Customs and our Military
May 09, 2018

The oldest enforcement arm of the Government in Canada is not the RCMP, Transport, or any other department of the Government. Before 1867, in fact well before, there was Customs, now called the Canada Border Services Agency.

Although many Canadians have interacted with our border people, few know about the relationship between Customs and the Canadian Armed Forces, a relationship that is intertwined not only for the protection of the sovereignty of Canada but also closely involved in many of the international conflicts that have resulted in our armed forces being called out to quell, offer protection, or strengthen the resolve that our Government believes in.

During the First World War, Canada Customs Preventative Service patrol ships were seconded to the Department of Naval Services to act as patrol ships for the duration of the war. The first cruiser built specifically for the service was CGS Margaret. She was built in the UK by the John Thornycroft Company of Southampton, and delivered to the Customs service in Halifax in April 1914, and then transferred to the naval service in 1915 (in those days the Customs fleet was armed with rifles, machine guns, and three- or six-pounder naval cannons).

In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Canada Customs officers found themselves with added responsibilities, such as searching for illegal exports that might be of use to the enemy. During the war, the Canadian ports created the largest workload for Customs, which (along with the Navy) exercised control over all activity in the ports. All neutral ships were searched and secured by Customs. Interesting stories abound; once, during a search of a Japanese vessel in the port of Vancouver, a list of German agents in South America was discovered. Another story involved an Ontario a customs officer who captured an escaping German prisoner on the engine of a passenger train.

Canadian Customs Preventive Service ship CGS Margaret. Specifically built for Canada’s Customs Preventive Service, she served during the First World War as HMCS Margaret. (Photo: National Defence - Canadian Navy Heritage)

In his book, The Collapse of the Third Republic, William L. Shirer describes the start of the Second World War with the invasion of Poland and how, on August 25th, General von Kleist’s corps in the south targeted and attacked the Polish Custom posts with machine guns and hand grenades, meaning that Customs officers may have been the first dead of the Second World War. This turned out to be a false start with the full invasion occurring September 1st 1939.

History is not the only aspect that binds Customs and our Armed Forces, the rank system used by Customs is directly related to those of the forces. Whenever and wherever the forces were stationed overseas, Customs followed. At the height of the cold war, when Canada did its part in NATO’s effort to keep the Warsaw Pact in check, the only other force stationed at Baden Baden and Lahr was Canada Customs. 

CGS Constance used for patrols by the Canada’s Customs Preventive Service in the early 1900s.  During WW1, this vessel was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and used along Canada’s east coast for the duration of hostilities in 1918. (Photo: National Archives of Canada - Canadian Navy Heritage)

When Canada once again stepped up and did its Peacekeeping duties in Cyprus, every six months Canada Customs joined them on the Green Line. Operation Snow Goose would help to smoothly transition the troops. This process repeated itself time and time again as Canadian troops were called out to separate combats, in the Golan heights, the Suez, and where I was personally involved and was awarded my Peacekeepers medal, Yugoslavia.

Within Canada, day-to-day Customs and NDHQ work hand in hand. With Canada’s NORAD obligations, one should consider our Noble Eagle operations (the intercept of commercial air carriers that maybe involved in potential terrorist acts). CBSA created and manages the processing of airline passenger lists to do threat assessments. In a Noble Eagle situation, those lists are subject to  further scrutiny at the request of Canada Command, and that scrutiny can be one of the determining indicators that influences the type of response by NORAD in Canadian airspace.

Customs baggage searches at Pier 21. (Photo: National Archives of Canada)

Customs has worked in the background to make for a smooth transition when allied forces come to Canada for exercises, Customs is there for Maple Flag, joint army exercises at Gagetown, or American parachute drops into Petawawa. 

Customs also works in conjunction with our military on many high-profile international organizations and agreements: MTCR (the Missile Technology Control Regime); PSI (the Proliferation Security Initiative); and the Wassenaar Arrangement, just to name a few. 

Customs is not only dedicated to dealing with importations into Canada, but the control and reporting of exports. In the role of stopping technological transfers to rogue nations, Customs works with the military to determine and identify goods that maybe used in the development of weapons or counter weapons that maybe used against Canada and its allies.

Canada Customs personnel working in Cyprus in February/March 1990, in support of Operation Snowgoose. (Photo: National Defence)

When Canadian Forces’ personnel return home – whether it’s at Esquimalt, Halifax or Trenton – CBSA is there. And when it comes to VIPs visiting this country and arriving at a Canadian Forces Base (CFB), Customs is always ready to help the military to meet Canada’s diplomatic responsibilities. At the height of operations at CFB Uplands, Customs staffed the old Billy Bishop lounge to make a smooth first impression of our country and our military. 

As you have read, there are many interesting aspects to the relationship between CAF and CBSA – and when the partnership is respected, much can and has been achieved. 

Barry M. Risk, retired after 35 yrs with Customs. Author of “The Thinner Blue Line”, Ex Senior Intelligence Officer, Counter Terrorism/Counter Proliferation.