Cargo security project almost killed


OTTAWA, Ontario—A cargo-security pilot project run in Montreal as part of the new Canada-US border pact was almost cancelled early because there was “little value” in continuing, an internal memo reveals.

The marine-to-highway project began in January 2013 with the aim of easing the entry of cargo into the United States through the Port of Montreal.

The idea involved the Customs services of the two countries working more closely to eliminate duplication under the notion of “cleared once, accepted twice.”

The Montreal pilot was one of four projects initiated under the Integrated Cargo Security Strategy, a pillar of the Canada-US deal signed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and US President Barack Obama.

The countries agreed to share information on in-transit containers through the strategy to allow for early detection of security threats, illicit goods and items posing possible health hazards.

The Montreal project targeted high-risk cargo arriving in Montreal by sea that was ultimately bound for the US by truck.

Early last year, the Canada Border Services Agency vice-president for programs, Richard Wex, recommended in a memo to agency president Luc Portelance that the pilot effort be discontinued before the scheduled end date of March 31, 2014.

“Based on preliminary findings, there is little value in continuing the pilot,” Wex wrote.

A heavily censored version of the memo was released under the Access to Information Act.

Wex noted that while there had been “limited successes” under the project, “several challenges” had emerged.

Details of the difficulties were withheld from release. But border services agency spokeswoman Wendy Atkin indicated one concern was the lack of cargo traffic headed to the US by truck.

“Most containers left the Port of Montreal by rail and therefore were considered out of the pilot’s scope,” Atkin said in an emailed response to questions.

The border agency is zeroing in on high-risk marine shipments but insufficient resources mean not enough are actually being inspected once they arrive in port, said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents border services officers.

“It’s one thing to track them, but you also need to be sure that you will be able to inspect them. And that’s the side that we remain very vulnerable.”

The border services agency was “unaware of staffing issues” that may have affected the Montreal pilot, Atkin said.

A spokeswoman for the Port of Montreal was unable to provide comment.

Despite the pilot project’s initial hurdles, the border services agency decided to continue the initiative—not only through March 2014 but for an additional year.

“A mutual decision was made by Canada and the United States to continue running the pilot while the evaluation phase would be underway, thereby allowing us to further gather data which would contribute to the pilot’s assessment,” Atkin said.

Canada and the US are conducting a joint assessment of the Montreal project and a marine-to-rail pilot effort in Prince Rupert, BC, she added. The next steps will be based on the findings and “lessons learned.”

Among the positive elements of the Montreal project, Wex noted in the memo, was improved communication between the border services agency and US Customs and Border Protection.

In addition, the Canadian agency had emulated its US counterpart’s approach of phased examinations, moving from the least intrusive method of scrutinizing cargo to the most invasive—”resulting in cost and time savings for industry.”