Via Ticket Agent Called Border Servics About Stowaways ; Told To Try Elsewhere

Via ticket agent called border services about stowaways; told to try elsewhere

March 17, 2008

HALIFAX—A Via ticket agent suspicious of the behaviour of four men who turned out to be stowaways called a Canada Border Services Agency tipline on Sunday, but was told the agency couldn't act without more information.

Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate national security committee, received an e-mail from Jeff Cox on Tuesday, the day after the senator criticized the federal government for not doing more to tighten port security in Halifax.

The agent's e-mail paints an unflattering portrait of the system set up to respond to the possible illegal entry of people into Canada.

In Sunday's case, the four stowaways travelled across the Atlantic Ocean hidden in a bus and then sprinted away from a single commissionaire staffing the entrance of the Cerescorp container terminal.

The four Algerian men then made their way to the Via Rail station in Halifax, where they offered to pay more than the listed price for tickets. They also wanted to buy the tickets using European currency.

“Their insistence on using either Euros or French currency … and their willingness to pay in excess of the actual fare was certainly a red flag,” Cox wrote to Kenny.

“I tried to contact the special unit of the RCMP, but there was no answer. I then called the 800 number for border services and in turn, the suspicious activity hotline.

“I spoke to a woman there and incredibly, she told me that it was not within their jurisdiction to act without names, or more information.”

Cox's e-mail says he contacted the RCMP's detachment in nearby Tantallon and informed them the men were on their way to the airport to convert currency, and that they intended to continue on to Truro – about an hour from Halifax by car – to catch a train.

The men got to Truro in a taxi and were captured by town police before boarding a train.

In his e-mail, Cox told Kenny the case raises serious questions.

“They could have foregone the train and gone in any direction,” he wrote. “This, as it turns out, was a lucky catch, and was made in spite of border services.”

Cox, reached at this booth in Halifax, said he couldn't comment, adding that he didn't expect his e-mail to become public.

At a news conference earlier Tuesday, Public Security Minister Stockwell Day said there will be a review of how Canada Border Services and other agencies handled the case.

He said port security is improving.

“We are right up there as one of the countries where safety and security is the prime focus of the government,” he said when asked about the stowaway incident.

Day said hundreds of thousands of containers come into Canadian ports, creating a huge task for border services.

“The fact is these four people have been apprehended. They were spotted as they left this particular port area. … That's the basic fact of the matter,” he said.

Kenny said the incident was an alarming signal of weak security systems, because the stowaways sneaked into a secure facility in Liverpool, England, before boarding the GO transit buses and then eluding on unarmed commissionaire at the gate in Halifax.

“It's such a long list of failures and when you add on top of it the efforts that Mr. Cox made to report it to people, that's enough to discourage any honest citizen,” he said. “Most people wouldn't have gone to that effort after being brushed off the first time.”

Day said the Conservative government has improved security since taking power.

“The fact is we are doing better than two years ago,” he said. “There are more resources. There are more people.”

Chris Williams, a spokesman for the Canada Border Services Agency in Ottawa, said the department will look into how the Border Watch 1-800 call was handled.

“I'm not aware of that (call). But generally we work in close collaboration with law enforcement authorities,” he said. “If we receive any information that we believe relevant to our partners, we may in fact share it.”

Calvin Whidden, a spokesman for Cerescorp container terminals, confirmed that the guard house was staffed by a single commissionaire at the time.

The security arrangement is part of a plan approved by Transport Canada.

However, he argued that more attention should be paid to how the stowaways managed to board empty transit buses that were loaded on the container ship in Liverpool, England.

“The point of entry is really the concern, I think. They shouldn't be able to get on a vessel and travel,” he said.

Tony Burbridge, the Halifax deputy chief of police, said he doesn't blame the commissionaire at the gate because he quickly alerted regional police, who are responsible for the port.

He said police had a response time of under five minutes, but the men had fled.

“I'm actually quite positive about this, considering the number of jurisdictions involved,” said Burbridge, who noted the four were arrested within a few hours of their escape.

Stephane Malepart, a spokesman with the Immigration and Refugee Board in Montreal, said the men were scheduled to be interviewed Tuesday to determine if they should remain in detention.

The hearing was to be held via teleconference from the correctional facility where the men are being held in Nova Scotia and was closed to the public.

Malepart wouldn't reveal why the hearing was closed, but said it's likely they had claimed refugee status, which would automatically make the hearing private.