegally ends up on Canadian streets. All too frequently that means more crime and less public safety.

In our post 9/11 world, we have a significant understanding of who we want to stop at the border and of their behaviour patterns. Our officers at the front line, with the assistance of good intelligence, clearly provide the best security for Canadians.

As automation becomes more and more commonplace at the border, we must ensure that we continue to monitor the ­border effectively, and to do so, we must remain unpredictable. No amount of technology can accomplish this alone.

I appreciate that these are not easy issues, and that they can’t be fixed overnight. It’s clear that improvements have been made, especially since 2006. It seems to me that a key part of what’s required is that we listen to those who work for CBSA, be they on the front lines or at their desks every day. As National President of the CIU, I intend to listen to my members and will ensure that their voices are heard.

At its October 2011 National Convention, the CIU elected, by acclamation, Mr. Fortin as its National President.

Photos courtesy of CBSA
© FrontLine Security 2013