Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased and honoured to take part in this important debate on Bill C-26.
I should mention at the outset that I will be splitting my time with my colleague from St. John's South—Mount Pearl. Following my remarks, he will be giving an eloquent dissertation and enlightening the House and Canadians with respect to the issue of the Coast Guard for which he has a longstanding affinity and a great deal of knowledge.
This bill is in a bit of a lag in coming a year late and is somewhat short in some areas in setting up this new border services agency. It is aimed in particular at bringing together several existing agencies, including an immigration program for ports of entry at citizenship and immigration, as well as import inspection duties from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Overall it is an attempt to improve, facilitate and bring together some of the existing agencies.
All goods and individuals entering the country today must report through this new service. The responsibility to ensure that travellers, items and services coming into Canada are admissible will fall on this new department. Clearly this is an extremely important agency and one which will have far-reaching powers and responsibilities. It is one which is heavily tasked to meet the new realities post 9/11, the new threats that exist in the world today.
There is responsibility as well for some of the more technical attempts by our country to augment our security, augment our trade and the speed with which we are able to send goods across the border to the United States, including the smart border initiative, the 30 point action plan that was initially introduced back in December 2001. There is also the FAST program. As well there is the Nexus system, which is aimed at simplifying and streamlining the border crossings for pre-approved low risk travellers.
All of these initiatives are wonderful and ones which we in the Conservative Party certainly endorse and encourage. The difficulty has been that we have seen this ongoing trend of announcements and re-announcements and efforts to garner as much public attention and support without actually doing it, without actually taking the important productive steps of implementing rather than talking about these particular initiatives.
My party would far rather see the actual effort and focus on putting these practices in place, improving the training and technology, and increasing the personnel. This is a problem that is repeatedly encountered. Whether it is Correctional Service Canada, the RCMP or the armed forces, we are seeing a dwindling of resources, the chief resource being individuals who are tasked with carrying out these important jobs.
There are a number of issues I would like to address. In the shortness of time I am going to refer first to the issue of the number of border guards or agents who are working alone at some of the ports of entry. Canada has 147 land and 13 marine border crossings. Some 103 of them are designated as work alone sites and are found mostly in remote parts of the country.
Seventy per cent of the work sites have technical difficulties with respect to communications tools. What I am talking about is the ability to access something as simple as the CPIC system. This causes real problems in terms of accessing important information as to who may have outstanding warrants, who may be seen as a security risk, information about individuals that is relevant to their crossing, such as whether they have a criminal record. I am told that much of that system is either inaccessible or is not up to date.
There was a very tragic incident recently which highlights the fact that many of these border crossings are basically guarded by a single individual. A young man, I believe he was 42 years of age, Adam Angel, who was a border agent, recently died of an illness and an affliction at Roosville, British Columbia, one of the remote crossings. He was working alone. There is no point obviously in speculating whether if somebody else had been there, that other person may have been able to assist him. He was working alone. Those are questions, tragically, that will never be answered. Certainly it is something that his family will have to come to grips with.
The member for Kootenay—Columbia has raised this issue in the House a number of times and has raised issues with respect to female border employees who also work alone at this same crossing. An alarm system was broken at Roosville and a communication network was deemed to be inoperative. These are dangerous situations that are currently being unaddressed or ignored by the government.
We can talk about the sophisticated attempts to improve border security, but it is personnel first and foremost, and shortcomings that would have to be addressed. Border officers are not allowed to carry firearms. If they need backup after encountering a dangerous situation, they are expected to call the RCMP. That is understandable. However in the moment when the danger presents itself, they are currently armed with batons or pepper spray of some sort. I would suggest that is insufficient, particularly if they are working alone at a remote border crossing where they are not able to access information. It is a recipe for disaster plain and simple.
I understand as well that in some of the remote locations it would take over an hour for the RCMP to actually respond. This would exacerbate the situation for an individual who found himself or herself in conflict with somebody entering the country.
Students are being used currently to replace rather than supplement border agents. With the greatest respect and the need we have in the country to employ students, this often puts students at risk. They have very insufficient or superfluous training of up two weeks. The shadowing of senior border officers varies from location to location, but 90% of these students are put in frontline positions. At one point in time after 9/11, over half of the customs officers at Pearson airport were students. Again, I say that with the greatest respect to those young people who are getting this training, but is the security risk really worth it in this capacity?
The Auditor General in her 2003 report expressed major concern about the safety of the students and the country. She stated:
Because they make critical decisions at the primary inspection line, we remain concerned that the inconsistent training of students could pose an unnecessary risk for Customs.
This comes from the impartial auditor, the watchdog of the country.
Border officials also themselves are on record saying they need more full time indeterminate employees to be hired. The current program renews worries of those employees at the CBSA. In some cases there are less indeterminate full time officers than there were before the planes hit the towers in New York on 9/11.
Last July in Sydney, Nova Scotia, one of the Prime Minister's ships, and I point this out only for illustration, the Sheila Anne , was found to have more than $1 million worth of cocaine in a grate attached to the bottom of the ship. Customs officers indicate that they found this as a fluke and Susan Horne, the president of the Customs Excise Union in Nova Scotia said:
The security is not good... there are not enough officers in Sydney to search a vessel.
I also understand they had to hire a private diver to inspect this particular ship. The disbanding of the ports police as referred to by my colleague from St. John's again highlights the lack of security often found at ports in this country.
We also know that individuals have been identified who have criminal records who are particularly vulnerable to being co-opted or are simply told not to show up at a certain point on the port at a certain point in time when goods are being brought in. Not to sound alarmist, but I have often maintained that the clearest danger, the present danger to this country is not through the air and is not across land; it is on the water.
Anything from child pornography, to trafficking in individuals, or a nuclear bomb can come into this country undetected. We currently inspect less that 3% of the containers coming into the major ports. That is not even touching upon the vast unguarded coastlines in this country. The decimation of our Coast Guard further underscores the need to turn our attention to this.
References to having the additional security for our Coast Guard by putting it into the military is an interesting suggestion or putting it into this particular security envelope is fine, as long as the necessary resources, personnel and equipment accompany that move. Simply banting the Coast Guard back and forth between Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans, or if we put it into another department does nothing to increase security. It is merely optics.
Equipment and interoperability of equipment is another issue that has to be addressed. Border officials have told us repeatedly that there are big problems with the current databases that they can access. In some cases we are told that the Americans can access the CPIC system but Canadian officials cannot.
The Auditor General pointed this out again with respect to her 2004 report. She spoke of the 139 LiveScan machines that were purchased to improve turnaround time for fingerprint analysis. She went on to say that the benefits were marginal at best, and the fact that Transport Canada processed four times more fingerprints was not due to the introduction of this new technology but due to the addition of personnel from the RCMP and Transport Canada.
Once again it is an issue of putting the people in place, not simply talking about the benefits, not simply talking about the new equipment but putting actual personnel in place.
There are terrorist watch lists at border controls, yet if we have those lists and cannot access them, they do no good. It is like a tree falling in the forest; if nobody hears it, it did not happen.
These types of approaches repeatedly seem to go unnoticed. They are not pointed out when the government is espousing the virtues of its new system.
I will turn the floor over to my colleague who will speak further about the need to address the rust out of infrastructure and the border delays that he is aware of.
The Conservative Party will be supporting this legislation because at least it is a step in the right direction. There is often a need and ability to amend the legislation which we will undertake to do. We will continue to push the government to hold it to account to do these things rather than simply talk about them.