Making the Case for a Canadian Border Patrol
Dec 15, 2008

Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that in today’s heightened security world, Canada has not deployed some kind of mobile patrol capable of interdicting cross border illegal activity. A quick look at a map demonstrates both the challenge and the obvious need for such a capacity. This reality was brought home recently when, during a presentation on the U.S. Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a senior American representative from the SBI prime contractor (Boeing) remarked that, unlike Mexico, SBI Net North would be focused on ­surveillance, ­intelligence and mobile interdiction. He actually referred to the intended interaction between the U.S. ­Customs and Border Protection Service and the Canada Border Patrol. One small problem... we don’t have one. Yet.

Traditionally, our 6,500+ kilometre ‘undefended’ border with the United States was acceptably punctuated by some 119 staffed land border crossings. These range from busy 24/7 locations like Windsor, Lacolle, and the Pacific Highway crossing, to rather remote locations like Snowflake, Milltown and Roosvile. There are literally hundreds of unmonitored roads straddling the border (125 in Quebec alone) not to mention thousands of unwatched fields, forests, rivers and lakes. In years gone by, this now-intimidating reality was simply accepted and, in fact, used by some in Ottawa circles to ­justify inaction when it came to making security a priority at points-of-entry. What would be the point of prioritizing interdiction, so the argument went, when criminals and other law-breakers could just sneak across a field, drive along an unregulated road or motor across an unguarded waterway?

Federal governments previous to the current one pretty much adopted that ‘no can do’ attitude and deliberately downplayed, and even distorted, the ramifications of what a security deficiency at the border meant. In perhaps the most blatant ­politically supportive messaging, a former RCMP Commissioner described the idea of a mobile border patrol as a “waste of gas.” Not everyone agreed – mountains of criminal intelligence accumulated on both sides of the border showed that illicit movement of drugs, guns and people were dramatically increasing, with clearly negative domestic safety & security results.

As is often the case, our American counterparts placed a greater emphasis on their ability to secure the actual integrity of their borders – fuelled no doubt by the growing flood of illegal immigrants across their southern border. There was, however, still a mobile patrolling presence on the U.S. side of the Canadian border, albeit in a much smaller capacity than to the south. And then 9-11 happened.

In the months following those terrible events, almost everyone involved in border security had occasion to explain (sometimes repeatedly and sometimes to a less than trusting audience) that, in fact, the terrorists had not entered the U.S. through Canada and that Canada was not a haven for terrorists generally. While those myths have largely evaporated, American decision makers immediately grasped that a previous criminal vulnerability – like an ‘unsecure’ border (or marine port) – was likely also a terrorism vulnerability, and thus needed to be addressed on a priority basis. This has translated, on the American side, into institutional reorganization, significant increases in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel assigned to the northern border, deployment of enhanced surveillance technologies, and a greater understanding that cross border cooperation is essential to success.

High tech equipment atop this pole is used to see and hear illegal immigrants attempting to cross into the U.S. (Photo: James Tourtellotte)

In Canada, the impact of 9-11 on border security has also been profound, highlighted by the creation of the Canada Border Services Agency and a prioritized Border Integrity Program. Central to this has been the RCMP-led Integrated Border Enforce­ment Team (IBET) concept which, although deliberately limited in scope, has shown the success of joint, intelligence-led operations. CBSA has participated in the IBET program – an ability has been dramatically enhanced since January 2006 when the ­current federal government was elected on a platform that included improving border security. This has been accomplished through increased personnel, ending work­alone situations, improving marine radar surveillance, and arming Border Services Officers in recognition of the enforcement duties they perform. Canada has stepped up its cross border efforts with U.S. border authorities through programs like IBET, marine patrols (Shiprider), intelligence sharing, and analyzing lawful authority. In short, we have made significant progress, especially since January 2006.

The most recent development was signaled during the recent election campaign when the Government announced that, if re-elected, it intended to launch a joint force CBSA and RCMP pilot Border Patrol with land and marine patrol duties. Quebec is a natural selection site for this pilot project, as it has over 125 unguarded roads and is home to Lake Champlain plus other cross border lakes and rivers. It’s also the Province where, a few years ago, the RCMP unexpectedly closed seven detachments (several of which were close to the border) resulting in demands for better protection.

Agency intelligence reports from both sides of the border confirm that CBP sectors bordering Quebec (and down the St. Lawrence and into the Great Lakes as well) are seeing continuing illegal cross border activity, predominately the smuggling of drugs (in both directions), contraband cigarettes and people. While it may be surprising to some, there is an increase in the northward flow of illegal immigrants as the U.S. continues its internal crackdown on persons unlawfully residing in their country. It’s also now clear that, all too frequently, these illegal immigrants are engaged in ongoing criminal activity. A joint force mobile border patrol – supported by IBET intelligence, enhanced analytical marine radar surveillance and integrated sensor information – will permit greater interdiction and apprehension success.

In a refreshingly candid observation, the RCMP’s new Commissioner Bill Elliott (former Deputy at the Coast Guard) recently responded to a question at the Commons Public Security Committee from border-savvy MP, Gord Brown, by describing current marine surveillance on the St Lawrence and Great Lakes as ‘inadequate.’ Commissioner Elliott should be commended for breaking with the usual ‘everything is perfect’ Ottawa mantra because the first step in fixing a problem is having the courage to admit one exists.

Being able to interdict such activity right at the border is not just about intercepting persons and goods illegally entering Canada; it’s also about using the proven effective law-enforcement tool of ‘prevention and dissuasion.’ A properly resourced and equipped joint force border patrol will provoke a reduction in the flow of dangerous drugs and guns into our cities which are literally the commodities that fuel the gang violence present in a growing number of urban centers. What we don’t catch at the border inevitably makes its way to the streets of our country. The Government is to be commended for launching this operational initiative rather than succumbing to largely symbolic gestures like banning handguns. After all, we’ve banned murder and that isn’t exactly doing the job.  

A detector dog and handler inspect the trunk of a vehicle. (Photo: CBSA)

Ideally a joint force border patrol will include a shared Canada-US automated sensor and analytical radar surveillance system that can generate real time target interception data as well as track patterns for intelligence analysis in support of future operations. This will likely mean inclusion of other police partners like the Ontario and Québec Provincial Police as well as other municipal police agencies, some of which are already engaged in anti-smuggling enforcement.

Although a border patrol will unquestionably cost money, the cost is expected to be quite modest and nowhere near the estimates provided by the former President of CBSA who saw building fixed locations on every road as the answer. The IBET, intelligence-led model, enhanced by deployed surveillance and sensor technologies will provide a more productive and cost effective solution, especially by learning from border expertise and growing enforcement capacity of CBSA officers.

This is also not a situation that will require extensive legislative reform as the provisions of the Customs Act already creates both the legal obligation for all persons seeking entry to Canada to stop and present themselves for inspection, and a concurrent power for Officers to intercept individuals who don’t comply – including after the person has entered Canada. Section 160 of the Act makes failing to stop as required an indictable offence which triggers the ­justifiable use of Peace Officers’ powers bestowed under the Customs Act.

Border security in Canada has been steadily improving over the past number of years. Perhaps not surprisingly, specific improvements have largely been identified and then championed by front line officers who work at Canada’s points-of-entry, as well as those who perform inland Customs and Immigration intelligence and enforcement duties.

The Customs and Excise Union Douanes Accise, now called the Customs and Intelligence Union (CIU) first started this action in the mid-90s, with a call for greater enforcement authority and proper tools. With the announced deployment of a joint force mobile border patrol pilot, another significant milestone has been achieved, and Canadians will be that much safer as a result.

Ron Moran is the National President of the Customs and Immigration Union.
© FrontLine Security 2008