Border guards fired guns 18 times in a decade — accidentally in most cases

Their union says the fact guards drew their guns 299 times during that period to defuse potentially dangerous situations shows why more of them should be armed at Canadian airports.

Canada Border Services Agency data show on-duty agents drew their firearms 299 times since July 2007

Border agents have fired their weapons only 18 times since they were equipped with sidearms a decade ago. (CBC Edmonton)

Canadian border guards have fired their guns only 18 times since the government equipped them with firearms a decade ago, and 11 of the shots were accidental discharges.

Another six were to euthanize wounded animals, and in one case, the weapon was used to fend off an attacking dog, according to data provided to CBC News by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

CBSA officers have drawn a duty firearm 299 times since July 2007.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union that represents border agents, said that figure is "significant" because it represents the number of potentially dangerous situations that were defused by firearms.

Fortin said the role of the border officer has shifted dramatically over the years. Now there is heavy focus on national security, counterterrorism and law enforcement, including intercepting impaired drivers, whereas the primary task was previously duty and tax collection.

"At the end of the day, we are the front line of defence for the country," he said. "In past, you let them go and call the police, so these individuals who could be a potential threat actually are being dealt with at the border now." 

Fortin said guns serve as a deterrent and help calm individuals who are agitated, threatening or physically aggressive.

Guns at airports?

The union is now pushing to expand the authority of agents to carry weapons at Canadian airports. Right now only certain agents under "specific and limited circumstances" are authorized to carry firearms at Canadian airports, whereas in the United States and other jurisdictions most are armed.

"This is something we think is wrong right now, and it wouldn't cost a dime," he said, noting that it could enhance security in spots that could be targeted by terrorists.

The union also wants a specialized armed team to patrol the border, as the U.S. has.

But so far he has not seen any appetite from the federal government.

"We feel that there's still a lot of resistance from the Liberal government. My perception was that they are still bitter the Conservative government armed us," he said.

Since 2007, CBSA has trained and equipped 6,880 officers with defensive equipment, including the duty firearm, pepper spray and batons. The 2006 budget earmarked $1 billion for the arming initiative over a 10-year period, which included infrastructure and training.

Costs for the program last year were about $38.3 million, which includes oversight, equipment, training, infrastructure and some corporate costs, such as security, labour relations and officer health and wellness.

CBSA spokesman Barre Campbell said border officers are trained to use all tools necessary as they encounter daily risks that include prohibited weapons and high-risk individuals.

The union representing Canada's border officers says CBSA employees at airports should be armed. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

"The arming initiative has given our officers the training to use force, when necessary, to ensure the safety and security of themselves, the travelling public and other individuals," he said. "The low number of instances that a firearm has been employed is a testament to CBSA's training program and the conduct of its officers."

The role of front-line employees, he said, is to ensure the smooth flow of legitimate trade and travel while keeping Canada's border secure by assessing situations using "skills, training, tools and good judgment."

CBSA officers are trained to assess risk to determine if a situation warrants the use of force.

Campbell said all incidents where a weapon is used are thoroughly reviewed to ensure protocols were followed.

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter

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