Montreal

Cameras replace border guards at small Quebec crossing

At a tiny crossing between Quebec and Vermont, the Canada Border Services Agency is testing out new technology that replaces border guards with cameras. The union warns the system presents a threat to public security.

Pilot project sees travellers processed remotely by agents hundreds of kilometres away

The Morses Line border crossing between Vermont and Quebec uses remotely-operated cameras to process travellers during off-hours. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

At a tiny crossing between Quebec and Vermont, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is testing out new technology experts say could be the future of border control for small and remote crossings across the country.

Others say the pilot project sets a dangerous precedent and presents a threat to public security.

When you arrive at the Morses Line crossing from the U.S. side after 4 p.m., you aren't greeted by border guards.

Instead, non-commercial travellers drive into a garage equipped with powerful cameras, operated by a border agent hundreds of kilometres away, in Hamilton, Ont.

"The person in Hamilton has complete control of the port of entry," said Claudia Rosetti, a superintendent for the CBSA in an interview. 

"They have access to the same systems in order to make the verifications as if the office were open, and the officer were on site."

CBSA Supt. Claudia Rosetti says the border is overseen by someone in Hamilton in those periods. (CBC)

Under a pilot project launched last January, travellers pull up to a kiosk outfitted with a microphone, cameras and document readers.

Questions asked remotely

The border agent in Hamilton asks questions and can use the cameras to zoom in and inspect the vehicle. Exits and entrances to the facility are protected by fencing and crash-proof gates.

If an in-person inspection is needed, the Hamilton agent orders the travellers to stay put, while border officers are dispatched from the next-closest crossing, about 13 km away.

The one-year pilot project included a new building at Morses Line and, along with the technology, cost $16 million to implement.

Travellers drive into a garage equipped with powerful cameras, operated by a border agent hundreds of kilometres away, in Hamilton, Ont. (CBC)

More than 4,000 travellers have used the off-hours services since it launched, the CBSA says.  

Once the pilot phase is completed in January, CBSA will assess the project to determine if it should be expanded.

Threat to public security, says union

But the union representing border guards says replacing physical agents with cameras is a bad move that threatens public security.

"You're talking about the first line of defence of this country here, so you are leaving that to a camera," said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president for the Customs and Immigration Union.

"It certainly jeopardizes the security."

Travellers pull up to this kiosk and speak with an agent in Hamilton, Ont. They can also scan travel documents and make duty payments. (Alison Northcott/CBC)
Fortin says he's heard from agents who use the technology from Hamilton, and have reservations about it.

"They don't have a clear overview of the car, they don't have a clear overview of the people in the car, they don't have a clear overview of what's in the car," he said.

"Actually they are letting people through and at times they seem to have some concerns in regards to this."

Potential for other small crossings

Morses Line is one of several small or remote border crossings in Canada.

Only about 30 to 40 vehicles cross from Franklin, Vt., into Saint-Armand, Que., each day.

The former Conservative government reduced the crossing's hours in 2011 at the same time it closed three other small crossings. Now, it's once again open 24 hours a day.

Réal Pelletier, the mayor of Saint-Armand, Que., says he's in favour of the new border technology. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

"For me, it's a great option," said Saint-Armand Mayor Réal Pelletier.

His community sits on the edge of the Canadian border with Vermont. Families and farmland spill across the border. Local residents, businesses and farmers have used Morses Line as a convenient crossing for generations.

"[The technology] will never replace a human being, but having that or a closed border or a reduced hours border, I'll choose that 100 per cent," he said.

Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor, says remote processing could provide a lifeline to other small crossings, as long as there are border agents available nearby who can get there quickly if needed.

"You have a lot of these land border crossings and you get small towns that have sort of grown up around them, and it's very difficult to justify the costs of putting the personnel in there," said Anderson.

"So, this is sort of a practical way to keep the border open in that location."

With files from Jessica Rubinger

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