Border agency, Transport Canada clash over gun rules

Transport Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency are in the fourth year of a prickly dispute about whether border officers should be allowed to carry handguns at major airports. Internal documents obtained by CBC News reveal the long-running clash has drawn in the Privy Council Office to mediate.

Privy Council Office steps in to mediate four-year-old gun dispute between CBSA and Transport Canada

A local police officer patrols the departure concourse at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal. Local police are permitted to carry firearms at major airports, but not border officers - a rule the CBSA wants changed. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

There's a turf war going on at Canada's major airports over handguns – but no gangs are involved.

Instead, border officers have been butting heads with Transport Canada (TC) officials in a four-year-old dispute about who can bear arms in an airport.

Officers with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) have been authorized to carry firearms since 2006. In 2011, the agency permitted CBSA officers to wear their sidearms on the job at large airports, where they check passengers arriving from abroad, among other duties.

Canadian Border Services Agency officers are generally prohibited by regulations from carrying sidearms at major airports, but are disputing the rule with Transport Canada. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

But there's a snag: Transport Canada regulations do not recognize CBSA officers as 'peace officers'. That means they're prohibited from carrying firearms at airports, except when CBSA officers are escorting a deportee out of the country.

In 2014, three years after CBSA allowed its officers to work in airports with their sidearms, someone at Transport Canada noticed the breach of regulations. That led to a long back-and-forth between the department and the agency, with each side digging in and insisting the other side back off.

The dispute became so unmanageable that the Privy Council Office (PCO), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's own department, was brought in to mediate. There's still no resolution.

"CBSA has requested that Transport Canada correct the discrepancy," says an internal Transport Canada document outlining the disagreement, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

"Transport Canada does not agree … PCO, Transport Canada and CBSA have met on many occasions but no consensus on a way forward could be reached."

Bureaucratic gridlock

While those nettlesome negotiations trudged along, Transport Canada issued CBSA a temporary exemption from the regulations in November 2015 — one of the first acts under the newly appointed minister, Marc Garneau, just weeks after the Liberal government was elected.

And as talks stalled, the department issued renewals of the exemption three more times; the latest one was effective Jan. 30, 2018, and was signed by Wendy Nixon, director general of aviation security. The expiry date is blacked out in the released version.

In the meantime, all sides agreed that CBSA would hire a consultant to conduct a "risk assessment" to review the security implications of gun-toting border officers working at Canada's big airports.

The agency has hired Lansdowne Technologies Inc., an Ottawa consulting firm specializing in security, to do the work under a $101,652 contract, and with a due date of Aug. 31, 2018.

TC [Transport Canada] does not agree that airports are high risk- Internal document outlining dispute between CBSA and Transport Canada over guns

The hope is that the report will help to break the impasse.

CBSA wants Transport Canada to amend the regulations — a sometimes lengthy process — to allow its officers to wear their handguns at airports, citing increasing threats and the need to counter them with firearms.

"TC does not agree that airports are high risk," says an internal Transport Canada note from last fall. It notes that the department – not CBSA – is responsible for the safety and security of the aviation system.

A Beretta Px4, the standard issue handgun for CBSA officers. ((Courtesy Beretta))

Another memo says that "the department does not agree with CBSA's assessment [blanked out] (and) has reiterated that TC's role is to ensure that regulations are complied with and exemptions are not used to override government policy."

For its part, CBSA points out that Transport Canada already exempts from its firearms ban the wildlife officers, Parks Canada wardens and Environment Canada employees who can legally carry firearms at and through major airports. Local police forces also patrol airports, such as Peel Regional Police at Toronto's Pearson International, and are permitted under the regulations to carry firearms inside the airports.

Transport Canada referred CBC's questions about the dispute to CBSA, which provided background information but did not respond directly when asked for more information about the dispute.

"Ensuring the security of our border, as well as the safety of our front-line officers, is a key priority for the Government of Canada," Nicholas Dorion said in an email.

'Extremely weird'

A spokesman for the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), which represents some 6,600 armed CBSA officers, called the bureaucratic clash "extremely weird."

"We need to increase the security," said Jean-Pierre Fortin, citing a rise in the number of incidents across Canada involving armed assailants and an increase in the number of firearms intercepted by authorities — some of them seized at airports. "We've been pushing and pushing."

Fortin said there is no increased cost to government in allowing armed CBSA officers into airports, as members are trained in firearm use and already have been issued their individual sidearms.

At Pearson International Airport in Toronto, he said, the department's gun prohibition would mean "cutting yourself off from 180 officers" able to respond with weapons in the event of a major security incident.

Fortin suggested the Liberal government does not want guns to be highly visible at Canada's big airports.

The standard sidearm used by CBSA officers is the 9 mm Beretta PX4 Storm.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby