Ottawa's plan won't stop border runners
Strategy to arm guards at U.S. crossings is more costly than effective, critics say
From Friday's Globe and Mail - 2 February 2007
OTTAWA The Conservative government's $781-million plan to arm border guards will not stop motor vehicles from running the border, senior federal law-enforcement officials say.
About 600 cars, trucks or other vehicles barrelled straight through Canada's land-border posts last year as unarmed guards watched, Alain Jolicoeur, the president of the Canadian Border Services Agency, said yesterday.
The handguns that will be issued to border guards are simply for their personal safety, not to stop drug smugglers or other crooks from running the border, Mr. Jolicoeur and RCMP deputy commissioner Pierre-Yves Bourduas told the Commons public-safety committee.
The Conservatives' law-and-order platform in last year's election included a promise to arm border guards. But opposition MPs are using committee hearings to attack the plan.
Even some Conservative MPs say they are concerned about the cost.
About 150 vehicles ran the border at one particular crossing last year, Mr. Jolicoeur testified. Most of the other incidents were scattered among 18 different border posts.
The CBSA will try to plug these holes by installing new road separators and concrete barriers, Mr. Jolicoeur said.
Knowing that CBSA officers are armed might deter some would-be border runners, he said.
The deterrent value remains to be seen, Mr. Bourduas said. But both officials said border guards can't stop border runners with their handguns, and won't be expected to.
Border guards will still have to rely on the RCMP or local police forces for more robust backup if they get advance word that trouble is headed their way.
Unlike the U.S. Border Patrol, Canadian border guards operate only in the immediate vicinity of their posts. The RCMP or other local police will have to be called in to chase runners, they said.
Several opposition MPs said they see no point in arming the border guards. Liberal Sue Barnes, who as a student once worked as a border guard, asked: "What difference will having a gun mean for trying to stop someone from running the port?"
Raymond Chan, another Liberal MP, said: "I look at the cost of implementing this and it's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer."
Conservative MP Dave MacKenzie said the safety of the border officers is the primary consideration, but he, too, has questions about costs.
Law-enforcement recruits can get a 12-week firearms training course at the Ontario Police College for about $7,500. But using CBSA figures, Mr. MacKenzie estimated that it will cost about $100,000 to train and arm each border guard.
Mr. Jolicoeur said the CBSA cost estimates are for a 10-year period and include startup costs. He said the agency has a 12-per-cent turnover of border guards each year, and a considerable number of new recruits are always in need of training.
He said that most border guards are convinced they need firearms for their own safety. But another CBSA witness, Barbara Hébert, vice-president for operations, said she knows of no border officers killed on duty in the past 15 years.
Unionized guards have formally complained of unsafe conditions at border points 44 times between May of 2005 and the end of last year, said Fulvio Fracassi, the government's director-general for national labour operations. Health-and-safety inspectors concluded that in all but two of those cases there was no danger.
Several of the union's safety complaints have produced temporary walkouts and lineups at the border.