Canada and the U.S. have been negotiating to do away with some small border crossings and merge others as part of the far-reaching perimeter security deal recently announced between the two countries.

A leaked internal presentation of the bi-national Small Port Working Group reveals details of the negotiations over the fate of so-called "small ports of entry," rural or small-town crossings stretching from St. Stephen, N.B., to Chopaka, B.C.

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Work proceeds on a new state-of-the-art border post at Richford, Vt., where Canada recently scaled back hours at its post of East Pinnacle, Que. (CBC)

The document discusses four options being considered by officials with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for each of the 52 land crossings. The options are sharing facilities, mirroring working hours, using a "remote-technology solution," or closing the posts altogether.

At some smaller posts, the two countries will seek to cut costs by sharing facilities. This arrangement has already existed for many years at some posts and is generally considered to have worked well. For example, Canada currently pays for a shared facility in Noyan, Que., while the U.S. picks up the tab for a joint border post at Carson, B.C.

Opposition questions move

In question period Thursday, NDP MP Brian Masse asked the Conservative government why they were planning to close the crossings and questioned how long they had been planning the moves.

"These border crossings are the lifeblood of these communities all across the country," said Masse.

MPP Candice Hoeppner, the parliamentary secretary to public safety minister Vic Toews said no decisions have been made regarding the draft report.

"Our government is focused on ensuring that the shared border we have with the U.S. is secure while easing the flow of legitimate trade and travel. We are investing in our borders and we continue to do so," she said.

The Harper government has already announced its intention to add new lanes to ease jams at some of the busiest border crossings.

But although the deal will make crossing the border more convenient for some, that won’t necessarily be true for people in places like Bloomfield, N.B., or Piney, Man. The presentation reveals that CBSA and CBP are looking into closing a total of nine border posts. Manitoba could potentially lose three, B.C. two, and Alberta, Quebec, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick one each.

For some border-dwellers, the changes could bring inconvenience. The small farming community of Morses Line is on both sides of the Quebec-Vermont border and normally sees about 80 vehicle crossings a day, but can see as many as 200 on a summer weekend. It already saw the hours of operation reduced at the border post on the Canadian side this past spring, which now closes at 4 p.m. The U.S Customs and Border Patrol is currently seeking public comment on closing the post entirely.

Three very small border posts were already closed on April 1 at Jamieson’s Line and Franklin Centre in Quebec, and at Big Beaver in Saskatchewan. Since U.S. customs remains open at those posts, it is still possible to enter the U.S., but not to return to Canada. 

Even as Canada announced plans last year to close Franklin Centre, the U.S. was building a state-of-the-art border facility just a few hundred metres away in Churubusco, N.Y., using seven million dollars of federal infrastructure money. Work on that project halted following the Canadian announcement.

SMALL BORDER CROSSINGS

Sharing facilities: At some border crossings, such as Noonan, N.D., and Estevan, Sask., U.S. and Canadian border guards will combine their operations into one shared border post, where both will work under one roof. Shared facilities have been in use for almost two decades.

Mirroring hours:  At places like the crossing between Pittsburg, N.H., and Chartierville, Que., American and Canadian border guards will adjust their shifts to match each other, eliminating the differences that now exist. In most places, hours would be reduced rather than increased.

Remote solution: According to the presentation, some border posts such as Estcourt, Maine to Pohenegamook, Que., will become unmanned crossings. Travellers will speak to border guards through a camera; the guards themselves could be hundreds of kilometres distant. Some CBSA staff have expressed concerns that there will be no one to physically search vehicles entering Canada at these crossings, making them ideal entry points for contraband. Other than a reference to "technology-only processing solutions," there is no mention of unmanned border posts in the action plan released on Wednesday.

Closure: Where border posts are closed, roads will typically be blocked and legitimate travellers will have to travel further to find alternative crossings.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security soon came under pressure from New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who stated in a press release that "our businesses and construction workers in the North Country depend on this project to meet their bottom line and provide for their families."

In that case U.S. domestic political considerations trumped cross-border co-ordination, and work on the U.S. border post soon resumed. Canada still has no plans to reopen its side of the border.

A similar situation arose at East Pinnacle, Que., where Canada cut back opening hours in April. Now the small Canadian border post is open from only 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while the 24-hour U.S. border post is being upgraded with a new multi-million dollar facility.

In many cases, the document shows that CBSA and CBP continue to debate various options for the smaller ports of entry. For example, at the crossing from Amrose, N.D., to Torquay, Sask., the two governments had not yet decided by this summer whether to share facilities, install remote cameras at an unmanned post, or close the post altogether. In Bloomfield, N.B. – Monticello, Maine, on the other hand, closure is the only option being considered.

The leaked document suggests that planning has advanced further than is acknowledged in the official Beyond the Border "action plan" released by the Government of Canada on Dec. 6. There, under the heading "Next Steps," the action plan mentions "establishing a Small and Remote Port Working Group to evaluate a binational approach to operational alignment (for example, mirroring hours), infrastructure investment and improved service."

But the leaked presentation makes clear that the Small Port Working Group has already been meeting since last January.

Unstaffed border posts

Another controversial element of the negotiations is a plan to turn several crossings into unstaffed border posts where travellers will speak to border guards through a camera connected to a distant headquarters. That option is being considered for 23 crossings, stretching from Fosterville, N.B., to Nelway, B.C.

CBC News showed Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, the leaked document, and he expressed surprise over how far discussions had proceeded.

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"It's way further, obviously, than we thought it was," he said.

Fortin said some ideas, like harmonizing hours and sharing facilities make sense. However, he said some vulnerabilities remain, including the lack of a comprehensive Canadian border patrol.

"I think we need to create a border patrol with the officers of CBSA," he said.

Fortin also said he had some concerns how remote technology would work.

"What about if the person actually is not admissible? And he's right in front of your camera, and you're talking to him via a phone line or something — you need to have somebody on site," Fortin said.

"And also I'm concerned about the cost efficiency of this — how much the technology would cost versus having our officers there that would actually be prepared to intervene immediately."

Despite his concerns, Fortin said that the he sees some signs of hope in the broader Canada-U.S. deal announced last week.

"We see hope in that document, with the initiative of the perimeter," he said. "It's just that right now we don't see, actually, you know, at our level, what that's going to imply for our officers."

Corrections

  • A caption on a photograph in an earlier version of this story identified the Richford border post near East Pinnacle, Que., as being in New York. The Richford border post is in Vermont.
    Oct 12, 2013 1:32 AM ET