Canada is cutting back on border officers even as it prepares to deepen its co-operation with the United States through a wide-ranging deal on perimeter security.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barrack Obama unveiled sweeping plans late last year to focus security efforts more on intelligence and preclearance away from the border rather than directly at crossings.
Both countries promised the measures – which also include harmonizing regulations to speed the trade of cross-border goods – would enhance security. Yet the union that represents Canada's border officers is warning that deep staff cuts required to help the federal government balance the budget will severely impede efforts to catch terrorists, child pornographers and other criminals trying to slip into the country.
"These proposed budget cuts would have a direct and real impact on Canadians and our communities across the country," said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union. He called the cuts a direct attack on Canada's national security.
"More child pornography entering the country, more weapons, illegal drugs, will pass through our borders, not to mention terrorists and sexual predators and hardened criminals," he said at a news conference.
Dog-sniffer teams and intelligence officers are among the more than 1,300 jobs the union says it's been told will be eliminated at the Canada Border Services Agency.
The government says that while more than 1,000 CBSA will receive letters about potential job reductions, only about 250 people will lose their jobs in the end. The union disputes this.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Canadian governments have often been on the defensive over border security because many U.S. politicians incorrectly claimed the attackers entered the United States through Canada.
However, Scotty Greenwood, a senior adviser to the Canadian-American Business Council based in Washington, said she doesn't think the alarming language coming from the border officers union will revive border concerns in the United States.
"The union's doing its job in the sense of trying to advocate as strongly as they can," she said in an interview. "But I think people can weigh that against their own experience at the border and the intergovernmental co-operation and also against the backdrop of the last 11 years, where the government of Canada has absolutely increased its financial commitment to intelligence and security collaboration by orders of magnitude since 9/11."
Speaking on Thursday at a news conference on Parliament Hill, Mr. Fortin said the cuts will also lead to longer waits at border crossings and airports.
Mr. Fortin said the CBSA's intelligence unit will be cut in half, meaning the database information available to front-line border officers to identify suspected criminals will be of lower quality. As an example, he said, intelligence officers can flag travellers who make repeated visits to countries that are frequented by child pornographers, but there will now be less of that research.
Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner, the parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, accused Mr. Fortin of fear mongering.
She said there are areas where overlap with other agencies – such as intelligence gathering – can be reduced without compromising security.
Earlier this month in Washington, the Prime Minister said technology and information sharing could speed up processing at the border.
"I'm of the strong view that checking millions and millions of people, making them go through line-ups, making them go through screening, is not, in and of itself, an effective way to identify the potentially dangerous," he said. "We have to have more sophisticated ways of doing that."
The federal budget offered little hint that cuts at CBSA would cause alarm. The budget said $143-million would be cut from its annual budget of about $1.7-billion by streamlining "internal services and low-performing processes."