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Dancing in the dark with gun smugglers

It’s a busy Saturday night at the port of Douglas, south of Vancouver. You’re a CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) officer, in your third one-hour road stint that shift. The secondary parking area is full; mostly travelers paying taxes and people applying for immigration permits.


March 14, 2019
By Grant Patterson

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You hit the green light and the next vehicle in line pulls up. The lineups are pushing one hour, and the pressure is on: flush the traffic.

The driver stops her minivan at the booth. She’s a young mother, with a fussy toddler in the back. She’s nervous, fumbling her receipts and stammering. You’re not even really listening to her declaration.

“Have a good night.”

You hit that green light again. Next.

So, experienced law enforcement readers, did you just release a gun smuggler into Canada? You tell me. Maybe she did only have milk and a tank of gas. Maybe not. How, in less than a minute, would you know?

The jury’s out on Minivan Mom. But there can be little doubt about Marquise Watkins.

Watkins arrived at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Oct. 16, 2018. CBSA officers located a false compartment in his vehicle. Twenty pistols were inside.

From reading the press release with an experienced eye, I’d say somebody knew something about Marquise, and that information got to the frontline CBSA officers, resulting in a satisfying (yet all-too-rare) seizure of what are likely guns destined for criminal use.

The CBSA announced 2017 firearms seizures went up nearly 19 per cent. The trouble is, most of these seizures are not crime guns. Gun aficionados at the border are far easier to catch than Marquise and his ilk. They tend to advertise their affections with bumper stickers and camo wear. We get their guns quite smoothly. But these are not crime guns.

Crime guns are caught by the use of actionable intelligence, shared with the frontline. Otherwise, there is precious little to separate the smuggler from every other traveler.

The government recently announced $51.5 million in new funding for the CBSA to fight gun smuggling. Funding was announced for training in deep concealment searches and canine teams.

This is all good news. But there’s one thing missing: intelligence.

Under the previous government, the Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP) was applied in a manner that decimated the CBSA’s intelligence division. At around the same time, a series of corruption scandals made the agency less trusting of the frontline staff.

The damage has lingered to this day and none of the recently announced funding aims to address it. When added to the CBSA’s hopelessly outdated and limited-access frontline databases — and its pathetic staffing levels — the overall effect can be likened to dancing in the dark.

Occasionally, public pressure produces results. I’m willing to bet the collaboration that ensnared Marquise was one such success, related to the recent shootings in Toronto. It can be done. But more money just to find things is useless without the information to determine who has those things.

Part of the government’s announcement detailed $34 million in funding to the RCMP, some for intelligence. However, my experience makes me skeptical. Will the RCMP trust the CBSA with what it learns and will the CBSA trust its own people?

Only a revitalized intelligence operation at the border and sharing information in a timely manner with frontline staff can invigorate our anti-smuggling efforts. Everything else is just dancing in the dark.


Grant Patterson is a veteran of seventeen years with the CBSA. He now works as a freelance writer and author.