Customs process often lax at Canada’s small airports

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Canada’s Minister of Public Safety says he is looking into “weaknesses” in the system after a report by CBC’s French-language service Radio-Canada revealed that most passengers who enter the country via small airports never meet a border guard.

“Where there are holes [in the process], of course, as minister , I have concerns,” Ralph Goodale said Thursday.

Through an Access to Information request, Radio-Canada found that in 2014 and 2015 about 85 per cent of travellers who landed at a small airport in Quebec didn’t physically go through customs.

For example, Saint-Hubert Airport, on Montreal’s South Shore, received 718 travellers last year from the U.S. and overseas.

Of those, 143 met with a border agent upon landing. The other 575 had pre-cleared customs by phone or fax, and simply walked out the door.

The numbers were similar at 207 small airports across the country, according to a federal government audit in 2013.


Canada’s Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the government will try to ‘identify the weaknesses’ with customs at Canada’s small airports. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

“We are trying to identify the weaknesses and take appropriate action,” Goodale said, adding that he has asked border agents “to identify the exact nature of the problems and how they can solve the matter.”

Clearing customs by phone, fax

In some cases, passengers are allowed to clear customs remotely.

Pilots of private jets carrying fewer than 14 people can have passengers pre-clear customs by phone or fax up to two hours before landing. The same rule applies to chartered planes with fewer than 39 passengers on board.

Pilots must provide the name, date of birth, citizenship and address of all passengers aboard, and note any imported goods.

If there is any doubt about a passenger or any imported good, a secondary physical examination can be requested — which must be carried out face-to-face by an agent.

But those secondary exams don’t always take place.

In 2012-2013, a total of 26,887 passengers who landed at Canada’s small airports were designated for secondary checks with a Canada Border Services Agency officer, but about 40 per cent of them — 10,549 — were never directed to an officer upon landing.

The CBSA says part of the problem is that it doesn’t have the manpower, nor the time, to perform checks at smaller airports, where private jets or non-commercial flights land.

For example, secondary checks at Saint-Hubert Airport require CBSA officers posted in Montreal to travel about 35 kilometres to get there.

Also, “there are gaps in the primary screening process,” the border agency stated in the 2013 audit report. “We’ll learn of a fax asking for a secondary examination the next morning, when it’s found on the fax machine, after the plane landed the night before.”

The Customs and Immigration Union, which represents about 10,000 CBSA agents, said it is aware of the problem but declined to say any more until it can speak to Goodale.

“We have requested a meeting with the minister and he agreed,” CIU president Jean-Pierre Fortin said. “Before making any comments publicly, we want to have the chance to tell him about our concerns.”

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Customs process often lax at Canada’s small airports

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