How peace officers control who gets across New Brunswick borders
Unprecedented controls at provincial borders watched closely by experts
Since the closing of New Brunswick's borders in March, the province has moved dozens of employees to work at border checkpoints, screening travellers for COVID-19.
The large-scale operation at all points of entry shows no signs of scaling down, even with the opening of New Brunswick to Atlantic Canadian travellers.
On day six of the Atlantic bubble, about a dozen peace officers screened drivers entering from Nova Scotia at the Aulac crossing, near Amherst, N.S. Vehicles were sorted into lanes, and officers walked up to car windows, clipboards in hand, to ask a list of questions.
The oncoming line of traffic, a mix of commercial trucks and passenger vehicles, snaked around the bend in the highway and out of sight several kilometres away. It moved steadily toward the checkpoint, as officers tried to screen each vehicle as quickly as possible.
The staff at these screening areas work around the clock, and are a diverse group of provincial employees: forest rangers, commercial vehicle enforcement officers, corrections officers and others who are considered peace officers.
They have taken on a new role, working 12-hour shifts at the province's boundaries, and are now responsible for exercising discretion in determining if a traveller meets the criteria to enter.
It's a move some law enforcement and border experts are following closely.
Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University, said the pandemic has resulted in unprecedented changes to travel within the country.
"I cannot see another example in Canadian history where we've had peace officers controlling our inter-provincial borders," he said.
Peace officers are defined under the Criminal Code of Canada as people acting in a law enforcement capacity. The province has used forest rangers, conservation officers, commercial vehicle enforcement officers, off road vehicle enforcement officers, national safety code investigators, general investigative service members, corrections officers and sheriff officers.
Border checkpoints have been used by other provinces earlier in the pandemic to control certain regions — but not to the extent of the Maritimes.
The Quebec government set up screening points to stop non-essential travel in the national capital region between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que. Those operations were run by Gatineau's municipal police before the provincial government removed the checkpoints in May.
Many provinces established checkpoints staffed by public health officials to provide information on COVID-19 safety measures. Those were largely informational and not designed to control interprovincial travel.
No independent public oversight
Under the state of emergency, the province has a law enforcement coordination group which oversees the use of peace officers. It is led by the commanding officer of the RCMP's division for New Brunswick.
Peace officers at the borders are not subject to an independent public review in the event of a complaint. Instead, the Department of Public Safety says it has an internal system in place for investigations.
Sundberg, who studies borders and policing, said the lack of an external process is understandable, given the state of emergency. But it could be problematic amid the current climate and concerns around law enforcement, especially if the checkpoints remain for a long period of time.
"There's a public expectation it will be independent or outside," he said.
The dozens of staff involved are sometimes moved to different locations, and different shifts, working during the day or at night, switching off at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
They run screening operations at 11 points of entry to New Brunswick, including three airports and the ferry terminal in Saint John. The peace officers are rotated in and out to give them time to continue working in their regular positions if needed.
The Department of Public Safety has on average four to eight peace officers at checkpoints, supplemented by administrative screeners. Those numbers can be higher during periods of heavy traffic to maintain flow.
In a 24 hour period, the province has an average of 40 peace officers with 25 screeners working at the borders.
The RCMP has also been assisting with screening at multiple locations since border restrictions began in March.
Demands on staffing
John Lunney is the acting deputy chief for the Department of Public Safety's inspection enforcement branch. He is a peace officer and said other officers within various New Brunswick departments were given the opportunity to help.
"I'm sure some peace officers probably find it a challenge based on what it is they're faced with," Lunney said. "But our staff are professional, we give them good training and I think they conduct themselves professionally each and every time."
Lunney said finding staff on an ongoing basis has been a challenge.
"The people of New Brunswick and the people of Atlantic Canada and the United States have all been primarily gracious and understanding because they want their health protected as well," he said. "But there's been the odd challenge with the odd difficult personality."
Measures to speed up travel
Since the Atlantic travel bubble opened on July 3, some officers have been forced to adapt to screening thousands of vehicles per day.
When traffic backed up for kilometres on the first day at the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border, vehicles were waved through to speed up the process. Since then, a second lane has been added for commuters and commercial vehicles. Those heading to Prince Edward Island are no longer screened and instead directed to the highway exit for the Confederation Bridge.
Daily commuters crossing for work are provided with a pass to allow for quicker travel between provinces.
Public safety officials are also constructing a paved area in the median to make space for trailers, clearing more space on the highway.
The officers ask travellers if they have left the Atlantic region in the past 14 days and if they have any symptoms of COVID-19. If they need to self-isolate, a peace officer will explain the rules and requirements.
Lunney said training has been provided to employees on effective screening and the types of questions to ask travellers. They also receive safety training on best practices and personal protection equipment.
'It's never been done before'
Steven Schneider, a criminology professor at Saint Mary's University, said police have stopped vehicles between provinces in instances of violence, such as mass killings.
Peace officers have been tasked to do other jobs during times of emergencies, such as forest fires, flooding and other natural disasters. Shortly after 9/11 there were some peace officers and police officers deployed to do specialized work.
But, the current use of peace officers is unique.
Schneider is concerned provincial border restrictions will continue for a longer period of time.
"There should be free movement between provinces without any kind of checkpoints or concerns that people are going to be stopped by police."
Sundberg said beyond environment officers checking boats for invasive plants, there really isn't another example of any kind of provincial checkpoint that would occur with regularity.
It just shows the extraordinary nature of this pandemic and the controls that some jurisdictions are taking.- Kelly Sundberg, associate professor at Mount Royal University
Sundberg has worked in customs and immigration and helped create the Canada Border Services Agency. He studies border policy and has been following New Brunswick's use of checkpoints closely.
He said the geography of New Brunswick and other Atlantic provinces allows for travel restrictions with checkpoints, unlike large western provinces where boundaries are too long to effectively control.
"It just shows the extraordinary nature of this pandemic and the controls that some jurisdictions are taking," he said.
"It's never been done before, so it's definitely something that's going to cause questions among some."
Peace officers from various law enforcement backgrounds all receive general training. While they are all armed at the provincial borders, most would typically also have a firearm in their usual job.
"I'm sure it's very different for those crossing the border, trying to cross the border into New Brunswick, it would be very unique and perhaps unsettling for some," Sundberg said. "But I think at the end of the day, the province decided what it needed to do and is doing this with the best intentions, I'm sure."