Customs: Setting the Bar

They will be everywhere, the application forms for thousands of Canadian and American truck drivers to complete. They will be tucked into drivers’ paycheque envelopes. They will be handed out at border points. The purpose, ironically, of all this paper is to do away with more paper as the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency tries to streamline the flow of informamation, drivers, and freight across the border from the United States.

The application forms will collect personal information about truck drivers in order to expand the CANPASS expedited traveller clearance program, part of a five-year, $100-million “action plan” introduced by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency last month.

The plan is described as a new way of thinking about identifying the freight, carriers, and drivers that merit the most scrutiny from customs officers. “We have to move away from examining every individual shipment and instead evaluate the processes of the companies behind those shipments,” says Earle Warren, a senior CCRA official who will oversee implementation of the plan. “To examine each individual shipment moving across the border-well, we can’t keep up. Our goal now is to encourage compliance among the shippers and carriers who account for the highest volumes of goods, and for whom moving those goods across the border is routine. We can say to them, ‘We’ve checked you out, and have a reasonable expectation that you’re in compliance with our laws and policies.’

“That would free up our officers so they can concentrate on going after the shippers don’t comply.”

The formal name for this “we trust you” plan is “customs self-assessment,” to be put into full operation next year. Customs self-assessment will end the time-consuming process of filing documentation on paper for each individual shipment and questioning all truck drivers crossing the border.

Instead, there will be voluntary pre-registration of the driver, carrier, and importer. Trucks carrying high-volume, low-risk cargo from the United States will arrive at the border, customs agents will confirm who the carrier is and who the importer is. Importers and carriers whose registrations are approved under the program will be able to get their cargo automatically cleared and, to submit customs duties electronically after the goods have crossed the border.

Drivers who apply for the CANPASS card will undergo background checks. If they pass, they’ll get a card with their photo and background information encoded on it. The card is scanned at the border crossing, and the information pops up on a customs officer’s computer screen. If all is in order, the driver is waved through.

The changes are drawing support from shippers. “Companies with good records will get release without providing any real details on the shipments, and will use their own business systems to report to Customs,” says Carol Beaul of Teletrade Ltd., an international trade and logistics consulting firm based in Toronto.

Martin Cauchon, Canada’s revenue minister, said the changes will include more stringent pre-clearance requirements for goods not approved under the new program. He also said there will be harsh monetary penalties for shippers and carriers that abuse their pre-clearance status.

The Canadian customs agency will use occasional audits to verify the companies’ compliance and require in advance specific data from all shippers and their carriers in order to expedite decisions about which trucks, drivers, and loads to stop. It also involves better identification of high-risk and low-risk shipments, and therefore an even faster border crossing.

For carriers, the CCRA will look at their goods-tracking systems and commercial controls “to see if they know what they are doing from a customs standpoint,” says Oryst Dydynsky, a project manager at Canadian customs. “We are looking for companies to create a bill of lading and to control that bill, those goods, from the time they pick them up, take them through the United States, to the final delivery in Canada. Do they have a reporting system for goods-overs, for shortages, and for damages? How do they handle company material?”

A pilot project is being set up with the United States at the crossing between Sarnia, Ont., and Port Huron, Michigan. Cauchon said it will feature “one form to fill out, one card, one registration system.” The idea would be to eventually have a central data system for pre-approved passage of Canadians and Americans the length of the border.

The program is voluntary-but for motor carriers, just how voluntary it will be will depend on their customers. Among the strongest supporters of the self-assessment program have been automakers, food companies, computer makers and other manufacturers, such as Kodak Canada, that ship large volumes across the border.

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