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“Mission statements, unfortunately, don’t always reflect reality.”

If terrorists wanted to cripple Canada and simultaneously hobble the United States, where would they most likely strike? The Parliament Buildings? The James Bay hydroelectric project? The Pickering nu...

If terrorists wanted to cripple Canada and simultaneously hobble the United States, where would they most likely strike? The Parliament Buildings? The James Bay hydroelectric project? The Pickering nuclear reactor?

All good targets. But not the best.

If somebody really wanted to tear into Canada’s political and economic future and wound the Americans at the same time, an optimal target might well be the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont. One very possible result: a continent-wide shutdown of the border.

What would a shutdown of Canada’s land border with the United States mean? One only has to ponder the fact that 87% of Canada’s exports go to the United States, the majority of which are transported by truck.

Hence begins the interim report Borderline Insecure by the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, a sobering reflection on Canada’s challenges at the border and Ottawa’s less-than-adequate response since 9/11.

The Committee, as part of its series of reports investigating Canadian security since 9/11, spent more than three years examining the strengths and weaknesses of how Canada handles security at border crossings. In past reports, the Committee addressed vulnerabilities at Canada’s airports and seaports and along our coastlines.

“But no vulnerabilities stand out like those at our land border crossings…A border shutdown would multiply Canada’s problems by a number that nobody in Canada likes to think about. We should,” the report, authored by a group of senators led by Colin Kenny and J. Michael Forrestall, emphatically states.

The report outlines a series of eye-opening deficiencies in Ottawa’s personnel, operational and infrastructure strategies at the border. Its findings echo concerns by at least two other high-profile reports released within the last few months, namely a study of cross-border shipping issues conducted on behalf of FedEx Express and a study of the cumulative impact of US import compliance at land borders issued by Transport Canada.

The Senate Committee’s Borderline Insecure report emphasizes that increasing security without improving border mechanisms only serves to slow traffic, arguing that the lack of sufficient movement in infrastructure issues related to the Canada-US border is hurting the Canadian economy. For example, the report estimates that without changes, congestion and delay at the Windsor-Detroit crossing will cost an estimated $20.8 billion a year by 2030.

“The solution is not to treat security and trade as an either/or proposition. The border needs to be fluid and secure. You can’t guarantee fluidity without adequate security, because a disaster could bring the border grinding to a halt – especially with the lack of a backup at vital crossings,” the report states.

The senators take issue with the pace with which Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has been moving towards giving security higher priority status, arguing that still too much emphasis is placed on collecting duties, tariffs and taxes at the border. It states that while national security is supposed to be one of CBSA’s key missions and CBSA officials contend that security is already a part of the agency’s mandate, “mission statements, unfortunately, don’t always reflect reality.”

“The testimony the Committee has heard and the information it has gathered from CBSA officials and their employees suggest that security still ranks second to revenue gathering at Canada-U.S. land border crossings,” the report concludes. “The Committee has seen little evidence that a stronger security culture has taken root. There appears to be a disconnect between senior managers at Headquarters in Ottawa and the management and operational personnel in the field.”

The senators also took issue with CBSA’s information systems, reporting they found no evidence that CBSA has connected all its border posts with the databanks they need, nor that those databanks that are available to some posts are providing the kind of picture that border officers need to do their job.

“The committee has been pursuing this issue since January 2003. Any progress that has been made over that period has been slow and incomplete…More than two years after then-minister of national revenue Elinor Caplan promised to ‘connect the unconnected [border posts]’ and explained that it was ‘an important priority’, 62 land border crossings remain unconnected,” the report states.

There are also problems with the way available information is displayed. One glaring example, according to the union which represents border inspectors, involves how information is displayed for many primary inspection line personnel. According to the union, the Primary Automated Lookout System (PALS), which inspectors use at land border crossings, only returns the most recent event on the record of each traveler – even if there are multiple events stored in a person’s case history. As a result, a history of problems could be hiding behind one uneventful crossing.

Even if the information systems were brought up to speed, staffing levels could reduce efficiency.

Since 1994, trade between Canada and the US has grown by 77.7%. During that same period, the number of US Customs and Border Patrol agents assigned to the Canada-US border has tripled. However, the total number of employees on the Canadian side of the border has remained relatively constant during this period. According to the Department of National Revenue, there were the equivalent of 8,330 full-time inspectors in 1992-93. According to the Auditor General, there were 30 fewer persons delivering the customs program in 2003. The union representing customs inspectors says there was only a marginal increase between 9/11 and the current time.

“..The Committee has seen no evidence that the resources provided enable inspectors to do the job that Canadians expect of them,” the report charges and urges CBSA to address shortfalls in the proper staffing of border posts; the provision of proper training for all officers on duty; and the provision of adequate tools to ensure that officers who are responsible for security actually have the capacity to enforce security.

The report points out there are 139 ports of entry across Canada where border personnel work alone at least part of the time with a single officer collecting duties and taxes, performing primary and secondary inspections, immigration checks and conducting food inspections.

“Across much of Canada our first line of defence is only one person deep…Assigning one person to act as chief, cook and bottle washer is a recipe for disaster,” is the report’s stark assessment of the situation. It recommends that CBSA ensure that at least half of all shifts at land border crossings be staffed by at least two persons by the end of next year and that all shifts at border land crossings by staffed by at least two persons by the end of 2007.

The use of under-trained short-term replacements is another issue. The report states that of the 2,595 inspectors who were assigned to work at land border crossings last year, 589 (about 22%) were replacements. While full-time staff receive between 8 and 13 weeks of training, part-time employees receive only 2-3 weeks of training. The report says that while CBSA officials contend that replacement workers do not perform the same tasks as regular officers, are always supervised, and never perform secondary inspections, the committee found a “growing pile of documentation in the form of timesheets from a number of border posts” that directly contradict CBSA’s assurances.

Yet, as the study of Canadian exporters’ views on cross-border trade commissioned by FedEx Express Canada indicates, Canadian exporters have also been slow to implement more efficient border practices. A lack of understanding of customs rules and procedures among Canadian companies is adding to unnecessary delays at borders, according to the study .

The study, conducted by Lger Marketing for FedEx, found that the vast majority of Canadian companies believe exporting is critical to their business. However, three quarters of Canadian exporters have their shipments held up at the border occasionally, while a quarter said this happens to at least half of their shipments.

Respondents stated that shipments are frequently held up waiting in line at the border for processing and examination at customs, often because of a glut of faulty paperwork and incorrect information provided to customs.

“One quarter of exporters indicated that they’ve noticed an increase in delays at the Canada-U.S. border, which they attribute to a growing list of regulations designed to strengthen border security,” says Dave Scholz, vice president, Lger Marketing. “Furthermore, these delays often take more than a day to clear up and have a number of adverse effects on companies, from lost money to damaged reputation.”

The FedEx study also found that most exporters are unaware of upcoming changes to government regulations and, when asked, were not able to correctly identify when information for their shipments must be received by customs.

When asked about the FAST (Free and Secure Trade) program, a joint effort by the Canadian and U.S. governments to help move pre-approved goods across the border quickly by verifying trade compliance away from the border, only 38% knew about the program.

That’s certainly a sore point for trucking, the one stakeholder which has truly embraced the new border programs and hauls about 70% of the $564 billion in Canada-US trade. About 80% of for-hire motor carriers in Transport Canada’s recently released study The Cumulative Impact of US Import Compliance Programs at the Canada/US border on the Canadian Trucking Industry were approved for the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program and some of the remainder were in the process or had been given conditional approval. About 60% of their drivers had been FAST approved while the vast majority of the remaining drivers were in the application process.

Although one could take issue with the total number of for-hire fleets included in the survey (28), it’s hard to ignore the fact they reported that only 10% of their clients were FAST approved on average. And about one third of the motor carriers had no shippers that were FAST approved.

“This result has of course serious implications for those FAST-approved carriers that want to use the more expeditious FAST lanes at the border. The situation is even more serious for LTL carriers who must have all their shipments inside a van (which on average could represent 10 different shippers) involve FAST-approved shippers in order to use a FAST lane at the border.

The study concludes that driver and fleet compliance with border security programs alone is costing the Canadian trucking industry between $8.4 million and $16.8 million annually.

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