Canadian Customs Officers Told Not to Stop Dangerous Suspects

By Alison Appelbe | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Vancouver, B.C. ( - Canada's unarmed customs officers have been formally reminded that they should allow armed suspects who appear dangerous to enter the country first before the customs officers notify police authorities. The policy angers many, who believe the Canadian government is failing to adapt to the threat of terrorism.

By way of comparison, U.S. Customs officers do arm themselves before checking people entering the United States and are backed up by rifle-toting National Guard troops in military fatigues at key U.S./Canada border points.

A Canadian government directive in late March reminded the country's 3,600 customs officers to allow anyone who appears to be dangerous to proceed across the border, then inform a police force with "as much detail as possible to enable detention."

Claude Bachand, an Opposition Bloc Quebecois member of parliament, said the
directive endangers the public.

"[Quebec's provincial officers] may be half an hour away. By the time the police get there, a lot of things could have happened."

Questioned about the policy, Customs and Revenue Minister Elinor Caplan compared customs officers to bank tellers.

"You never want to put anyone in a situation where they are being threatened, where they'll be in danger," she said. "So bank tellers will give a robber the money and call the police. We do exactly the same thing at the borders."

While this has always been Canadian policy, the growing concern about terrorism and other factors have intensified the need for customs officers to carry sidearms, said Serge Charette, president of the Customs Excise Union.

"If U.S. Customs at border crossings, U.S. border patrols between U.S. crossings, and RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) between crossings in Canada are armed, shouldn't Canadian customs officers who are expected to detain and arrest the same caliber of criminals also be armed?" Charette asked.

Last week, Customs and Revenue spokesman Derik Hodgson emphasized that border officers are not police.

"These guys are not cops, period. They aren't a SWAT team. They are our first line of defense. They're 'Welcome to Canada' folks."

Asked if the current situation would allow for the entry of a terrorist, Hodgson objected:

"It's [not] like we're laying down a red carpet. That's crap. We call the cops."

However, it's this perception, that Canada Customs, with facilities like Vancouver International Airport that are plastered with welcoming messages, functions more like a "welcome wagon" than a scrutinizer of documents and legitimacy that raises concerns.

David Bercuson, the head of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said Canada's collective need to be seen as a benign and friendly country prevents it from adequately protecting its customs officers and enforcing the law.

"This is rooted in a long Canadian myth, that this is a country that is not violent -- so we don't want to greet our visitors with guns on our hips," Bercuson said.

Canada's gun-carrying policies fall somewhere between those of Britain, where most police remain unarmed, and the United States, where most carry guns. At the same time Canada has, unlike Britain, a long tradition of private gun ownership, while maintaining European-style gun control, and the government's refusal to arm customs officials reflects this fact.

Bercuson said the policy reflects an historic view by government about "the inherent wickedness of firearms," adding that air marshals are not allowed to carry weapons either.

He stressed that officers should be armed primarily for their own protection.

"Firepower is not so much a means of destroying life, as evidenced by the fact that there are police officers who carry a gun for 30 years and never fire it," Bercuson said. "This is simply a means of enforcing the laws of the country that the normal citizen does not have."

On the other hand, Toronto Star newspaper columnist Jim Travers slammed "the
foolish notion that Canada will be safer if border guards carry guns."

Calling the proposal an "unholy alliance" of the Customs Excise Union and the political right, Travers argued customs officials should be facilitating the movement of goods, not "handcuffing crime."

He also claimed the only reason the union wants its members issued firearms is to be able to add risk to the job description so it can bargain for higher wages.

Travers also repeated the government's view that the customs officers are not police officers. Charette, in response, pointed out that customs officers recently gained the right to arrest drunks, drivers of stolen vehicles, child abductors, and people named in warrants.

"Our members have been shot at, attacked with knives, broken bottles. They have been physically assaulted, threatened, chased by vehicles, dragged by vehicles and knocked unconscious," Charette said. "They wear full law-enforcement uniforms. They go to court and provide testimony. In short, they do police work. They face the same risks, and have to stop the same caliber of criminal. The only difference is that they're not equipped
with the same tools."

While potential terrorists are most likely to cross the border at points close to large American cities, they may also slip in among groups of smuggled refugees, according to Bercuson.

Travers acknowledged in his column that a recent report from the Canadian Senate points the finger at Canada's ports. "Drug trafficking, smuggling illegal economic migrants, theft, and now the risk of terrorism, all make the ports Canada's soft underbelly," he wrote.

In 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chretien disbanded the national Ports Police force. Today, the ports are jointly patrolled by various police forces and unarmed security guards.