Thunder Bay

RCMP vow to step up patrols on Rainy Lake, looking for border infractions

The promise of the RCMP patrolling Rainy Lake and other border waters in northwestern Ontario is a good start to alleviating some of Scott Hamilton's concerns over U.S. fishing guides bringing their clients into Canadian waters.

Canadian fishing guides frustrated that U.S. anglers can cross without customs clearance

An RCMP vessel is seen in this file photo from 2015. The force says it will step up border patrols in northwestern Ontario, particularly around Fort Frances and Rainy Lake. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

The promise of the RCMP patrolling Rainy Lake and other border waters in northwestern Ontario is a good start to alleviating some of Scott Hamilton's concerns over U.S. fishing guides bringing their clients into Canadian waters.

Hamilton, a fishing guide based in Fort Frances, Ont., raised concerns this past winter that anglers were able to cross the border without having to clear customs.

His concern eventually led to a meeting with RCMP, OPP, Canada Border Services Agency and Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, along with other guides and lodge owners.

"There's nobody saying no to these people at all, especially when we have people who need these jobs here," Hamilton said.

"As far as I'm concerned, you've got American guides coming into Canada depleting the fishery and the experience for people who do come to Canada."

"Those people who are coming into Canada, nobody knows who they are, there's nobody checking them. They just run and they get turned around at the border here because they have [an impaired driving charge] or a felony. They're going to be at another lodge in the U.S. anyway," Hamilton said about clients who may use a U.S. guide to circumvent admissibility to Canada.

"[The U.S. guides] are making money. They don't care. They're both paying. And I asked [the RCMP] directly, do you know what was in those boats coming over and what they're carrying in their in their pockets? You know what you're doing over here when they're here? They have no idea."

The issue, Hamilton said, has been going on for years.

Scott Hamilton owns Jackfish Hammy's Guide Service, which operates on Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods. He says U.S. fishing guides bring their clients into Canadian waters, cutting into the income for Canadian guides. (Facebook)

The RCMP is responsible for patrolling the waterways, and enforcing customs and entry rules. Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for the land entry points, at Pigeon River, Fort Frances and Rainy River.

While Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is the enforcement agency on the water the most often, it doesn't have the authority to ask for work permits or other customs documents, said Staff Sergeant Grant Painter, the ministry's area enforcement manager.

"If we came across an issue that was obvious or that we suspected of having some issue of non-compliance for lack of a better term, we would hand that off to the appropriate partner that we have," Painter said.

"These concerns are not new concerns that have been raised. Conservation officers are out on the water quite a bit. They interact with with fishing guides on a regular basis. They interact with the lodge owners, with these people that make their living on the landscape," he added, noting he was pleased the RCMP were able to hear the concerns of lodge owners and guides.

Inspector Rae Groff, the operations officer for the RCMP's border integrity program, said the meeting with guides and outfitters had the force rethink its strategy for patrolling the border.

Groff said the force had changed its priorities and was not patrolling the Rainy Lake area as often, instead often focusing on gangs and drugs.

"That prevented us from doing those those types of patrols and being in that area specifically," Groff said, noting there is no longer an RCMP detachment in Fort Frances, with officers coming from the Thunder Bay detachment nearly 350 kilometres away.   

"It was identified that in these different areas that there were some some concerns of people coming across the border when they shouldn't be, or again with the outfitters perhaps fishing in our area when when they shouldn't be."

Groff said the RCMP leaves the interpretation of Bill S-233, an amendment to the Customs Act, up to the border services agency. Officers will enforce the rules, as they are interpreted by the border agency.

The Canada Border Services Agency declined CBC's request for an interview, but did provide written responses to a number of questions.

A pair of boats full of anglers fish for walleye, one of the key sport fishery species in northwestern Ontario. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

The agency wrote it is legal for U.S. guides to come into Canada to fish, however, all of those crossing into Canada need to be eligible to do so, meaning they wouldn't be turned around at a regular port of entry for having a criminal record, for example.

"Individuals do not need to present themselves and report their goods to the CBSA when entering Canadian waters (territorial or boundary), so long as they do not land, anchor, moor or make contact with another conveyance while in Canada, or embark or disembark any people or goods in Canada," the agency wrote. 

"While these exceptions from presentation and reporting allow persons to enter Canadian waters for transit or loop movements (touring, sightseeing, pleasure fishing, etc.) without reporting to the CBSA as long as they do not land, anchor, or moor their vessel, they do not include relief from any other existing requirements, such as being properly documented to enter Canada, possession of work permits and, when required, possession of fishing licences, etc." 

The agency also wrote that fishing guides working on lakes that straddle the Canada-U.S. border need seasonal work permits, although those permits are Labour Market Impact Assessment exempt, on the fact that guides based in Canada have a similar privilege in the U.S.

Canadian outfitters near Fort Frances, Ont., are concerned over rules which allow Americans to fish in Canadian waters, without clearing customs. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Hamilton said the reciprocity is virtually useless, as it is more difficult to obtain the U.S. work permit, and the angling is better in Canada — which is why US guides bring their clients to Canada in the first place, he said.

CBC News reached out to a number of U.S. based guides, who advertise they bring clients to Canada on fishing trips, but received no response.

Political response

The frustration is not lost on Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski, who has heard of the longstanding issue on the border lakes.

"There's an accusation on the Canadian side that a lot of the guys that come up with these parties of Americans do not have work permits. And in the past, there hasn't been enforcement of the law where where boaters have been stopped and people have been asked if their guides to show them their work permits," Powlowski said, noting he hoped increased enforcement would satisfy many of the concerns of guides and lodge owners.

"I think the response they're looking for is to have less people coming over, taking the fish. Possibly overfishing the Canadian side and taking away jobs."

"If there continues to be large number of people coming over because we're giving a lot of work permits to people on the American side, then then this isn't the answer to the issue. Then the answer becomes, I think, should we be limiting the number of work permits that we're issuing to the American side."


Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.