Border agency cuts questioned as drug busts rise

Drug busts by the Canada Border Services Agency rose 10 per cent between 2007 and 2012, according to agency data, but critics fear a shift in focus and federal budget cuts threaten Canada's effort to stop drugs from entering the country.

Data shows increase in number of drug seizures over past six years

Busted at the Border

10 years ago
Duration 12:48
Former RCMP officer Garry Clement and national president of the Customs and Immigration Union Jean-Pierre Fortin discuss why drug seizures at the Canadian border are on the rise

Drug busts by the Canada Border Services Agency rose 10 per cent between 2007 and 2012, according to a CBC News analysis of agency data that reveals what some say is just a fraction of a multibillion-dollar flow of illegal drugs into Canada.

But critics fear Canada is about to take a step back in its war on drug smuggling due to a shift in focus and budget cuts to border security.

The data, obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics through Access to Information, provides details on drug seizures totalling more than $5.5 billion over the six years.

The top drugs seized 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.

Border seizures 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.

Read more about the data 

"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.

Montreal and Toronto are hot spots. In fact, Montreal accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the total value of seizures for the period analyzed by CBC News.

"Montreal gets a lot of volume," says Ken Cornell, the sergeant in charge of the RCMP program that tackles synthetic drugs like ecstasy.

He says organized criminals create a huge demand, and Montreal is a hub for many of the goods coming into Canada east of Ontario.

"And 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."

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.

Cocaine was among the top three drugs seized by the CBSA between 2007 and 2012. A shipment of pineapples intercepted at the Port of Saint John, N.B., in 2011 concealed cocaine valued at $3.5 million, according to the CBSA. (Canada Border Services Agency photo/Marketwire)

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," the officer told CBC News. "And in there, there are priorities for the government. Human smuggling. Human trafficking. Controlled substances. Those are all the priorities that the agency has. 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 email 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 show 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 combatting 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.

Worried about cuts

The increased seizures are coming at a time when the CBSA, like many federal employers, must make 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.

The union for border services officers says federal budget cuts announced last year will mean the loss of hundreds of frontline officers. CBSA would not comment on the cuts. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

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.

Fortin, the union president, 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."


David McKie is a journalist and producer with Power & Politics in the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa.