The federal government will hire a record number of students to work at Canadian airports this summer as border and customs agents are temporarily shifted to Quebec to handle an influx in asylum seekers from the United States.
In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale's office said Toronto’s Pearson International Airport will see a 26-per-cent increase in summer student staff from last year to help manage the busy travel season.
The staffing announcement comes one day after The Globe and Mail reported border agents are being pulled from the Greater Toronto Area to handle a “significant” increase in refugee claimants crossing from the United States into St-Bernard de Lacolle, Que., from May 28 to Sept. 16.
But Mr. Goodale said he was confident that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) can process asylum seekers without affecting airline travel or people crossing the U.S.-Canada land border.
“We know the volumes this summer everywhere are going to be big. They always are in summer,” Mr. Goodale told reporters in Saskatoon. “We were anticipating a big surge last year and managed it with virtually no complaints and we are certainly intending to keep the standards high this year.”
But the union representing border and customs officers warned the students do not have the same skill set as trained officers. The students get two weeks of training compared with more than 18 weeks and one year of probation for a border agent.
“They are hiring students so they can free resources to go and help at the land border, but the problem is the expertise at those major airports is getting diluted,” said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union. “There will be less inspection and less enforcement actions that are taking place.”
The government has refused to say how many students are being hired or where they will be located. Mr. Fortin said the students can’t be sent to land border crossings because it is considered an “armed environment” where border guards carry guns.
Mr. Fortin told The Globe that he has been told the students will be sent to relieve officers at Toronto’s Pearson, Trudeau International Airport in Montreal and Vancouver International Airport. About 100 students will be located in Montreal and Vancouver and probably 150 in Toronto, he said.
Massimo Bergamini, president of the National Airline Council of Canada, said passengers should not face the consequences of the shift of border agents to Quebec.
“We are very concerned that it will lead to delays for travellers embarking from overseas and U.S. flights at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as well as cascading delays across the system,” he said.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the Liberal government continues to demonstrate that it has no long-term plan for the surge in asylum seekers.
“Hiring summer students to do what is a significant job is just another band-aid solution that I think Canadians are going to take issue with,” Ms. Rempel said.
Speaking to reporters in New York on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government has ensured that there are sufficient RCMP and CBSA resources at busy crossings points, such as Lacolle and Emerson, Man., since asylum seekers started flooding the border.
The RCMP intercepted more than 7,600 asylum seekers along the entire Canada-U.S. border from January to April this year – nearly three times as many as the same period in 2017. The majority of the asylum seekers arrived through Quebec.