Border reopening plan facing roadblock as thousands of border officials consider strike action

The federal government's plan to reopen the border to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens next month could be complicated by the threat of strike action.

CBSA officers asking for better protections against harassment and discrimination

A Canada Border Services Agency officer is silhouetted at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing in Surrey, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The federal government's plan to reopen the border to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens next month could be complicated by the threat of strike action.

This week, more than 8,500 Canada Border Services Agency officers — who have been without a contract since June 2018 — are voting on whether they're willing to walk out.

If more than half vote yes, they could be in a strike position by early August — just as the country prepares to again welcome fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

While a number of CBSA officers would be deemed essential workers, a strike could cause massive delays for those travelling by air and land.

"Potentially, it could slow things down," said Mark Weber, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union.

"We're not doing it with any kind of joy because we really want the borders to run smoothly. We've been working so hard for a year and a half to keep them running smoothly under probably the most difficult circumstances any of us have ever encountered."

Weber said the union is fighting primarily for three things: salary parity with other law enforcement workers in Canada, better protections against harassment and discrimination, and a remote work policy for non-uniformed members. 

He said on-the-job harassment is making the CBSA "a very cold and dark place" to work.

Weber said that while the union doesn't want to cause hardships for Canadians and tourists at the border, it feels it has hit a wall in negotiations.

"To see it get to this is not a moment we relish, but three years in and a refusal to really bargain on the other side, we're really running out of options," said Weber.

"We've worked really hard to keep the borders running smoothly and doing that work every day. No one wants to see that blown up."

Influx anticipated at ports of entry

A spokesperson for the CBSA said the agency is preparing for a possible work disruption.

"The Canada Border Services Agency will respond quickly to any job action/work disruption in order to maintain the security of our border, ensure compliance with our laws and facilitate the flow of legitimate goods and travel," said Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage in an email to CBC News.

"We expect that our officers will continue to fulfil their duties with the highest level of integrity and professionalism."

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government is concerned but has confidence in CBSA's contingency plan.

He said he's hoping it doesn't get to that point.

"We're hopeful that we can arrive at the appropriate settlement before that would even be an issue," he told CBC's Power&Politics.

"The country cannot be in a position where we have insecure borders."

Voting for union members wraps on Thursday and results are expected early next week.

WATCH | Government confident in contingency plan should CBSA agents choose to strike, minister says

Government confident in contingency plan should CBSA agents choose to strike: Minister

1 year ago
Duration 6:46
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc says the government is reassured by the contingency planning briefings it has received should Canada Border Service Agency agents choose to strike in early August.

A strike wouldn't be triggered automatically if most union members vote 'yes'. It would give the union a strike mandate and provide the bargaining team with a series of options to apply pressure on the CBSA — such as work-to-rule or a rotating, general or strategic strike.

On Monday, the federal government announced plans to let fully vaccinated tourists visit Canada again soon.

Starting Aug. 9 at 12:01 a.m. ET., fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents living in that country will be able to visit Canada.

The government said it plans to open Canada's borders to fully vaccinated travellers from all other countries on Sept. 7.

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