Internal documents confirm what union officials have been saying for years: The waiting times for travellers that Canada's border agency posts on the Internet may not be reliable.
For the past five years, the Canada Border Services Agency has posted waiting times for travellers at the 22 busiest border stations along the Canada-U.S. border.
By checking the agency's website, which is updated hourly, travellers can determine before they set out how long a line they face, whether heading south to the United States or north to Canada.
The agency's standard is 10 minutes or less Monday through Thursday, and 20 minutes Friday through Sunday, as well as holidays. Officials have said Canada meets those targets at least 90 per cent of the time nationally, while U.S. border stations meet the Canadian standard only 85 per cent of the time.
But the union representing border officers, the Customs Excise Union Douanes Accise, has challenged those claims, saying the posted times sometimes significantly under-report the wait.
In 2004, front-line officers did an independent check of the times for CEUDA and found widespread under-reporting - in some cases by as much as two hours.
The "CBSA has not been reporting accurate wait times and the times CBSA have been reporting are always shorter than the actual wait times," said union president Ron Moran.
Now internal documents lend support to the union claims.
An agency briefing note from April of this year acknowledges there is no standard measurement of waiting times, which are based on "personal judgment." Instead, each of the 22 border stations has worked out its own method of visually determining how long travellers are stuck in line.
"Methods of estimating wait times are specific to each port and are conducted exclusively as a visual inspection by port personnel," says the document, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The data "cannot be used as a predictor of exactly what the real-time wait will be when arriving at a port of entry."
A spokeswoman for the agency says it has launched a project to find a way to produce more reliable numbers.
"The CBSA is currently developing an action plan to better measure border wait times, which includes reviewing potential technological solutions to improve the quality of the border wait-time data being captured," Tracie LeBlanc said in an e-mail response to questions.
The posted waiting times have never been audited, she added.
Agency officials met with their American counterparts earlier this year in Tucson to discuss more accurate ways to record waiting times, which have led to complaints from importers and exporters who say the lines have been getting longer.
"Various initiatives were discussed and a strategy to address a number of issues is currently under development," Ms. LeBlanc said.
Mr. Moran, whose union is currently in negotiations for a new contract, said he has not been consulted about any new wait-times initiatives.
Internal agency charts, based on the uneven data from 2003 to 2008, show travellers can expect much longer lines during the summer and on holidays. There's much less fluctuation through the year for commercial truckers.
The charts, also obtained under the Access to Information Act, show that one of the worst performing Canadian border points is due south of Montreal, along Highway 15 where it enters the state of New York at Champlain.
The station in St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., has consistently experienced long lineups every August for the past five years, as it becomes overwhelmed with summer travellers. The station meets the CBSA wait-time standard only about 70 per cent of the time in the summer season peaks - a far worse performance than five other high-volume stations across the country.
Ms. LeBlanc said the agency beefs up staffing during holidays and that the Quebec-New York crossing has "no unusual problems."
The agency processed about 70 million travellers at land border points last year.