Ottawa is rapidly falling behind in an area of critical importance for Canadians’ safety: Border security with the United States.
By Scott Newark, August 15, 2016
Previously published in FrontLine Safety and Security magazine
When the new Government assumed office almost nine months ago, it was clear that they had new policy priorities and that they were specifically intent on a more inclusive and consultative process for decision making than their predecessor. Some sceptics, myself included, cautioned that while this was understandable, governing was about making choices and taking action and not just holding media events to celebrate ‘inclusion’ and ‘outreach’. Put differently, governing is more difficult than campaigning but that’s what Governments are elected to do.
This substantive lack of progress is evident in a number of areas and as we prepare for the return of Parliament in September, Canada-US border security is clearly an area where specific actions are required. This is true, not only because of the inherent priority of the subject given our geographical situation, but also because of a changing security-focused world and the need to deliver on border security focused commitments. Additionally, although it is sometimes taken for granted, Canada-US relations is our highest foreign policy priority and border security issues are a central part of that discussion.
Canada-US border security is clearly an area where specific actions are required.
Canada remains a signatory to the Beyond the Border Agreement (BTB) with the US which, wisely, has very specific commitments that include timelines which are now not being met. Perhaps the most important of these was for the joint assessment of border gaps and vulnerabilities (completed) and a commitment to address them through a joint technology procurement and deployment process.
In 2013 it appeared this might be happening when the federal government announced a $92M allocation to the RCMP to deploy sensor technology at the Canada-US border from Quebec/Maine to Oakville as part of its ‘Anti-Tobacco Smuggling’ strategy. A year later, with no action taken, this funding was re-announced by the RCMP as the ‘Border Integrity Technology Enhancement Program (BITEP), yet almost two years later BITEP remains an acronym and not a deployed action.
The importance of this failure to deploy sensor surveillance technology along the Canada-US border cannot be overstated. Without it, Canada and the US face increased risk of cross border smuggling of weapons, drugs, tobacco and people. In today’s world that’s an unacceptable risk and what’s required is action not repetitive ‘consultation’ or more RCMP navel gazing.
As part of the BTB Agreement, Canada also has committed to implement a Pre Border Clearance Agreement with the US which was introduced in Bill C-23 during Parliament’s final week of sitting before the summer break. It appears that the Bill will provide the necessary legal authorizations which have been worked out for Canadian and US officers to conduct pre-screenings in each other’s countries including the taking of biometric identification.
The importance of this failure to deploy sensor surveillance technology along the Canada-US border cannot be overstated.
Less clear is whether the RCMP has finally created a national security-based face recognition biometric database which can identify security threats who are using altered or counterfeit identification. This national security database need is not confined to pre-border clearance but, once again, it is unclear what actions, if any, the RCMP have taken to create and deploy this critical part of a modern border security system. In today’s world of departing and returning jihadis, not having this detection capability deployed is simply unacceptable. The need for this specialized screening is also implicit in several announced border security initiatives including the modernized (in C-51) ‘No Fly’ database, the Advanced Passenger Information initiative for screening at airports before departure to Canada and the Electronic Travel Authorization for screening of persons from select visa-exempt counties. All of these programs need to be scrutinized by the new Government to make sure the intended outcomes are actually occurring.
While a joint Canada-US database is the obvious starting point, in today’s travel-facilitated world it will be necessary to expand the database to trusted allies such as the other ‘Five Eyes’ partners (UK, NZ, Australia) as well as the EU and indeed others.
Parliament also has another Bill before it in C-21 which will implement the Exit-Entry information sharing agreement between Canada and the US that is part of the BTB Agreement. The information sharing between Canada and the US on non-citizens entering and exiting each other’s countries has been ongoing in a limited fashion and C-21 will expand the application to all persons, including to Canadian and US citizens.
It appears that the information obtained under the Exit-Entry process will only be used for records reconciliation rather than entry decision making which is unfortunate. This application use should be monitored as we will want to avoid the data being used to ‘detect’ the departure of non-citizens who have non-appearance warrants outstanding (reported by the Auditor General at the embarrassingly high number of 44K+) so that the warrants are removed from the system without a concurrent creation of inadmissibility status should such persons try and re-enter Canada.
Both Pre Border Clearance and Exit-Entry will require the restoration of CBSA personnel resources especially in the Intelligence and Operations units which were cut as a result of the 2010 Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP). Security programs without sufficient personnel don’t deliver the results intended…and promised.
In addition to this already lengthy list of border security issues, the new Government appears to be intent on implementing a new border crossing process for the Akwasasne Mohawks near Cornwall. For decades, the Canadian port of entry was on the Akwasasne reserve on Cornwall Island but that changed when the Mohawk Band Council (and ‘Warriors’) objected, with protests and threats of violence, to CBSA officers being armed on what they claim as their ‘territory’. The port of entry was moved to Cornwall which created an obvious inconvenience to Island residents returning to Canada from the US as they had to drive across the Island to report in.
Several weeks ago, the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Affairs produced a special report to the Government on the issue citing the historical Jay Treaty from 1794 as justifying the need for a special identification program to permit and facilitate cross border travel between Canada and the US for Akwasasne Mohawks. Given the existing undeniable reality of cross border smuggling in the area, this issue has significant border security ramifications for both countries. Interestingly, the BTB Agreement included completing negotiations by December 2012 for creating a pre clearance facility in Massena NY which would be a far better solution than what the Senate Committee has proposed.
Irrespective of what process is selected, the reality of cross border smuggling means that deployment of analytical radar surveillance systems to provide full domain awareness must be part of the plan. Also, detecting the target isn’t the end game; interdicting it is, which means deployment of sufficient operational resources which means cross border operations and finally including CBSA in the Shiprider program and full enforcement operations between ports of entry.
Finally, Canada has made a number of new border related commitments as a result of its recent Summit with the US and Mexico. These appropriately include trade and travel enhancements such as including Mexico in the trusted traveller program, expanding the Single Window Initiative to facilitate Mexican imports to Canada and working together to align commercial clearance practices.
The commitments also include having the three countries create a joint database with practices to detect and interdict ‘foreign fugitives with known or suspected ties to North America’. This kind of a targeted ‘bad guy lookout’ system has long been advocated and presumably it will have both criminality and security components and, hopefully, be supported by face recognition biometrics because bad guys don’t always use their real ID.
Immediately prior to the Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the Canadian visa requirement on Mexican travellers to Canada which was imposed in 2007 will be lifted by the end of 2016. While this was presented, and reported, as a reversal of a mean spirited action of the previous Harper government, there has apparently been little consideration of why the visa restriction was imposed in the first place. In essence, following 9-11 and a US crackdown on persons illegally in their country, the Government of Ontario raised the issue of clearly bogus refugee claimants entering Canada at land ports of entry from the US where they made refugee claims which resulted in their admission and a huge financial burden on the system. In truth these people were not at risk while in the United States and simply, for a number of reasons, preferred being ‘refugees’ in Canada. Ontario proposed a ‘Safe Third Country Agreement’ where persons making such claims at land ports of entry were returned to either Canada or the US from where they had arrived and sought entry.
Initially, the then Liberal federal government resisted this initiative which was part of a larger Perimeter Security Strategy which…full disclosure…I had been involved in drafting. This seemingly changed over time as Ottawa took over negotiations and the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement was enacted (with supporting Immigration and Refugee Protection Act regulations) in 2004.
There are a significant number of border security issues that require substantive choices and action from the new Government rather than consultation or ‘review’.
The issue resurfaced in 2007 when, following another US crackdown on persons illegally in the US, southwestern Ontario became flooded with thousands of Mexican refugee claimants who had entered Canada from the US and been allowed to stay despite the Safe Third Country Agreement designed to prevent this. Examination of the fine print of the Agreement revealed that the federal Department of Justice had created an ‘exception’ to the Agreement for people who were citizens of counties without a visa requirement which in 2007 included Mexico. That was the reason that the previous government imposed the visa requirement and it worked as the flood of bogus Mexican refugee claimants seeking entry to Canada from the US stopped almost immediately and has not re-occurred.
If the Trudeau government lifts the visa requirement without some modification to the Safe Third Country Agreement and the IRPA Regulation, we will be re-opening the door to a problem that was fixed. Rest assured that the financial and systemic performance costs will be enormous especially if Donald Trump becomes President.
In summary, there are a significant number of border security issues that require substantive choices and action from the new Government rather than consultation or ‘review’. The good news is that since his appointment in November 2015, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has shown a repeated inclination for that kind of pragmatic approach including wanting to know the facts and holding Agency heads to account. That’s called leadership and it’s needed now on the critically important border security and Canada-US files.
Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, Vice Chair of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime, Director of Operations to the Washington D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the Governments of Ontario and Canada. A variation of this article appears in FrontLine Security magazine.