As Ottawa prepares to sign a ground-breaking security perimeter deal with Washington, the last thing the Conservative government wants or needs are any embarrassing revelations about serious breaches along Canada's borders.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will announce Wednesday his Beyond the Border action plan with the United States that could see much closer co-operation on such issues as customs clearance, watch lists and border surveillance.
The last systematic investigation of the situation by the Senate committee on national security and defence took place in the summer and fall of 2009, when senators visited border facilities from Vancouver to Halifax to talk candidly with law enforcement and border inspectors.
The results of their work were never published. But The Globe and Mail has pieced together and updated many of the findings of the study by speaking to front-line border officials who told the senators of security gaps that to this date have yet to be fixed.
Holes at Halifax port
Halifax welcomes about 100 cruise ships a year with more than 200,000 visitors. But unlike airline passengers, tourists coming off the boats for a brief stopover are not screened individually as they disembark.
The Halifax cruise-ship port does not have the passport reading machines that are standard at airports. At most, authorities run "a very small sample" of the names on the passenger list provided by the cruise companies ahead of time. "I get a stack of paper, stamp it and admit 3,000 people without any interviews or checks," said one official.
Port officials say there have been at least a dozen passengers and crew members who have gone missing in past few years, including a convicted child molester from Texas who was eventually apprehended in Toronto.
"It's a facade that we operate," one inspector told The Globe. "We check 100 per cent of the people who come into Canada at land crossings and airports. Why not ships?"
'Impunity' for organized crime in Montreal
Law enforcement officials told visiting senators back in 2009 that organized crime groups had "infiltrated key positions" at the Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport, walking around with "impunity."
"It's still a huge problem today, absolutely," a senior RCMP commander told The Globe. He said crime bosses continue to smuggle drugs through the airport and the port of Montreal through "intimidation" and "corruption."
"It shouldn't surprise anybody the organized crime exists at the ports – that's where you move stuff in and out of country," said Liberal Senator Tommy Banks, a former member of the national security committee. "The question is: are the people running the ports in some sort of denial? They shouldn't have their heads in the sands."
There are more than 100 unguarded roads that lead from the United States into Canada, most of them in Quebec.
At the Stanstead border crossing, Canadian border officers say as often as once or twice a week they can spot cars illegally crossing on a road that is just one street away from their station. But they are not permitted to give chase and must contact the RCMP – which has its nearest detachment 50 km away.
"It's a real joke," said one senior border officer. "The criminals, they know how it works."
The United States deploys over 1,000 people to patrol the Great Lakes with nine Coast Guard cutters and many more smaller vessels. For the same five lakes, Canada today has three vessels operated jointly by the Canadian Coast Guard and the RCMP with a total of 18 people.
In Quebec's Eastern Townships, the 43-km long Lake Memphremagog straddles both sides of the border. The U.S. Border Patrol says it maintains "regular marine patrols" on its side but in Canada, there are only a couple of unmanned "telephone reporting centres." The calls get answered by a border official stationed in Hamilton.
Pressure at Toronto's Pearson airport
At Canada's busiest international airport, customs and immigration inspectors told the Senate committee that when the passport lines get backed up, management often discouraged them from making more extensive background computer checks on visitors.
It's a practice that continues to this day: "They look at the line up and say: 'Hurry it up, let them through," one inspector said.
Border jumpers in B.C.
Along the vast stretches of parks, farmland and mountains between the manned border checkpoints in British Columbia, the Americans keep watch on their side of the line with sensors, cameras and Border Patrol vehicles. But Canada has none of that, so it is often U.S. technology that tips off Canadian authorities about any illegal northbound traffic – be it smugglers or illegal immigrants.
"The Americans phone us to let us know their sensors have been tripped," one border officer told The Globe.
There is also a problem with regular "port runners" – people in cars who speed through the checkpoints without stopping. Border officers are not allowed to give chase and there are no police regularly on duty at the crossings; all they can do is call the RCMP.
"Very seldom are they caught," the border officer said.
Several border posts, like Aldergrove, close at night. "On a regular basis, they see tire tracks going around the barrier when they open up in the morning," one inspector said.
"It's an open border," he added.
The Americans deploy more than 100 large gamma ray scanners called Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS) to take a sort of X-ray of the containers coming into their country by land or sea.
Canada has only twelve, operating part-time – when they are functional. "Everything sort of half works," complained one B.C. port security official.
He said there are only three VACIS machines to cover four major cargo terminals in Vancouver but at any given time one is shut down for repairs – meaning less than five percent of the containers coming into Canada's busiest port gets scanned. "Our coastline is wide open," he said.
"The average traveler faces a higher degree of security at the airport than the huge amount of cargo coming into the country," he said. "It's frustrating – and dangerous."
At some land crossings, truckers with illicit cargo choose a time after peak hours when the mobile VACIS is shut down or being deployed elsewhere.
As for train traffic, the Americans scan every single container that crosses in from Canada by train, but none of the rail cars heading north get screened by VACIS at the border.