Montreal is one of the hot spots in the country when it comes to drug smuggling, and it accounted for two-thirds of the more than $5.5 billion worth of drugs seized by the Canada Border Services Agency over the past six years, according to CBC News analysis of CBSA data.
"Montreal gets a lot of volume," says Ken Cornell, the sergeant in charge of the RCMP program that tackles synthetic drugs like Ecstasy.
Drug busts by the Canada Border Services Agency rose 10 per cent between 2007 and 2012, and seizures totalled more than $5.5 billion over the six years, based on CBC News analysis of CBSA data obtained by CBC News Network’s Power & Politics through Access to Information.
But critics fear Canada is about to take a step back in its war on drugs with a shift in focus and budget cuts.
Cornell says organized criminals create a huge demand, and Montreal is a hub for many of the goods coming into Canada east of Ontario.
"You have to appreciate that everything that comes through Halifax at the container terminal goes to Montreal. Everything that comes off the ships in Halifax also forms part of their seizures in Montreal. A lot comes from the train from the East Coast into Montreal and that’s where it’s cleared first." said Cornell.
Ron Moran, vice-president of the CBSA, said the numbers are alarming, but not surprising.
"Unfortunately, Montreal is known as being the … primary entry point for drugs for the Canadian and North American market."
He said a lack of resources is partially responsible for that.
"Very often we have to drop countless numbers of leads simply because we don't have the resources to pursue them," Moran said.
"Would all those leads have given us results? We have no way of telling you and that's where it gets very frustrating."
The top drugs seized in Canada over the six-year period were GHB, often called the date-rape drug, marijuana and cocaine, totalling $1.4 billion, $1.3 billion and $1 billion, respectively.
"The drug volumes are increasing," says Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the union that represents border guards, while pointing out the agency only seizes a small fraction of the drugs streaming into Canada by land, air, water and through the mail.
The CBSA database tracks commodities seized at land-border crossings, ports, airports and mail centres. The smuggled goods also include guns, Tasers, brass knuckles, child pornography and currency.
Shift in focus?
Analysis of the data shows the number of busts valued at more than $500,000 increased from 11 in 2007 to 14 in 2012.
"Controlled substances (narcotics) are always going to be a priority for the agency," said a Canada Border Services intelligence officer who did not want to be identified publicly for fear of losing his job.
But the officer said he’s been told to spend less time pursuing organized criminals and more time on the government’s priority: human smuggling related to refugee and immigration reform.
"We have a system that all of our intelligence data is entered into. Organized crime’s not in there. It was a year ago. It’s not anymore."
CBSA refused to comment on the officer’s allegation or on the CBC’s analysis of its data, other than to suggest in an e-mail there are "a multitude of factors that may impact statistics," such as "traveller volumes and/or size/volume of a seizure."
Indeed, land-border figures the agency provided to CBC News shows travellers arriving in Canada by car increased by almost 10 per cent between 2010 and 2012.
"It should be noted," the CBSA correspondence continued, "that one enforcement action can be equal to one gram of illegal narcotics, or it can represent multiple kilograms of narcotics."
Still, Garry Clement, a former 30-year RCMP veteran and now CEO of Tamlo International Inc., a company that provides advice on combating drug smuggling and other international crimes, said the numbers suggest Canada is a "transhipment point for drugs coming into North America."
Clement says Canada is a magnet for smugglers who take advantage of our relatively "porous" borders and laxer sentencing compared to the United States, despite the Conservative government’s recent changes to punish criminals with heavier jail sentences.
How we got the data
The Canada Border Services Agency keeps a database of all illegal goods it seizes at land-border crossings, ports, airports and mail centres.
The commodities include guns, child pornography and drugs. CBC News requested the CBSA database five years ago under Access to Information but received only partial information in a PDF format.
Following a complaint to the federal Information Commissioner, CBC News successfully argued the agency had an obligation to release the information in database format, although a second complaint to receive more complete records was unsuccessful.
Worried about the cuts
The increased seizures are coming at a time when the CBSA, like many federal employers, must make deep cuts announced in last year’s budget.
The government announced last year the agency’s budget would be cut by 10 per cent, resulting in the loss of 250 frontline officers.
The union disputes that figure, suggesting the real number is 325, with an overall total of 1,350 agency workers over the next two years.
Those cuts are on top of the fact that annual hiring by the agency has fallen in recent years. In a formal response to a question from the NDP on the cuts, the agency said its annual hiring went from an all-time high of 1,037 new officers in 2007-2008 to 222 in 2011-2012.
"It looks from the numbers that we need to beef (the agency) up," said Andrew Cash, the NDP MP who received the response signed by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the CBSA.
"I guess we’re going to have to wait a year to see the impact of the cuts in terms of how many seizures."
The border guards’ union is sounding a louder alarm.
Union president Jean-Pierre Fortin says contrary to the government’s claim the cuts would only affect "backroom" operations, the austerity measures will give smugglers the upper hand.
He says the agency’s cuts include plans to eliminate intelligence officers and handlers who work with drug-sniffing dogs.
"If they’re cutting these positions, that’s a major problem," he said.
The CBSA refused to discuss the cuts in an interview, but explained in an email that "using a risk-based approach, the agency will focus on intelligence activities in priority areas by eliminating work in all non-priority areas, and enhancing oversight and monitoring of intelligence program activities."