“Fouryears” before Canadian border guards are armed

Published on Thu, Mar 2, 2006 by ack Kintner

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“Four years” before Canadian border guards are armed

By Jack Kintner

“We made the commitment during the campaign and we’re looking at ways of doing this, but it’s only been two weeks on the job for me,” said Canada’s new minister of public safety Stockwell Day in speaking last week at the Peace Arch crossing about arming Canadian border guards.

The inspectors want a timetable but Day was unable to give them anything concrete beyond saying that when the government decided to go ahead it would take “about four years or so,” he said.

Canada’s Conservative party won control of the federal government on January 23. The next day a dramatic incident involving gunfire in which two murder suspects were captured literally in the shadow of the Peace Arch tested the party’s resolve in meeting its campaign promise to arm Canadian border inspectors.

When informed that the suspects were headed their way, Canadian border inspectors walked away from their post, closing the border. American border personnel set up a road block and fired at the suspects’ car when it crashed through it. The matter was resolved when Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy Stu Smith, who had been chasing the suspects’ car for 10 miles, ran them off the road just a few feet south of the border near the Peace Arch. Both vehicles collided with the arch itself before coming to rest west of the southbound lanes within four feet of the border.

According to the inspectors’ union vice-president George Scott, the two suspects were carrying what he called a “machine gun” in a later interview with the CBC. Canadian inspectors left their post once again on February 10 when learning that an armed fugitive from Renton might be headed their way, closing the border for three hours even though the report turned out to be false.

Day visited the area last week and though he repeated his party’s commitment to an armed presence at the border he was unable to come up with a timetable or a definite plan, saying only that when the government decides on a plan it would take as long as four years to implement. “Lots of different proposals have been made,” Day said, “and we’re at the stage of investigating alternatives.”

When asked if anything had actually happened at the Canadian border crossing facility to warrant arming the guards, Day said, “It’s the threat. When border guards are informed that there’s a situation involving armed suspects they feel at risk, and we don’t want them to feel that. Prevention’s what it’s all about in terms of security.”
The debate is not new. Last June a Canadian senate committee recommended arming border guards, but another study released last fall by the Canadian border services agency (CBSA), a part of Day’s federal department, concluded that arming the inspectors was not necessary.

Representatives from the inspectors’ union have been pressing for the change, and to emphasize this have been getting their members to exercise their right to leave their post under their labor contract if their working conditions become unsafe. Day said that in addition to the few times this has happened locally, “it’s happened a couple of dozen times all across the country. It’s not just here.”

Day added that the Canadian government wants to provide security for the inspectors but also wants to make sure that border access remains, “smooth for the 99 percent of those who cross who are no threat and are not carrying weapons.”

One border guard who spoke on condition of anonymity said that right now the policy is to back away when confronted with a weapon, allow the individual entry and then inform the White Rock-Surrey post of the RCMP. “Guns aren’t allowed into Canada unless you point it at one of us,” he said.

Day said that though the RCMP currently provides for an armed back-up at the border, any plan his government would propose would not replace current inspectors with others. “There will be no jobs lost,” he said, “because if anything we need more people, not less.”

Day said that none of the inspectors asked him when they would be receiving weapons. “None of them raised that. They were pointing out the things they face every day, what the job and the working conditions are like,” Day said.