OPINION: Paying price for our safety

Peace Arch border shooting highlights the difficulty of guarding our borders

A border guard was shot in the neck at the Peace Arch border crossing on Tuesday afternoon.

This is the first incident, to my knowledge, of a Canadian border guard being shot at since the federal government announced its plan to arm border guards in 2007.

Shortly after that announcement, there was another shooting – not involving a border guard – at the Peace Arch.

On that occasion, guards were alerted that an armed individual was on the way north and U.S. officials were involved in a shootout that concluded right near the boundary.

At the Peace Arch crossing, unlike most Canadian border crossings, the Canadian inspection booths and buildings are a little bit to the north of the actual boundary, as Peace Arch Park takes up the space right at the border and surrounding the arch.

Thus an armed individual who is on the way north traverses a small portion of Canada before encountering inspectors.

A shooting like this is the most horrific outcome that anyone could expect at their workplace, but border guards do have a more difficult job than most of us. While the vast majority of the people they deal with are not a problem, a small but significant number are.

Shootings at the South Surrey border aren’t new. A customs officer was killed in the early 1900s when shot by an American bank robber.

In this day and age of easily-accessible information, guards have far more information at their fingertips than used to be the case. If there is any reason to be suspicious of either an individual or vehicle, more questions are asked. Some Americans do travel with handguns, and while most are simply uninformed about Canada’s gun laws, there are a tiny number who are ready to shoot when challenged.

When I worked for Customs Canada more than 30 years ago, we did run into handguns on rare occasions.

In most cases, they were carried by truckers who were making their first trip to Canada, or were U.S. residents on the way to Alaska.

At that time, they were allowed to bring their guns into Canada for transport to Alaska under certain conditions.

While customs and immigration officers were occasionally threatened, in almost all cases people did settle down after being warned. In rare cases when they didn’t, the RCMP were called and they usually arrived very quickly.

The Peace Arch crossing is officially known as Douglas in Canada Border Services Agency circles. Of the three crossings I worked at, it was my least favourite.

The volumes of travellers were very high, particularly on weekends. The variety of work was limited, as there were no commercial shipments, and we seemed to get a higher proportion of people who raised red flags.

This was likely because the crossing is right on Interstate 5/Highway 99, and most travellers ended up there by default, as opposed to the truck crossing a short distinct o there east.

For certain, the immigration officers who did the in-depth questioning of foreign nationals whose cases raised additional questions were much busier there. They had to deal with some very challenging cases every day.

Volumes at border crossings are much higher today and the Pacific Highway crossing is often as busy or busier than Douglas.

Working at the border is much more challenging than it was, and guards have to use a lot of discretion and judgment on a split-second basis.

I have nothing but respect for the work they do. While they don’t get positive comments from Canadians very often, the work they do is very important in keeping our country safe.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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