CBSA Chief Holly Stoner stands with some of the 81 firearms

CBSA Chief Holly Stoner stands with some of the 81 firearms

Toews drops by for a show of force

Public safety minister wants taxpayers to know how their money is spent

It was a show of criminal weaponry and smuggling ingenuity – and a show of the new technology and increased efficiency with which the Canada Border Services Agency hopes to defeat it.

But most of all, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ visit to the Pacific Highway Commercial Operations port of entry Friday – as he freely admitted – was a show for the media.

Among the things they saw was a display of 81 firearms – many of them sophisticated automatic weapons – seized at the border between January and July, a 40 per cent increase over the same period last year.

But they also saw scanning technology with which CBSA hopes to step up detection of contraband, including illicit drugs and firearms, among commercial shipments, as well as speed the processing of vehicles.

“I happen to believe the media has a very important role to play to send out a message about what the Canadian government is doing with taxpayers’ money,” Toews told a dozen print and broadcast reporters and photographers who toured the facility with him.

What the federal government is doing principally at the Pacific Highway port of entry is investing in an upgrade of the facility – planned for 2012 – that will include a gantry-mounted Heimann CargoVision (HCV) X-ray scanner that will enable CBSA officers to see inside trailer trucks and other commercial vehicles during drive-through inspections.

A full value of the project, which has yet to go to tender, is still to be announced, but the mobile version of the HCV – brought in from CBSA’s Delta Port-based marine operations division for the demonstration – is worth some $2.5 million alone.

“That’s amazing,” Toews said as he watched the computer monitors’ scan of a truck carrying lumber. “You can see the texture of the wood.”

Following the demonstration, Marine Operations superintendent Grant Hornby explained the machine, which CBSA has been using for two years, is not a magic solution that catches every smuggling attempt, but another resource to use alongside more traditional methods such as dogs and physical searches of trucks.

“It will be our vehicle of choice for at least five years,” he said. “We try to use a multiplicity of tools, but this has been very beneficial.”

CBSA Pacific Highway District director Kim Scoville said the agency is hopeful the installation of an HCV will increase efficiency and reduce lineups at the crossing, which is, by volume of business, the third largest commercial port of entry in Canada.

In his formal comments, Toews said the port last year handled some 325,000 trucks, 340,000 people and 540,000 commercial shipments.

But he said current discussions with U.S. authorities are focused on facilitating movement of goods and travellers, while still ensuring security is at a high level.

“We want to take steps to protect the borders of both nations against international terrorism and international crime generally,” he said.

Toews was shown the interior of a large trailer, seized at the border around five years ago that had a false floor concealing a series of metal drawers for transporting large quantities of contraband drugs.

CBSA officer Scott Byhre explained that smugglers had moved to constructing false trailer floors after false noses on trucks were beginning to be discovered with regularity.

“They evolved and we have evolved,” he said.

Also on display for Toews were all 81 of the firearms seized at the crossing in the first seven months of this year, as opposed to 51 during the same period of last year.

“What surprises me and what I find unsettling is the type of weapons we are finding,”  Scoville told Peace Arch News about the haul, which, as well as handguns, includes assault rifles and heavy-calibre automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines.

“It used to be that we would get Ma and Pa gun owners from the U.S. who were coming into the country unaware of our regulations.”

But Scoville said it is a matter of conjecture why such sophisticated weaponry is increasingly being smuggled into Canada.

“It’s hard to characterize it,” he said, although he acknowledged the suspicion that it’s linked to drug gangs and organized crime on the Lower Mainland.

“It may fit in with the sudden surge of gun activity in Vancouver,” he added.