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Kevin Quigley is the scholarly director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University in Halifax and co-author of Too Critical to Fail: How Canada Manages Threats to Critical Infrastructure.

Seaports have been getting lots of attention lately and are set to get even more. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at the Victoria Coast Guard base on Thursday to reiterate the federal government’s commitment to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and balancing economic growth with protecting the environment.

Last month, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced that Transport Canada will undertake a review of Canada Port Authorities. The study will focus on making the ports more innovative and competitive in a global context, but will also consider safety, security, port governance and community sustainability.

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It’s not clear how much economic benefit the government is prepared to forgo to ensure ports are safe and secure. Despite the government rhetoric, without a more deliberate effort to enhance safety and security at ports, important vulnerabilities will go unaddressed.

Seaports are critical hubs in the global supply chain; 90 per cent of the world’s goods are transported by sea with more than 70 per cent shipped as containerized cargo.

Seaports are particularly important to a trading country such as Canada. The Council of Canadian Academies recently concluded that without shipping, Canada’s GDP would be reduced by 1.8 per cent, or $30-billion annually. This is roughly the size of the Canadian agricultural sector, or New Brunswick’s economy. This trade affects every industry, region and community across the country. Ports compete against one another for business and therefore have to keep goods moving as efficiently as possible.

Our emphasis on efficiency, however, often overlooks security issues. In 2007, the Senate observed that Canada’s ports are “riddled” with organized crime and nobody seems to be doing much about it; these problems, the report said, are typically shrugged off as the cost of doing business.

Seaport security gets less attention and funding than airport security, yet the challenges are arguably just as daunting. Security threats range from those that capture the public’s attention, such as terrorism, drug smuggling and people trafficking, to those that have perhaps more serious business implications, such as cargo theft and cybercrimes, to the more mundane and probable, such as trespassing and petty crime.

There are also safety risks generated by communicable diseases, aging infrastructure, human error, risks associated with the storage of dangerous chemicals, environmental protesters and labour strife.

Environmental risks also pose a significant threat. In our research, staff at seaports expressed the greatest concern over climate change and extreme weather events. The West Coast waits for “the Big One,” a magnitude-9 earthquake that could overwhelm coastal communities and their ports. The East Coast sits on the same hurricane path as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and cost the port US$2.2-billion.

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Canadian seaports exist in an area of confusing multilevel governance, their quasi-private status makes their relationship with the federal government ambiguous, and that they often exist in major cities means that they also depend on co-operative yet tenuous relationships with provincial and municipal governments. They are immovable, expected to be competitive and to serve a number of (at times competing) public and private-sector interests.

These institutional arrangements at seaports have resulted in a security environment that is heavily regulated, but the community itself is not well integrated. Despite global connections, the competition ethos at ports isolates them and constrains co-operation. The 2007 Senate report observed that “Canada’s ports … need a shift in culture, away from various fiefdoms acting in their own interests.”

There is also a paradox at the heart of enhancing safety and security at ports. A safety culture requires an openness; workers need to share information about safety, including about the mistakes that they make, which is not always easy but can be facilitated with the right training and attitude among staff and organizational leaders.

Security culture, on the other hand, is much less open and less trusting; information is often shared with those in the know, as one of our interview subjects commented, and often on a need-to-know basis. Much of it is cloaked in secrecy.

Port staff do not understand where safety and security lie in the list of priorities. This dynamic discourages staff from slowing down the flow of cargo in the name of safety or security.

The uncertainty of the threats allows us to be complacent. Climate-change threats are uncertain because the science is unclear and the consequences are thought by many to be in a distant future; the changes will also be costly. Security threats are uncertain because we do not have reliable data to understand the scope of the problem and it is not clear that we want to know.

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The Canadian government is unlikely to deregulate seaports further. Policy makers should aim to integrate them into a greater safety and security port community – one either run largely by the seaport community themselves or one that is better linked to the security apparatus in Ottawa and internationally.

These options, however, will likely reduce the competitiveness of the ports in international markets. At the same time, they would help to bring a stronger perspective on safety and security and, in doing so, enhance the performance and confidence of those with responsibility for it. At present, there is confusion and a general lack of confidence over reconciling the economic imperatives with the safety and security ones.

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