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Canada's undefended border

National Post In the two weeks that have passed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, much critical attention has been focused on the deficiencies of Canada's Armed Forces, intelligence-gathering services, anti-terrorism laws and refugee policies. Yet one weak link in Canada's fight against terrorism has escaped scrutiny: the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. The 3,600 men and women of the CCRA are the first to observe and interview new arrivals to this country. Given this significant responsibility, why hasn't Ottawa provided them with the authority, support or equipment necessary to properly do their job?

Anyone who regularly crosses the border between Canada and the United States knows that while U.S. border patrol officers brandish sidearms and flak jackets, Canada's customs officers resemble pencil pushers. Security concerns often seem to be the last thing on CCRA officials' minds: Their questions betray an almost monomaniacal obsession with tobacco and alcohol. Training is also a problem. During the summer months, nearly half the force is made up of university students with as little as two weeks of training -- hardly an iron curtain against terror.

And because of the federal Liberals' flaccid approach to public safety (as well as their gunophobia), peace officers of all stripes have seen their legitimate requests to arm themselves rebuffed. When national park wardens wanted the right to carry sidearms, Ottawa's response was to strip them of their law-enforcement responsibilities and press the RCMP into service against poachers. Similarly, when customs officers agitated for the right to carry guns, as their U.S. counterparts do, Ottawa instead provided them with billyclubs and pepper spray and authorized the CCRA to enter into agreements with local police to provide more serious back-up.

If the CCRA is going to help defend us from terrorists, the government needs to stop treating the agency as a job program for young workers and start giving it the status and powers it deserves. As things stand, customs officers lack the ability to take unilateral action when necessary. With the exception of designated officers at certain ports of entry, a customs officer who suspects an individual of criminal activity or of being subject to a warrant must get local police to perform the arrest -- since they have no ability to detain those who resist. And if any officer perceives an individual at the border to be armed and dangerous, the operating instructions for the CCRA specify that the individual should be allowed to enter the country and the police subsequently informed.

Think about this for a moment. Ottawa believes it is good policy to let potential terrorists into the country and hope police can catch them rather than give customs agents the ability to stop them at the border. And in Quebec, the problem is even worse. The provincial police force and the CCRA have yet to reach a policing agreement, which means armed and dangerous visitors don't have much to fear from anybody.

When the next Ahmed Ressam arrives at Canada's borders, is it in Canada's best interests to have a trained and armed officer interviewing him ... or a student who has to phone 911 if things go awry? The answer is obvious. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien insists that the border is an important expression of national sovereignty. If he means what he says, he must provide the people who staff the border with the tools, training and powers necessary for them to carry out their national duties.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 26, 2001

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