Major job cuts at the Canada Border Services Agency will mean longer wait times at the border and risks to public safety and national security, according to the union that represents employees at the agency.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said 1,026 jobs will be eliminated within three years, and that represents a "direct attack to our national security and public safety."
"These proposed budget cuts would have a direct and real impact on Canadians and our communities across the country: more child pornography entering the country, more weapons, illegal drugs, will pass through our borders, not to mention terrorists, and sexual predators and hardened criminals," he said.
He expressed frustration with the government and said it has been difficult to get information on where specifically in the border agency it intends to cut the positions. The CBSA falls under the public safety department and he accused the government of misleading the public by saying budget cuts won't affect frontline officers.
Fortin said he was told by the government that 325 jobs on the frontline of border crossings across the country will also be cut, in addition to planned reductions as a result of the March 29 budget.
Fortin said the intelligence branch of the CBSA is being hard hit, losing 100 positions, but he only knows that because he verified it with the unit itself, not because the government told him. He said later at the press conference that 100 intelligence workers received letters and that the union is "suspecting" all will be cut.
Over 1,000 get notification letters
Fortin also said that 19 sniffer dog units are being slashed due to the budget reductions.
"To be blunt, the cuts that are proposed will have very serious consequences to our public security and national security," he said.
According to Fortin's figures, 410 jobs at CBSA headquarters are on the chopping block and 616 in regions across the country:
- Atlantic: 23 jobs
- Greater Toronto Area: 124
- Northern Ontario: 37
- Pacific: 106
- Prairies: 114
- Quebec: 118
- Southern Ontario: 94
A total of 1,151 members of Fortin's union, which falls under the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), have received notification letters that their jobs could be declared surplus, he said. Not everyone who gets a letter saying their job is "affected" will lose employment.
A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews rejected the union's accusations and said the 1, 026 figure that Fortin cited is the number of positions that are "affected," and are not necessarily being cut.
Julie Carmichael said the Conservatives have increased the number of border agents by 26 per cent since 2006, and that investments have been made to ensure a secure border. She also said that Fortin's claim that 325 border officers will be cut is "patently false."
"We are now looking at ways to make our border leaner, more efficient and faster for Canadians. We will keep it open to legitimate travel and trade, but it will remain closed to criminals and terrorists," she said in an email.
Savings are coming from "reducing unnecessary spending and duplication of work" and she gave changes to how often cruise ships are inspected as an example. Currently CBSA inspects them multiple times along their route but in the future, they will be cleared once, at their first point of arrival.
Union salaries slashed
One of the budget cuts to the CBSA is the salaries of union representives. The agency spends $1 million covering the salaries of employees who work full-time for their union and the Conservatives are putting an end to that practice. Salaries will have to be paid for by the union itself.
"Fortin is obviously upset that we are cutting the $1 million slush fund for big union bosses," Carmichael said. "Canadians don't believe taxpayer dollars should be used for union salaries – we agree."
Public Safety says 70 per cent of the savings at CBSA are derived from operational efficiencies.
Some of the savings are to come from reducing travel expenses, streamlining administrative services, going paperless, using more e-learning programs, and converting consultants hired by CBSA into employees. The agency also plans on using more advanced technology to collect intelligence and to use other law enforcement agencies to save money.
"By modernizing and improving efficiencies, the CBSA will achieve savings at headquarters while streamlining frontline services," said Carmichael. "The fact is that we are not cutting officers who deal with legitimate trade and travel on the border. We are merely making our border leaner and more efficient."
NDP MP Brian Masse, his party's international trade critic, said at a news conference in Windsor that the cuts will have consequences on trade, tourism, and safety and security.
He said he is concerned that Canada's busiest border crossing, the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, won't be able to handle the capacity because of the cuts.
"This should be the first place we invest and not the first place we cut," he said.
A senior scholar in political studies at the University of Manitoba, Peter St. John, also expressed concern and said any cuts at the border agency will send "the wrong message at the wrong time to the wrong people."
"A government who's interested in projecting security for this country over our notoriously under-staffed borders…it seems to me, is simply playing with fire," said St. John, who specializes in security, intelligence and terrorism.
"The kind of people internationally who would pay attention to this message would be terrorists who are trying to attack Canada and other people — for drug or other reasons — who would say, 'Well, it's going to be a much more porous border. They've had a huge cut in their services, we can try to get away with things that normally we wouldn't try to get away with.' "
Government's cross-border commitment questioned
St. John said the job cuts at the border agency raise questions about the federal government's commitment to making cross-border business and travel safer, while at the same time maintaining Canada's sovereignty and easing the United States' security concerns.
Canada and the United States have a new security and trade agreement that aims to co-ordinate regulations and make cross-border travel and business easier.
The federal government wants to save $5.2 billion annually by eliminating upwards of 19,200 federal public service positions across the country.
PSAC says it was advised on Wednesday that a total of 5,561 of its members in 23 government departments received notices saying their jobs are on the line.
The CBSA was asked on Wednesday for a breakdown of how many administrative employees and how many frontline employees were given notices that their jobs could be affected by the cuts.
The agency did not provide the information. A media spokeswoman responded that meetings are being held with employees and union representatives to explain what the budget means for the CBSA's programs and workers.
"We have developed and implemented plans, training and support tools to assist our employees through this transition," Esme Bailey said in an email.
Bailey said there will be "little to no impact on front line services for travellers and traders who are crossing our borders."