Truck News


Cabotage concerns

TORONTO, Ont. - What's wrong with this picture: A pair of drivers with distinct American accents openly discuss the trip ahead as they wait to pick up a load in Rexdale, Ont. destined for Richmond, B....

TORONTO, Ont. –What’s wrong with this picture: A pair of drivers with distinct American accents openly discuss the trip ahead as they wait to pick up a load in Rexdale, Ont. destined for Richmond, B.C.? Or how about a team driver from Tennessee that admits over the CB he just dropped a load in Dorval, Que. and is headed to Vancouver with a new load in tow? Or in Portage La Prairie, Man., where team drivers from a northern state talk of their regular run between Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. and B.C.?

Each of the cases described above, and others, have been brought to the attention of Truck News in recent weeks as Canadian drivers say they’ve noticed a recent increase in what appear to be Canadian immigration and cabotage law violations by US-based trucking companies.

The most egregious case we’ve heard of involved a US team out of a northern state that told Canadian driver Darla-Jean Wotherspoon they were hired specifically for a dedicated run within Canada. The team drivers, Wotherspoon recalls, said they cross empty into Canada at Sault Ste. Marie, do a switch with a solo driver at the Husky Truck Stop and then take that load to Richmond, B.C. where they pick up another load for return to the Soo. That team then drops its return load with a solo driver in Sault Ste. Marie and heads back across the border to enjoy their time off, Wotherspoon claims.

“They had been working for this company for four to six weeks and hadn’t done any loads in the States at all,” she recalled.

Truck News asked the company in question about the accusations and was assured no such activity ever took place. The company won’t be named, since the allegations have not been proven.

“We can assure you that the scenario you’ve described has never occurred, nor will it,” a company spokesperson said, suggesting “unfounded speculation” and “rumours” may be resulting from the company’s successful bid on a large piece of business from a Canadian small-pack shipper.

The company in question recently advertised eye-popping signing bonuses for Canadian teams, and Wotherspoon speculates they may not have been able to keep up with the demands of the new business using existing Canadian drivers.

“I can’t say they’re planning on continuing this for a long period of time,” she said. “I’d say they have no choice but to do it until they have a Canadian base of drivers to handle this freight. A lot of this freight is team freight and it requires quite a bit to do it, especially with the Christmas rush coming up.”

Complaints of cabotage and immigration violations and lax enforcement by Canadian officials can hardly be chalked up as baseless CB chatter amongst drivers. Several fleet executives Truck News spoke to all agreed there’s little doubt US carriers are using US drivers and equipment to haul freight within Canada.

“I, and others, may have been naive in thinking it didn’t occur (in the past) or that if it did occur, it was in the event of an equipment breakdown or that type of thing,” said one prominent Canadian fleet executive, who asked not to be named.

“We know for a fact there are carriers that are not adhering to current cabotage law,” said another, who also requested anonymity to avoid reprisal from shippers who may be enabling the activity. “We have drivers reporting this activity to us many times a week and they are concerned and upset about the lack of attention and enforcement being paid to it, particularly on the Canadian front. We see USplated equipment moving domestic freight from east to west across Canada every single day.”

Reports of US carriers flouting Canadian cabotage rules have been common enough that the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) has sought, and received, interpretation from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on specific examples of apparent violations.

“As a general rule, only Canadian truck drivers operating Canadian vehicles (conveyances) can engage in point to point transportation of domestic goods within Canada,” the CBSA confirmed to CTA. But there are exceptions. “With that being said tariff number 9801.10.10.00 and 9801.10.30.00 both allow the use of foreign convey- ances, trailers and semi-trailers in the transportation of goods from one point in Canada to another point in Canada where that transportation is incidental to the international traffic of the goods…If a carrier enters Canada loaded at the Detroit-Windsor crossing with less than a full inward load destined for Montreal; domestic goods could be picked up at Hamilton for delivery to Cobourg since this move would be incidental to the international trip. However, on the same trip it would be unacceptable to carry domestic goods to Sudbury, Ont. or locales which would divert substantially from the international trip.”

Welcome to the murky world of cabotage, where there are a million rules and nearly as many exceptions to those rules. But based on CBSA’s interpretation of the rules, none of the examples Truck News has heard about would qualify as “incidental to the international traffic of the goods.”

Whether US-based carriers don’t fully understand the rules or are willfully disregarding them is subject for debate. In speaking with US drivers, Wotherspoon feels they are not aware of the rules while she asserts the companies they work for most certainly are.

“They (the carriers) know damned well what they’re doing is illegal,” she said.

Gordon Baird, a full-time driver out of Kingston, Ont. said he has confronted US drivers hauling Canadian loads from point to point within Canada on the CB as well as at truck stops and shippers’ yards. Most recently, he said he chatted on the CB with a US team that said they had delivered a load they picked up in Toronto to a shipper in Dorval and from there they were heading to Vancouver with another load.

“I explained to them that’s cabotage, it’s the same thing as interstating in the US and they didn’t realize that,” Baird recalled. “I don’t have a problem with them operating up here as long as they have Canadian drivers.”

So dismayed are some Canadian drivers about lax enforcement of Canadian cabotage rules that they are sharing information and gathering evidence in an unprecedented manner. Some are taking inventory of US-plated tractors and trailers seen at shippers’ yards as well as equipment that appears to be waiting for switches in places like Blind River and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Others are filing complaints with CBSA’s Border Watch hotline and some drivers working for different companies are even working together by sharing information and reference numbers so any evidence is consolidated in one file.

All this raises the question of whether cabotage rules need to be relaxed or eliminated in both countries, a view that’s held by some fleets here in Canada and even by some south of the border. At the Ontario Trucking Association’s (OTA) 2007 convention, Ray Kuntz, then-chair of the American Trucking Associations made the bold claim that it may be time to permit the free movement of goods in Canada and the US, as it’s the next logical step in improving efficiencies for transporters on both sides of the border. However, Kuntz, CEO of Montana-based Watkins and Shepard Trucking, prefaced his remarks by saying the opinion was his own, and not necessarily reflective of ATA’s position.

“It won’t be popular but it’s time to start looking outside the box,” he said at the time. CTA chief David Bradley agrees it may be time to revisit current cabotage rules.

“CTA and, I believe, the Canadian government, has long favoured a more open cabotage situation in North America. However, this is not something Canada can do unilaterally. Unfortunately, the political climate in the United States has not been conducive to making the necessary changes,” Bradley said. Exactly who stands to benefit the most from such an arrangement is difficult to say. Canadian carriers, for the most part, are already border-savvy and would
no doubt welcome unfettered access to a market 10 times the size of their own. But on the other hand, it would take little effort for US fleets to serve the vast majority of the Canadian market, since it’s been said about 75% of the Canadian population resides within 100 miles of the US border.

One thing’s for sure, carriers on both sides of the border would like to see a relaxing of the rules as they relate to the repositioning of empty trailers. Carriers are shelling out a lot of money and burning a lot of unnecessary fuel by bobtailing and contracting third-party carriers to reposition empties.

“Such archaic laws seem out of place in today’s world where the North American supply chain needs to be as efficient and productive as it can be to compete with supply chains in other parts of the world, where the North American industry is facing a severe driver shortage and where all modes are being challenged to reduce their carbon footprint,” Bradley said.

Bison Transport has been critical of the current rules when it come to repositioning equipment. Vice-president of operations Rob Penner says the company pays about $40,000 per month to hire US carriers to run its empty trailers about 30,000 unpaid miles for repositioning purposes.

“As the laws stand today, when we have a truck destined to the US going to a shipper that does not live unload, we have to bobtail to that shipper even though we may have an empty trailer sitting at our delivery point,” he explains. “We either have to hire a US carrier to move our empty trailer to the next shipping location or we bobtail another truck into that location to pick up our empty trailer at which point we have to find a shipper to live load the equipment to exit the country.”

Penner, however, said he doesn’t favour the complete removal of cabotage laws in Canada and the US.

“We understand the need for countries to protect employment and would not support a wide open interstate environment where carriers and foreign drivers can move unimpeded on either side of the border,” he said. “With that said, we definitely believe carriers should be allowed to reposition their own equipment, unladen, from point to point in a foreign country.”

Whether cabotage rules in both Canada and the US are due to be reworked, scrapped altogether or left unchanged, everyone can agree on one thing, that the rules need to be applied equally on both sides of the border. Baird said it would be unfathomable for a Canadian carrier to make point to point deliveries in the US with Canadian drivers and equipment. They’d be put out of business and lose their authority to operate in the US, he said, “so why is the Canadian government allowing them to do that?”

Drivers with evidence of carriers and drivers who are violating Canadian immigration and cabotage laws can call Border Watch at 888-502-9060. They can also report it to a CBSA investigation unit; a list of locations is available at

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