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Feature - Border Crossing

Security woes on world’s longest undefended border

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Labour Day weekend in Canada and the U.S. is the last gasp of summer and the last chance to get away for many as a new school year begins.

It’s always a busy weekend for guards on both sides of the border, which stretches an incredible 6,416 kilometres between our two countries – not including the vast Alaskan frontier. Between St. Stephen in New Brunswick and the Peace Arch in British Columbia there are a total of 21 border crossings.

Crossing the border on Labour Day used to be a simple matter of showing your driver’s license and answering a few questions, if you were pulled over at all. Border guards were looking for drugs, illegal immigrants and customs cheats who didn’t pay their duties.

All of that changed forever on Sept. 11. We woke up to find the World Trade Centers gone, the Pentagon in flames, and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania because the passengers decided it was better to fight than to sit idly and allow their plane to be used as a missile against their fellow citizens.

We learned in the most tragic way that terrorists and their supporters lived among us, travelling unchallenged between cities and countries while setting their deadly plots into motion.

Both the American and Canadian governments vowed to never let our guards down again, and the first order of business was to increase security at the airports, ports and border. Increased security meant longer waits at the border.

The longest wait in Canada on this most recent Labour Day long weekend was at the Peace Arch crossing, where cars waited approximately 45 minutes between six and seven o’clock in the evening to get into Canada. On Sunday evening they waited up to an hour to get back into the U.S.

While that may seem like a long delay, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with line-ups experienced in the weeks after Sept. 11. Governments had promised more money and resources for customs services, but until the money came through and staff were hired and trained, the increased vigilance was in the hands of the same numbers of frontline border personnel.

Every traveller was asked to produce photo identification and proof of citizenship. They wanted to know where cars were going, where the people were staying and for how long. They opened every trunk and checked luggage.

As a result of this unprecedented scrutiny, both private and commercial traffic backed up on both sides of the border.

On the American Thanksgiving 10 weeks after Sept. 11 – opening day for Whistler-Blackcomb – skier numbers on the mountain were actually up 10 per cent over the previous season. Businesses that were expecting a decline as a result of the terrorist attacks, the collapse of Canada 3000, airline cutbacks, and the rapidly weakening economy let out a collective sigh of relief. After all that had happened, it seems people were still determined to come to Whistler.

The optimism was curtailed abruptly, however, as American visitors complained of three and a half hour waits at the border returning home on Sunday evening.

As a town which was built on and lives by international tourism coming through the Vancouver International Airport and via the border crossings, Whistler businesses were concerned that longer waits would deter visitors from making the trip. The three-plus hour drive from Washington state to Whistler suddenly became a six hour ordeal.

"We saw incredible back-ups on the Thanksgiving long weekend, and, yes, we saw incredible back-ups at Christmas and New Year’s, but it is to my understanding that those were the last big back-ups," said Barrett Fisher, vice president of marketing strategy and business development for Tourism Whistler.

"Because they were doubling up on security, they were understaffed by 50 per cent. The borders made an investment in hiring new staff, so there was a training lag in getting those people hired, trained and up to speed. In the last six months, as far as our own spot monitoring goes, we haven’t heard of any specific challenges."

Tourism Whistler has been following the issue closely and has had meetings with border officials to see what could be done to speed things up.

"There were delays that were four to six hours, just ridiculous line-ups, and really our first concern was that absolutely was going to affect our business and certainly we had a major concern," said Fisher.

Aside from hiring more staff, the borders have also upgraded their camera technology and started a new program called NEXUS for frequent travellers – a more high tech approach to the PACE program, which was cancelled after Sept. 11.

Tourism Whistler is currently working within the B.C. Council of Tourism Associations to lobby the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency and the U.S. Customs Service to go even further with programs to speed visitors through borders and airports.

"There are programs that we have our meetings and incentives destination awareness teams working on, in regards to the NEXUS program they’ve instituted," said Fisher. "We’re just about to have discussions with border officials. For example, are there ways of streamlining the process for bringing large groups across the border by doing a pre-registration and sending them through a special line-up? These are the kinds of programs we’re looking at."

From her perspective, while the situation at the border has improved drastically since the Christmas holidays, the borders and customs are still not as fast as they were before Sept. 11.

"And even before Sept. 11, it wasn’t unusual to have a 45 minute wait. Forty-five minutes is still, in our minds, too long."

According to Paula Shore, a communications officer for Canada Customs, the waits at the borders might be improving but she credits part of that to the fact that land border traffic is itself down 36 per cent compared to last year. While the long weekend was still busy, even the Peace Arch crossing – the third busiest in Canada behind Windsor-Detroit and Niagara Falls – was down nine per cent.

There is still room for improvement, says Shore, and the new NEXUS program, which provides exclusive lanes on both sides of the border to frequent travellers who qualify, is one of the key elements.

"The Nexus program is up and running at the Peace Arch and Pacific Highway Truck crossing, and it is being used," she said. "There has been quite a demand actually, and we have received to date over 30,000 applications from people in B.C."

The Nexus program, which was introduced back in March, uses photo-ID cards and computer reading of licence plates to speed up the process. The program is not yet as popular as the defunct PACE program, which had over 66,000 members in B.C. before the terrorist attacks.

"We like it because it frees up our customs officers to concentrate on the travellers we don’t know. It lets pre-cleared travellers go through with fairly little intervention from us, so we can concentrate on the other folks and the traffic moves faster."

Lower Mainland customs is also more versatile because of how close the entry points at the Peace Arch and the Pacific Highway are.

"Because we’re close together and the staff are flexible, we can transfer people back and forth between the two ports fairly easily. If one crossing is extremely busy, we can move staff back and forth. We try hard to manage the delays and waits if there is a wait."

People using the borders are also helping to speed the process by having proof of citizenship, birth certificates and other documents on hand, and by following the rules.

A pre-Labour Day press release from Canada Customs, for example, provided information to travellers on how to pass through customs – bring proper identification for you and your children, keep receipts handy, and make a full declaration to the Customs Inspector. They also urged travellers to be patient.

Slower borders did not affect Whistler last winter. In fact, visitors from Washington state were up 37 per cent over the previous year.

The increase is being attributed to the low Canadian dollar, the excellent snow conditions, and the fact that people were choosing not to fly and to travel closer to home. People were willing to wait.

But for how long?