Arming our First Line of Defence
Mar 15, 2013

On Tuesday 16 October 2012, unarmed Canada Border Services Officer Lori Bowcock was shot and wounded in the line of duty at the Peace Arch border station in British Columbia.

Officer Bowcock was one of many recently-­graduated officers of the CBSA College in Rigaud, Quebec, who had yet to complete the mandatory arming initiative that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has instituted for new recruits.

Back in 2006, as a result of increasing security concerns and a volatile security environment, CBSA produced an arming initiative evaluation report which concluded that its officers face real threats of assault and/or bodily harm while conducting their duties. Activities such as the interception of weapons, drugs and high-risk individuals present an ongoing risk to the safety of officers and the public. The Government of Canada subsequently approved a $785 million dollar initiative, to be phased over a 10-year period, to arm more than 5500 CBSA officers.

It was a logical step. As an agency with a versatile mandate, including national security and public safety, CBSA Officers must be considered an integral element of both enforcement of our laws and forward defence of our Canadian sovereignty. It ­follows, therefore, that they should be given the appropriate tools to protect our country and themselves while performing such duties.

The decision to arm CBSA officers also enhanced border security, improved officer effectiveness, and brought the Canadian border services in line with those of most other western nations. Further, the initiative provided officers with a broader range of options when responding to dangerous situations and conducting enforcement activities along our miles of undefended borders. Many believe that armed border officers provide a more credible deterrent to trouble-makers and criminals.

If there is a down-side to the initiative, it is the incredible length of time it is taking to implement. Why, six years after the initiative was approved, was Bowcock doing inspections while unarmed?

Admittedly, Bowcock had not finished her formal training. But neither have more than half of Canada’s border guards. The CBSA is sticking to its rigid timetable of training about 1000 officers a year, with a completion date anticipated sometime in 2016. Given the increasing risk of violence of the times and the potential for major criminal activity along the Canada-U.S. ­border, more and more violent incidents must be expected. It seems that tweaking the CBSA’s arming schedule might be in order.

And speeding up the arming of border guards is certainly now within the art of the possible.

Lori Bowcock was shot and wounded while working the Peace Arch border.

Initially, the CBSA conducted weapons training at RCMP facilities in Ottawa, Ontario and Chilliwack, BC; however, just last year, the agency cut the ribbon on a new $57 million training facility in Rigaud, Quebec. The training center provides CBSA recruits with the necessary weapons and shooting skills and, just as importantly, includes tactical exercises designed to practice new officers in problem solving and improve reaction time and judgment skills.

At the new training programme, officers determine threat levels, practice deliberate and quick risk assessments and participate in simulation exercises that provide practical scenarios in which border guards might find themselves.

No longer does the Agency have to beg, borrow or steal training time and resources from the RCMP, but can now begin to set its own training priorities and legitimate qualifications.

Ironically, one possible reason for the lethargic pace of the arming initiative is the reluctance of some officers to strap on a weapon. The CBSA has hinted that the officers’ union is insisting that veteran officers cannot be forced to take weapons training, nor made to arm themselves. This, the Agency states, has resulted in vacancies on weapons training courses and in significant scheduling difficulties.

Whatever the cause, the reality is that the arming initiative is progressing at a ­glacial pace.

It is surprising that this dangerous situation has been allowed to deteriorate as it has. This is a significant issue about which the Government of Canada and Canadians should be concerned. There are compelling reasons why CBSA Officers should be given the necessary training and equipment that allows them to do their jobs because they are in harm’s way. And this training should take place sooner rather than later.

Similar to their federal, provincial and municipal counterparts; such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Ontario Provincial Police and local police forces; CBSA policy states its officers are “instructed to use their duty firearm when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are under threat. Whether that be for self-preservation or the preservation of anyone under the officer’s protection, or when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a person is armed and presents a danger to the officer, fellow officers or members of the public in the area.”

Clearly, policy recognizes the potential threat, danger and the inherent responsibility the Border Officers face in protecting Canadians and the general public.

The omni-present risk of encountering high-risk individuals presents an ongoing risk to the safety of border officers. The volatile situations in which CBSA officers find themselves on a daily basis require them to be effectively armed, and trained as diligently and thoroughly as those in our national, provincial and local enforcement agencies. It is certainly the belief of many serving border officers that they are as likely as most law enforcement officers to witness and experience dangerous situations. To effectively equip and train them is no less necessary to secure a balance of personal and public safety.

From a force protection standpoint, the act of arming trained border officers will provide an effective deterrent for those wishing to enter Canada with ill intentions. This has been proven time and time again by international experience. Similarly, the arming of its officers also encourages cooperation with potentially volatile people attempting to enter Canada. Most police officers would attest that an armed authoritative figure often holds the upper hand in confrontational situations.

Naysayers have suggested that having armed border officers at our ports of entry conveys a message of suspicion and hostility that unnerves individuals visiting Canada, returning to Canada or immigrating to Canada. This begs the question: “Is this a problem?” With transnational crime and threats of terrorism at all-time highs, this type of visual representation of forceful authority is, unfortunately, a real necessity. The lone wolf scenario that occurred at the Douglas port of entry, as well as drug and arms smuggling, and human trafficking are all examples of daily threats that Canadian border services officers may encounter.

Arming Canadian Border Services Officers provides a much needed tool in our options for dealing with high risk situations directly along our borders. Whereas, in the past, a border officer’s only option was to withdraw from dangerous situations and contact local police units, now they can initiate responses directly.

By having armed officers at the border, the Government of Canada and the CBSA, with the support of local, provincial and national police units, have created a mechanism to effectively handle critical situations at otherwise vulnerable ports of entry.

Arming our first line of defence, and increased interoperability with our U.S. partners, will increase the effectiveness of managing our border safely and ­efficiently.  

Megan Ryder-Burbidge is currently working in the defence and security sector. She has travelled extensively internationally and is a part-time freelance journalist.
© FrontLine Security 2013



Unfortunately they need to be armed. It is a very different crazy world.