Student customs staff unqualified, union says
By NELSON WYATT
March 14, 2002
MONTREAL -- The union representing Canada's customs officers warned yesterday that many of the people defending the country's borders during peak summer periods will be students.
The students aren't sufficiently trained to replace vacationing regular officers, said Serge Charette, whose union acts for 3,500 workers.
"We don't think that with two or three weeks of training, those individuals should be called upon to perform the duties of a customs inspector."
However, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency said the summer-replacement program has run since 1960 and there is no reason for alarm.
Ottawa has bolstered border security since U.S. authorities criticized Canada before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The main gripe raised by Mr. Charette, president of the Customs and Excise Union, is that the students get only a two- to three-week basic course, compared to nine weeks for a full-time officer.
Students would make up about 25 per cent of the force when they're on the job.
"It appears that our legislators are more concerned with the fact that students need jobs during the summer and on weekends, rather than the interests or protection of the Canadian public," Mr. Charette said.
Michel Proulx, a Customs spokesman in Ottawa, said the program has been successful and the student workers are closely supervised.
"They're not designated for officer powers, meaning that they can't arrest anyone under the Criminal Code," Mr. Proulx said.
But he noted that some regular customs inspectors "don't have officer power training" either.
Mr. Proulx said the students, who often apply for full-time Customs jobs later, come from police technology or security courses.
He said he couldn't recall any incidents of students being exposed to dangerous situations.
Customs inspectors, who are considered peace officers, enforce roughly 80 different laws covering immigration, agriculture and the Criminal Code. They are eligible for between four and six weeks' vacation and most of them take it in the peak season of July and August, said Mr. Charette.
"When the students are there, our seasoned customs officers are on holidays," he said. "It makes the problem even more acute."
The complaint by the officers' union is long-standing. Instead of using students, it has asked that more officers be hired, or that the students get the same nine-week course, or that regular support staff be used as replacements, with students replacing support staff.
Mr. Proulx said he isn't worried that the union's complaints about the students may fuel more criticism of the way Canada protects its borders.