Madam Speaker, it gives me pleasure to speak to Bill S-23. I thank the minister for staying around to answer a few questions. In his speech he referred to Canada customs as one of the most modern agencies in the world. That is just not the case. That is reflected in his answer to my question regarding PALS. He stated that there is an effort being made to upgrade a number of systems, including PALS, that are used on the front lines.
I want to refer to a number of things that I have received in the past couple of months since becoming the critic for customs. They deal with border crossings, seaports and airports. I will refer to some documents but they are actually letters written to the minister. I know he has received these letters because I gave him some on behalf of frontline officers, the first line of defence, who are very unhappy for a number of reasons.
The reason I will refer to them is that I am a believer that if someone wants to learn how things should be done, a good place to start would be right on the front line with the people who deliver the service and face the problems.
We have a problem in Canada with the government. Everywhere I have been the border customs officers are doing a fantastic job given what they have to work with. It is an utter shame that when we visit these places we are denied the opportunity to talk with the frontline people because of directives from the minister, other departmental heads and commissioners.
I received letters that were written by an assistant deputy minister and an acting assistant deputy minister. I have others from a southern Ontario regional commissioner, an assistant commissioner and a regional director. All these individuals are with customs.
One of these letters states very strongly that employees should refrain from making any direct, or through a third party, public pronouncements critical of federal policies, programs and officers or on matters of current political controversy. It states that employees are not allowed to talk when others who are not of the government come to visit. The final sentence in each of these documents states that if they choose to do so they will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination.
In other words, customs officers, prison guards, corrections officers, or those holding whatever job in a government department, have strict orders not to speak their mind when people ask questions. When we go to visit these people they are not allowed to answer questions. I get a pile of letters from different individuals doing these jobs with the trust that I will not use their names lest they face the consequences of having provided information to me.
I cannot believe that in a supposedly democratic country when we are looking to the people at the front lines of defence at the borders, in our prisons, or wherever they may be, for suggestions on what we can do to make it easier for them to accomplish their mission, which is to protect and provide security for Canadian soil, its people and its property, they cannot openly discuss their views so that we can take them back, research them and possibly come up with better legislation. They have received orders from the government not to speak out in that nature to anyone.
During my last visit I was denied the opportunity to visit with the front line people. We know what the supervisors will say. They follow the rules very well. That is why they are supervisors. The higher up the ladder they go the better they follow them.
As I walked through these areas it was a shame to see the people on the front lines handing me notes urgently requesting that I call them because they are desperate to speak with me. They really want to speak with us yet are not allowed to. These people from all areas of the system wish to voice some serious concerns.
The response I have heard from the government these last few days during our two supply motions regarding the terrorist legislation and aspects of Bill S-23 was that anything we suggest is simplistic. The government's answer to everything is that it is too simplistic.
The most simplistic thing I have ever seen in my life is a government that was elected by the people to run the show yet in the House of Commons openly admits that it does not, as the solicitor general did during question period when he said he does not run his department.
He is right. The government does not run the show but the bureaucrats sure as dickens do. They hold an iron fist. There are a whole pile of instructions from the bureaucrats to the frontline people ordering them not to speak out or they may lose their jobs. Welcome to the democratic society of Canada. It is disgraceful.
I will point out how difficult it is to get our hands on the information we desperately need to help make the situation at the border safer and more secure, especially since September 11. This is the kind of support the frontline people are crying out for.
Canada customs has been all about collection for years and years. One customs officer said he was getting awfully tired of being referred to as a grocery cop or a tax collector when one of his main functions at the border has always been to provide safety and protection. However customs officers work for a revenue agency which is good for collecting money. It is the type of agency that will provide them with bulletproof vests and then give them calculators. It does not make much sense.
It is time to move out of collection and into protection. Protection is what it is all about. That is the priority we see across the country as a result of the events that took place on September 11.
Where are we falling short? I pointed out to the minister during our short question period that this piece of equipment, PALS, is out of date. A few hundred yards down the road at the U.S. border the system in place there is instantaneously tied into every agency that is essential for a customs official to do his or her job. It immediately identifies the felons, the murderers, the smugglers and those who are being sought for kidnapping.
Ours does not. That sends up a red flag. There is a problem when we must detain and question a person for a few minutes while we go into the main office and try to hook up to all the things we can to gather information about what it is we are looking for. It is time to start bringing things up to date.
I have stood in the booth at the border and have been shown how it works and what its shortfalls are. I know the equipment. We could sit here and start talking again, as I know the member over there who is shaking his head would like me to do, about what it is and what it is not. Unfortunately I do not think most members over there spend their time in a booth at the border to see what is really going on.
I am tempted to paint Liberal all over my car some day, although I would regret it dreadfully, and drive to the border so that I would be welcomed with open arms and able to speak freely with all the people who work there. If one is not a Liberal one cannot do that. They will not allow it. The customs officers are gagged. The documents right here tell them loud and clear that if they talk freely they will jeopardize their jobs.
I was the principal of a school for many years. If I wanted to know what we could do or change to make things work better in Grade 1, I did not go to the Grade 12 teachers. I went to those who were offering the service.
All the university training and all the elections one could have would not change my view that if I wanted to know how to do things right I should talk to the people who spend years providing the service and putting their experience to work. These people look for the best solutions, something the government refuses to do because its bureaucrats have all the simplistic solutions. They are simplistic because they do not believe in consulting with their frontline people.
Long before September 11 the auditor general recognized that with more than 100 million travellers a year entering the country at 147 border points and 13 international airports, the risks to Canada's safety and security were extreme. He recognized it in his reports long before September 11. Last April the auditor general wrote that the main role of customs officers was to protect Canadians against illegal activities such as smuggling of contraband or the unlawful entry of inadmissible people. The audit raised concerns about how well the risks were being managed.
The first thought that comes to some people's minds, including my own, is that if smuggling of contraband and dealing with criminals and inadmissible people is the main thrust and primary function, should it be done by a revenue collection agency like Revenue Canada?
Customs officers are being asked to enforce the criminal code. They are being asked to arrest drunk drivers. They are being asked to arrest smugglers. They are being issued minimal equipment to do their jobs. The government has upgraded that a little. It now gives them bulletproof vests, most of which are used ones donated by the United States because we do not have new ones.
The auditor general points out that if they are to function in this capacity and enforce the criminal code it will not be easily accomplished through an agency designed to collect taxes and revenues. He does not suggest this point blank but he alludes to it.
Why do we not move it to an organization that has the knowledge and ability to work with these people so they can do an effective job of enforcing the law? That is what the majority of their work entails.
That would require upgrading of equipment. It would require upgrading a number of things such as the number of people and hours of training. Frontline officers south of the border in the United States have 16 weeks of training. That is more than a lot of basic training camps in the military.
It is not so on this side of the border, certainly not when it comes to hiring students to fill in for the people we have. These students receive only two weeks of training yet their duties are the same. They must enforce legislation brought forward by the government in Bill C-18, which empowers them to arrest drunks and do everything they can to enforce the criminal code.
I will reiterate once again what happens. We have a number of border crossings where there are only one or two people on duty. They need to close these crossings at certain hours because they cannot keep them open that long.
I understand the government will try to keep all border crossings open 24 hours a day. It will need more people to do that. When crossings are closed they put out little orange cones to block traffic. Would that really stop someone from coming into the country who should not be here? People are under the illusion that criminals, smugglers and people trying to find their way into the country illegally do not know about that. They think they will stick to our main points of entry. That is not the case.
When will we recognize that if we are to properly equip and train our people to enforce the criminal code it could be better accomplished under a different agency than a tax collection agency called Revenue Canada? However the government has said that solution is simplistic.
It has been alluded to by a great number people, including the auditor general, that there are serious concerns.
Let us look at the customs office in Victoria. That is the famous port where Ahmed Ressam was arrested and finally caught on the U.S. side after many years of operating out of Canada. At the Victoria port's main terminal they do not have a single computer. They operate out of a 35 year old trailer. They consult 30 year old lists on a clipboard about how to operate, who to look for and what to do. There is no computer. With more than a million people passing through the port a year, how can a clipboard do the job properly?
I will refer to some comments, not just one comment from one person but some pretty general comments. First, people on the front lines have talked about technology. Technology is extremely important and it needs upgrading severely.
Second, we need more people at our borders. When we consider the number of individuals we will need at Pearson and other international airports, when we look at the 147 border crossings across the country and all our major airports and seaports, 130 people is a drop in the bucket. They need a lot more. They are understaffed by 10% to 50% in most places across the land.
We need to look at eliminating the student program. Members should not get me wrong. I believe in hiring students. It is important that we keep students working and provide them an opportunity for work. However when it comes to the security of the nation and all the training customs officers require to do their job properly, many believe that students are not the ones who can best fulfil the job. It needs to be done by trained professionals, as it is today. We could eliminate the danger by eliminating these kinds of programs.
Let me read one quote to the House: “I would like to talk about another aspect of my job, which is danger. Every day I go to work could be the last day of my life. The customs and immigration part of my job sees me interdicting persons smuggling high value drugs, firearms and weapons, as well as inadmissibles, some of them criminals and terrorists from other countries. Now I have the authority of a police officer and I am responsible for arresting drivers who are drunk or high on drugs, persons abducting children or persons with warrants for their arrest for a wide range of offences right up to murder”.
It is quite astounding what is required of this individual. He also said: “I basically deal with the same persons, goods and situations that my armed colleagues on the other side of the border deal with. As a result it would be prudent to assume that customs officers in Canada would be subject to the same dangers faced by the law enforcement officers in the United States”.
When I went to Fort Erie I noted the equipment issued to the customs officers, like bulletproof vests, batons and pepper spray. They had no sidearms. I went to the other side of the border where they were all wearing sidearms and were equipped with whatever was necessary because they have to deal with the criminal element. On the United States side of the border, frontline individuals can speak with anyone at random. There are no restrictions. They can speak with the press or anyone. They have the freedom to do that, which we do not have on this side of the border thanks to the government, which will not allow it.
The officers in the United States first of all commended the officers in Canada for doing a great job and for doing the best they could with the equipment they have, but they fear daily for each and every one of them and feel they are not in a position to look after themselves properly.
Our government in its wisdom must have recognized that, because it put out regulations. Regulation 16, I believe, in the manual states that in the event someone is coming into Canada and is showing signs of being a real and sincere threat to our nation and its people or to the guards themselves, they are to simply wish that person well and admit him or her into the country then report it to the police. I do not know at how many ports of entry where it might be at least half an hour or up to maybe two, three and four hours before the police can even respond to the situation.
I do not know if members have seen this out west, but in Ontario it is the same. People can come across these borders in these areas and if they want to get lost for a while, boy, it is easy to do. They will not be found. If they are, it will be well after the fact simply because the customs officers do not have the backup or the proper equipment to make an arrest when they should be able to. If there is a threat they have to let these people go.
The people working on the front lines do not like doing that, because they recognize the fact that those people can run free and loose forever. It is really hard for them to accept the fact that they have to let people go who they know will cause real serious problems somewhere down the line for some other people.
We have talked to a number of individuals in regard to some of our suggestions. My colleague from Edmonton, who is the chief critic for customs and revenue, and I visited with a number of people from the union representing the individuals we have talked about. We have talked to the police association and their people. It is always strange: When people get together who always seem to agree with the suggestions that we put forward in terms of what is needed to enhance the bill or what is needed to make the anti-terrorism bill better, they do not look upon the suggestions as being at all simplistic. In fact they agree with them.
They agree that customs and revenue should not be the agency that is working with, controlling or managing the frontline officers or customs officers at the borders. These jobs should not be under that portfolio. They should be under a portfolio that deals with law enforcement. They are just not allowed to arrest or detain people and they cannot use force against them.
I do not understand why the government has such a hard time accepting the suggestions that come through the mail from these people who are not allowed to voice their opinions when they would like to. They have to white out their names and ask that their names not be used for fear of losing their jobs.
A lot of my colleagues have seen the same problem in the coast guard and waterways are another area that needs to be addressed. When we go to a waterway border crossing and look to the south, we see the American coast guard going full scale in regard to protection. If we look to the north, nothing is happening.
I once asked a supervisor how he knew what the boats coming north were bringing in and what was happening. They do not know. Once again, they can only report to the police and the police usually do not have time to investigate because they are tied up with so many things. It is a pretty sad situation when a customs official has to say that a boat docked at one angle is probably carrying cigarettes, at another angle it is probably carrying whisky, at another probably guns and at another probably people. That is the best they can come up with. They simply do not have the forces to look after the continual flow of boats coming in freely at different crossing points, because we do not have officers patrolling those lines.
We are continually looking for legislation to address the needs. One of the needs of course is that we have to keep traffic flowing. We do not want the economy to collapse because of not being able to move freely across the borders. That is why we supported Bill S-23. It worked toward that end. If we do not get our heads out of the sand, start looking across country, recognize what the problems are and be willing to deal with them, we are headed for some serious problems.
I think the government should make one thing happen. It should be willing to allow the voices of the people trying to provide the service to be heard. I will emphasize that more and more. If their voices could only be heard to the fullest extent then we could come up with some very good suggestions and solutions for the problems we face each and every day.
The morale of such individuals is terribly low and I can understand why. They request something and it is not allowed. They write a letter and they get a warning that they will lose their jobs if they do not keep their mouths shut. Welcome to Canada.
I know the Liberals have a real hard time listening to the truth. The truth is an aggravating thing, especially when a party is operating a government that does not allow democracy to work. It is an absolute shame. I just cannot express enough about what it is like to work for a government agency where people's hands literally are handcuffed and their mouths taped lest they lose their jobs. We should think about that for a minute.
They do not have to worry about it on the other side of the House. Maybe they will lose their jobs in an election but they can say anything they like.
The guards at the border crossings have asked me to make certain that their voice is heard in all these respects. They do not enjoy the idea of going to work improperly equipped. They do not feel safe in their work. There are a number of issues that could be so much better if the government would only listen.
I also want to speak on behalf of the remote ports. They are really crying out for help, with one person at one station all by himself. We do not have anything there to address that person. There are many of those crossings, all across the line.
I want to talk about the students once again. They are trained for only two weeks, on average, yet they make up over half of the customs workforce during the two busiest months of the year, July and August. Half the workforce is students. There have been reports of shifts at Pearson airport manned entirely by students. To my way of thinking and to a lot of people's thinking, to have students as the first line of defence is a bit terrifying. I just recently heard about a female student who intercepted an individual crossing the border who had a gun. In the process of the student checking the chamber of the gun, it discharged and the bullet lodged in the building across the street. The students are not trained well enough in the inspection of a gun. It went off, but that was a student. She is not to blame. Sure, there should not have been a bullet in the chamber, but anybody who knows anything about guns knows that is the first thing a person wants to know when picking one up.
The auditor general's report referred to that. It also said that at many ports relations are totally strained among customs, immigration and other agencies and departments. When we add them together, customs, immigration and other agencies and other departments, at these ports, when they are strained to the degree that they are why are we not doing something about it? We are putting on 130 people. That is hardly a drop.
A quality referrals report was recently produced by immigration officers who were frustrated with the poor quality of referrals from the primary inspection line that is staffed by students. They were having a real problem because the expertise was not there to do the job properly.
On October 12, 17 of 29, or 60% of the officers on duty, were students with two weeks of training. This is a common occurrence. Week in and week out more than half the officers at Pearson are students. Our immigration officers are pretty sick and tired of the poor quality of referrals being sent to them. They are bogged down so badly that it is eating at their time. They feel they are not able to properly handle their work.
In 1991 we learned that the immigration department hired a contractor because the quality of referrals from the primary inspection line were so poor. The Ekos report found that in August, a peak travel period when a massive number of students is employed, more than 50,000 immigration referrals to secondary inspections were missed.
I do not understand why the minister will not remove students as a first line of defence or at least make provisions for them to be properly trained. It should be more than two weeks of training.
I want to remind the House that in the past week the American government has tripled its border workforce. The Americans increased their officers by 5,400 people and their border patrol officers to 900 persons along the Canada-U.S. border. Our minister announced last week the addition of 139 employees.
When I look at this I can understand the disappointment from the people on our side as to why this is not much of a priority. If the Americans have information that indicates they need 5,400 people on the border, what information do they have that we do not? Do the American officials understand that our immigration policy is so weak that they must defend against those travelling through Canada with the United States as their final destination and getting prepared for that? They have a lot of reasons to think that.
I want to express one more time that terrorism is an extremely serious situation. We have provided answers through consultation with those on the front lines, as much as we could, and with the police associations at every opportunity and they are on side with our suggestions. We have consulted with other agencies that like what we have to say with regard to what we should be doing. However, there are some people across the way who will not listen. They do not listen. They like their simplistic solution of letting the bureaucrats deal with it.
What else is new? I think that has been going on for 30 or 40 years. Once this government decides we ought to have a few reforms within our own country that respect democracy to a better degree, we might see the changes that are essential.
When I look at what is happening today, it is tiring to see day in and day out that respect for democracy by members across the way is diminishing and that there is little or no concern for protecting our people who are providing the service.
I hope that some day the members on that side will wake up and recognize that our first priority, particularly at this time, should be protecting our country and providing security. I hope that one day they will start acting on this.