Even as the Harper government negotiates a border deal with the United States to ward off security threats and boost trade, Ottawa is cutting back its Customs officer presence at some of the lonelier crossing points between the two countries.
On April 1, the federal government is closing three Canada-U.S. border posts and reducing the hours that four others will be open.
Ottawa says these seven crossings – largely in rural Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan – are little used and cross-border travellers can easily find other crossings elsewhere. "The volume of traffic is minimal," the Canadian Border Service Agency said in a release defending the moves.
Critics warn this could heighten the risk of smugglers who might exploit border post closings and scale-backs to bring more contraband across the Canada-U.S. border.
All three opposition parties say the move makes no sense because the affected crossings provide a road across the border for illicit activity. "Even if there's not much volume at these crossings, you had people there who were monitoring the border," NDP public safety critic Brian Masse said.
"They're reducing the eyes and ears watching these locations."
The federal government, however, says it's putting in place security measures, possibly barricades, to ensure that authorities are on guard against illicit crossings in areas where ports of entry are being shuttered or staffed for fewer hours.
The crossings slated for closing include two along the international border between Quebec and New York – Jamieson's Line and Franklin Centre – as well the Big Beaver, Sask., port of entry with adjacent Montana.
Ottawa is halving the hours at three other border crossings in Quebec and reducing service at Kenora, Ont., to seasonal operations between May and October.
The Canadian Border Services Agency said it is making the cuts in the name of fiscal probity. It is chopping the service as part of an efficiency exercise that requires departments and agencies to identify their 5-per-cent lowest priority spending – funds that can then be redirected elsewhere.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said it made no sense to maintain existing operations at the affected crossings. The Canadian Border Services Agency currently manages more than 100 land border crossings.
"Jamieson's Line, for example, in Quebec sees an average of 12 travellers a day and no commercial vehicles," Mr. Toews said. Another border crossing operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week only 10 kilometres away.
But Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland said it's a bad idea to cut back the border agent presence at smaller crossings at a time when U.S. politicians such as Senator Joseph Lieberman warn of security gaps in the Canada-United States border.
The Canada Border Services Agency said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has responsibilities for monitoring between ports of entry to deter smuggling. It's possible that barriers might be set up to stop unauthorized border hoppers but one official said they're also facing requests to ensure emergency vehicles can still cross the line if necessary.
Mr. Holland said it is rural locations being targeted for shutdown or scaled-back hours that are most appealing to would-be smugglers.
"If you're a smuggler you're not going to wait in line to cross at a major crossing with high security when you can go to another crossing that has been shut down or has reduced hours where you can easily cross at night."