OTTAWA - Thousands of shipping containers enter Canada by rail each year without proper checks for illegal drugs and other contraband, says a new report.
A border screening program begun in 2000 has fallen into disrepair, with just two officers now responsible for the vetting of some 400,000 rail cars and containers annually.
They're given almost no training, close shop on weekends, get little support from other security officers, and have few facilities for inspecting shipments.
"The amount and level of targeting has decreased due to a lack of resources," concludes the August 2009 review, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The screening program, known as Winfall, was begun as a pilot project in the mid-1990s after security officials determined that almost no rail shipments entering Canada were being inspected.
Between 1990 and 1998, customs cops seized about $5.5 billion worth of illegal drugs in marine containers arriving at Canadian ports, or about 60 per cent of all drugs seized by customs in that period.
Such containers also arrived at U.S. and Mexican ports and thousands were being hauled - uninspected - into Canada by rail.
By August 2000, the federal government had turned Winfall into a full-fledged program based in Winnipeg, drawing on internal shipping data provided by Canadian National Railway Co. (TSX:CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (TSX:CP), which together account for more than 95 per cent of all rail traffic in Canada.
The railways deliver the data up to six days before shipments originating in Mexico and the United States arrive in Canada, allowing inspectors to be proactive about targeting suspect rail cars and containers.
The rail lines are then notified of suspect shipments and place an internal hold on the goods so they can be inspected by border officers at rail yards.
From December 2005 to November 2006, Winfall officers were responsible for the screening of about 45,000 containers and 344,000 rail cars. But very few drugs were ever found because the program has been starved of resources and support.
The internal review was based on a June 8-11, 2009, visit by Canada Border Services Agency investigators to the Winnipeg headquarters of Winfall.
There they found only two officers instead of the four the program was assigned, as the other two had been poached by other areas.
The program was operating 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, with no after-hours and weekend coverage even though rail traffic moves 24/7. Training was virtually non-existent, with staff forced to learn on the job.
The two officers often received little co-operation with other sections of the Canada Border Services Agency when a rail car or container inspection was required.
"When targets are issued for examinations, communications with the regions are laboured and therefore the requests are often not actioned," says one document.
And there are no formal agreements with the railways for sharing shipping data, which is currently in an awkward format. "Extracting information from the CN and CP systems is cumbersome and significant time and energy is spent by the targeters searching for data."
The report's findings come as no surprise to Colin Kenny, the Liberal-appointed senator who chairs the Senate's national security and defence committee.
"Trains are a big black hole," Kenny said from Calgary, the latest stop in the committee's current cross-Canada tour examining border and airport security.
He noted American customs officials use large X-ray machines at border points to inspect all trains arriving in the United States. They have offered use of the machines to Canada - only to be turned down because the border service lacks the staff.
Kenny rejected the claim that because CN and CP have their own police, border officials need not be as vigilant with rail shipments.
"CBSA is paid to check for themselves," he said. "To simply say it's a trusted shipper doesn't cut it for me."
A spokeswoman for the agency said the Winfall program remains under review, with a completion date of December.
"The CBSA will examine the current complement of staff required to conduct targeting on U.S. in-transit rail shipments," Patrizia Giolti said in an email response to questions.