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Deployment of armed CBSA officers at Canadian airports: Letter to Ministers Goodale and Blair

Airplane on tarmac seen from above with the words "Arming at airports"

Original letter sent to Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Bill Blair, Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction by mail on May 13, 2019.

Dear Ministers,

This letter is in reference to the recent federal government’s announcement regarding regulatory changes surrounding the authorization – or lack thereof – for Canada Border Services Agency officers to carry their sidearm while performing their duties at airports in Canada.

To summarize what was communicated to CBSA officers on April 30, 2019:

  • CBSA officers working in Canadian airports will no longer carry or use defensive equipment under a Transport Canada Exemption. Instead, new regulatory changes will be implemented. These will not be an amendment to the Transport Canada Aviation Security Regulation but instead will be covered by a new regulation;
  • As per these changes, officers working at Class 1 airports and at US Preclearance locations will only be authorized to carry their sidearm when working outside the air terminal or in transiting back to the terminal. Officers will also only be authorized to carry their sidearm inside the terminal when conducting investigations and/or surveillance of persons or goods/baggage or when conducting short-term activities for periods of up to 60 minutes.

For the past decade, the Customs and Immigration Union has been consistently vocal about the issue of federal policy preventing Border Services Officers (BSOs) from carrying their sidearm while on duty at all times, including at airports. Minister Goodale will recall my February 2017 and February 2018 letters on the subject.

In February 2018, I noted that “political intervention is required to replace the outdated CBSA and Transport Canada policies that prevent CBSA officers from carrying their sidearms at airports.” When it was announced earlier this year that a new operational solution was in the works, I was pleased to see that my point about political intervention had been taken to heart by your government, and I was hopeful that it would help remediate serious flaws in Canada’s security apparatus. Unfortunately, the announced regulatory changes are as inadequate as they are troublesome.

At first glance, the lack of clarity along with the unanticipated inclusion of time limits raise serious public safety concerns. The restrictions regarding undefined ‘short term activities’ and the imposition of arbitrary time restrictions are, to be blunt, illogical. In no way does it reflect the officers’ reality of dealing effectively and immediately with often unpredictable public safety threats.

When the public or officers are at risk, seconds matter. Having officers who are trained to use and carry a firearm operate without said firearm is a serious gap in public safety. Currently, roughly 85% of BSOs working at Canadian airports are not allowed to have their sidearm on their person, despite being trained under federal standards to do so. Instead, as you know, they are required to keep their firearm locked away. The retrieval process requires approval, which can result in unnecessary and problematic delays.

As Ministers entrusted with important security portfolios, you know better than most that, as mass population venues, airports can be subject to potentially deadly attacks. In previous correspondence with Minister Goodale, I highlighted the 2016 Atatürk Airport and Brussels Airport bombings as well as the 2017 Ft. Lauderdale airport shooting. Since then, airports and their surroundings have remained high-risk locations – the failed explosive device near the Colombo airport during the otherwise deadly series of bombings in Sri Lanka earlier this year springs to mind. In order to prevent similar tragedies from taking place on Canadian soil, law enforcement personnel, including border officers, must be able to deal immediately with any unforeseen public safety threats that could result in the loss of life.

Beyond preventing civilian casualties, it is also crucial for officers to be able to defend themselves when facing threats to their person. Just last year, in February 2018, CBSA officers at Calgary airports were confronted with an individual threatening to “blow [their] heads off” – a serious situation that I brought up to Minister Goodale at the time.

Ultimately, it remains unclear why Transport Canada’s Aviation Security Regulations allow other law enforcement agency officers to be armed while performing their duties at Canadian airports, while this government denies the same treatment to BSOs. CBSA officers should not have to rely on their fellow law enforcement colleagues for protection. As law enforcement officers, they are highly capable professionals who have received rigorous training to operate in a variety of settings, including airports. At the end of the day, this government and CBSA must ensure that their officers are always properly equipped to perform their duties in a safe and healthy environment. Given his extensive background in the law enforcement field, I am certain that Minister Blair will agree that this is common sense.

I will concede that the new policy does authorize officers to carry their sidearm in defined circumstances, and this is a welcomed step toward the formal authorization of CBSA officers being armed at airports. Unfortunately, as noted above, the policy remains vague, and its limitations mean that the situation does not appear to have changed significantly. I would also be remiss not to point out that the announced changes continue to represent a misguided use of resources. Canadian taxpayers pay for officers to undergo the use of firearm training, but due to policies such as this one, they do not reap the security benefits at airports.

In light of these observations, I trust that you will agree with me that the new policy should be revised to allow Border Services Officers to carry their full defensive equipment – including their sidearm – at all times while on duty at airports from coast to coast to coast. Doing so will only enhance Canada’s ability to ensure the safety and security of its citizens and of anyone visiting our country.

As in the past, we will be pleased to assist in any way we can to achieve this important objective.

Yours truly,

Jean-Pierre Fortin
National President
Customs and Immigration Union

Click here for the PDF version.

Press Release – Arming of CBSA officers at airports in Canada: New federal policy is troubling, says Customs and Immigration Union

Airplane on tarmac seen from above with the words "Arming at airports"

OTTAWA, May 5, 2019 – The National President of the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) has denounced as “troubling” the recent announcement by the federal government that CBSA Border Services Officers (BSO) will still not be authorized to carry their sidearm at all times while performing their duties at airports in Canada.

For years, CIU, which represents 10,500 members, most of whom are front-line border services and inland immigration enforcement officers, has been vocal about the issue of federal policy preventing border officers from carrying their sidearm while on duty. Roughly 85% of BSOs working at Canadian airports are not allowed to have their firearm on their person, despite being trained under federal standards to do so. Instead, they are required to keep their firearm locked away.

Transport Canada’s Aviation Security Regulations allow other law enforcement agency officers to be armed while performing their duties at Canadian airports, and it has been a long and constant struggle to have this situation corrected for BSOs.

For more than a decade, the union has championed to have this public safety flaw corrected. CIU National President Jean-Pierre Fortin explained why:

“Having our officers, who are trained and equipped, forced to keep their sidearms locked up is a serious gap in public safety given where they work and what they do on behalf of Canadians. This issue has become increasingly serious in recent years, as airports are mass population venues where deadly attacks have taken place throughout the world, including on North American soil. Law enforcement, including border officers, must be able to deal immediately with unforeseen public safety threats that could result in the loss of life.”

The issue was largely ignored by different governments until recently, when CIU was informed that an operational solution was on the horizon. This new solution, however, is clearly inadequate, says Jean-Pierre Fortin:

“Unfortunately, the policy announced by the federal government has serious and glaring deficiencies which will unquestionably put the safety of Canadians at risk. While the new policy does authorize officers to carry their sidearm in defined circumstances, important limitations mean that the situation has not changed significantly.” 

The federal government’s plan is not entirely clear, but the following information was provided in a recent communication from CBSA President Ossowski to CBSA officers:

  • The authorization for CBSA officers to carry their sidearms will not be an amendment to the Transport Canada Aviation Security Regulation but instead will be in a new Regulation. No explanation was given as to why.
  • Officers working at Class 1 airports and at US Preclearance locations will be authorized to carry their sidearms when working outside the air terminal or in transiting back to the terminal.
  • Officers will only be authorized to carry their sidearms inside the terminal when conducting investigations and/or surveillance of persons or goods/baggage or when conducting short-term activities for periods of up to 60 minutes. No definition of “activities” was provided.

The lack of clarity along with the unanticipated inclusion of time limits raise serious public safety concerns for CIU National President Fortin:

“While we welcome this step toward formal authorization of CBSA officers being armed at airports, the vagueness of the new policy is both troubling and alarming. The restrictions regarding undefined ‘short term activities’ and the imposition of arbitrary time restrictions are completely illogical. Whoever came up with this concept does not understand, or care about, the officers’ reality of dealing effectively and immediately with often unpredictable public safety threats. When the public is at risk, seconds matter. Having a process that requires approval and retrieval of locked up firearms puts people’s lives in danger.”

For the National President, this policy also represents a misguided use of resources:

“Canadians need fully trained and equipped BSOs on duty. Canadian taxpayers have paid for that training, but due to shortsighted policies such as this one, they are not reaping the security benefits at airports. CIU will not rest until these issues are resolved appropriately so that the Canadian public we serve has the protections it deserves.”

The Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) is a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents Canada’s Front-Line Customs and Immigration Officers. CIU also represents Investigation, Intelligence and Trade Customs Officers, Immigration Inland Enforcement and Hearings Officers, Program Officers, Targeting Officers, as well as support staff – all of whom work at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Download the PDF version of the press release.