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The 7,200 front-line agents at Canada Border Service Agency are upset they will be required to have name tags on their uniform. (Kevin Van Paassen/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The 7,200 front-line agents at Canada Border Service Agency are upset they will be required to have name tags on their uniform. (Kevin Van Paassen/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

National security

Border agents fear for safety wearing name tags Add to ...

To their bosses, it's about providing better service. But Canada's border agents predict nightmare scenarios where they will be singled out on Facebook and their home phones will ring with crank calls from travellers upset by border lineups or confiscated booze.

The 7,200 front-line agents at the Canada Border Services Agency are upset that they will soon be required to have name tags on their uniforms.

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They say that, considering the tense atmosphere at many border points, displaying their names will encourage stalking and harassment from aggrieved travellers.

"People who tried to avoid paying duties, people who didn't want to co-operate when we wanted to search their suitcases. People who are back from a long trip and are tired and irritable.… At the tiniest slight, people can start a campaign against you," said Jean-Pierre Fortin, a vice-president at the Customs and Immigration Union.

The dispute is similar to ones debated in Toronto and Winnipeg five years ago, when both cities considered making name tags for their police forces. Toronto police now have to display their names while Winnipeg rejected the idea.

The parallel with police force underlines how, in the post 9/11 world, CBSA agents have transitioned from just being passport-stamping, tax-collecting bureaucrats to gun-carrying law-enforcement officers. Once Revenue Canada employees, they are now part of the Public Safety Canada department.

"It's been a shift in mentality. We are now a law-enforcement agency," Mr. Fortin said.

And that also meant learning to deal with public attention and potential threats.

Safety was always the concern raised by police officers opposing name tags, a worry made even more acute by the increasing spread of social media and online search tools.

Customs agents, who currently wear tags with badge numbers, say their situation is even worse than police officers because they deal with large volumes of people transiting through airports and land crossings.

"A police officer won't face one-tenth of the travellers we handle in a weekend at Dorval in Montreal or at Pearson in Toronto," Mr. Fortin said.

"It could be anybody. It could be innocuous. They get angry and they say you were rude. It's one person's version of what happens but it besmirches our reputation."

Last year for example, the American rappers Cam'ron Giles and Teeyon Winfree, better known as Vado, had to cancel a Montreal concert because Vado had a criminal record and was denied entry. A fan website posted a photo of a CBSA agent with the caption "This is the lady who wouldn't let Cam & Vado in Canada."

Some are skeptical of the proposal, especially at the Akwesasne reserve, where Mohawks often have run-ins with CBS agents because their community straddles the U.S.-Canada border.

Akwesasne resident Monica Peters noted that in previous occasions CBSA agents hid their badge numbers from her when she complained about their frequent questioning and searching her car.

"I am not a criminal and there is absolutely no reason to treat any of us in Akwesasne like prisoners," she said.

Some are skeptical of the proposal, especially at the Akwesasne reserve, where Mohawks often have run-ins with CBS agents because their community straddles the U.S.-Canada border.

Akwesasne resident Monica Peters noted that in previous occasions CBSA agents hid their badge numbers from her when she complained about their frequent questioning and searching her car.

"I am not a criminal and there is absolutely no reason to treat any of us in Akwesasne like prisoners," she said.

The union has enlisted the assistance of Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, whose members have had to wear name tags since Dec. 31, 2006.

"Brother [McCormack]was very helpful in providing information to use in our own fight," one of the union's vice-presidents, Jason McMichael, wrote in a bulletin to members last month.

Mr. McCormack's union opposed the move to name tags, warning that it would put lives at risk, especially female officers, those from ethnic and religious minorities or those with unusual family names.

The Toronto police union challenged the policy before the Ontario Labour Relations Board but lost.

The board said in a December ruling that the threat from stalkers and mentally ill people was not significant. As for hardened criminals, "to the extent that organized crime and motorcycle gangs wish to obtain… information about an officer, they were not deterred by the absence of a name tag," the ruling said.

Name tags were introduced to "better serve our clients," the CBSA said in an e-mailed statement.

The statement said "wearing a name tag is part of our commitment to service excellence. We stand by our values of professionalism, respect and integrity."

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