Canada’s Border Porous Despite Boost In Technology, Auditor Finds

Canada's border porous despite boost in technology, auditor finds

Andrew Mayeda,
CanWest News Service
Published: Tuesday, October 30

OTTAWA – The Canada Border Services Agency lacks an adequate “risk-management framework” for assessing threats at Canada's borders, despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new technology, the auditor general has found.

In particular, the agency's “lookout” system, designed to identify and intercept high-risk individuals and shipments, “is not working as intended,” Sheila Fraser said in a report tabled in the Commons Tuesday.

An audit of the agency's use of threat and risk assessments revealed that a significant proportion of individuals placed on customs and immigration “lookouts,” or watch lists, are slipping over the border unchecked. In the first three months of the year, for example, the agency estimates that 13 per cent of customs lookouts and 21 per cent of immigration lookouts were not referred for “further examination.”

Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh blasted the Harper government for spending money on arming guards, while allowing so many high-risk threats to slip through the cracks.

“You have this government that prides itself on being a law-and-order, hawkish government … yet continuing to allow such a significant percentage of red-flagged, potentially dangerous goods and individuals into the country without really thorough checking,” said Dosanjh. “It is reprehensible, to say the least.”

But Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day defended his government's record on border security, noting that seizures of drugs and illegal firearms have increased, and more illegal immigrants have been deported.

“We've invested significantly in the last 19 months in terms of border protection so there's always going to be times where something will get missed,” said Day.

Fraser did not find any evidence of corruption or abuse at the agency, formed in December 2003 through the merger of border-related divisions within the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

But her audit paints a picture of an organization that has failed to adapt to national security threats in an era of globalization and rapid technological change.

“The organization may be relatively new, but many of the issues identified in our audit have persisted since the 1980s under various organizational structures, as we have reported in the past.”

The agency had a budget of $1.5 billion and 12,800 staff last year. The previous year, it processed almost 96 million travellers entering Canada, and shipments worth $404.5 billion.

However, the audit found “no overall co-ordination for risk management.”

Further, it stated that $525 million invested in technology in the past three years “had not been guided by a strategic plan for information technology or information management.”

In several cases, the audit found that border guards are not using all information or tools at their disposal.

For example, the agency has developed pre-approval programs that enable low-risk travellers to get across the border quickly. But, unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canadian border guards do not consider intelligence reports in assessing applicants.

The border agency has also spent $150 million over the past three years on automated systems that assign a “risk score” to goods and people. But border guards still rely more on their own knowledge and experience.

“Many of the border agents are not comfortable with the new system … and so they still rely on their instincts,” Fraser told a news conference.

The agency also lacks a coherent policy for issuing border lookouts on high-risk individuals or shipments, the audit found. The practice gained infamy when Canadian software engineer Maher Arar was placed on Canadian and American border lookouts after the RCMP mislabelled him as an Islamic extremist with suspected terrorist links.

Arar was eventually deported by U.S. authorities to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured.

In some cases, lookouts on high-risk threats were missed at primary inspection points.

Although the agency's National Risk Assessment Centre tracked such incidents in the first quarter of this year, the audit revealed that cases are not “systematically tracked and monitored at the corporate level.”

In fact, the agency lacks an overall system for measuring its performance, the audit noted.

“The agency has not established its desired levels of border openness and security and, as a result, cannot know whether it is achieving them.

Consequently, the agency finds itself reacting to a changing environment instead of managing it.”