TORONTO – Canada announced Thursday it will arm its border guards following a number of border incidents in which guards abandoned their posts when they felt threatened by reports of armed fugitives headed their way.
Canada has unarmed guards along its 4,000-mile (6,435-kilometer) border with the U.S., but Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the guards will now be armed, as their U.S. counterparts are.
"There have been numerous examples of officers leaving their posts because they simply weren't equipped to deal with the kind of threat that was anticipated to come over the border," Harper said at a border crossing in Surrey, British Columbia.
The union that represents the guards says about 400-600 officers have refused work over the last year and a half because of the dangers encountered with criminals approaching the border.
The government plans to arm and train its 4,500 border agents over the next 10 years. Harper said some will be armed starting in September of 2007 and about 150 will receive guns by the end of March 2008.
The national training site for customs officers has a capacity of 600 to 800 people a year, so training more than 4000 agents and reissuing sidearm licenses each year will take years.
The Canadian side of the U.S.-Canada border is monitored by the Canada Border Services Agency. They have been demanding guns to help them deal with cross-border criminal activity.
Under the border agents' collective agreement, the unarmed officers have the right to walk away if they believe their safety is jeopardized.
Officers abandoned four posts in British Columbia earlier this year when they were told that two murder suspects from California were headed their way, in an embarrassment to the former Liberal government. The men were apprehended by armed U.S. law enforcement officers.
Canada's Conservative party defeated the Liberals in elections last January and promised that they expected to arm border guards soon.
Erik Lupien, a union executive who represents the guards, said he did not understand the Liberal philosophy that because Canada is a peace loving nation its border guards should not be armed. He called it "living in the dark ages."
He said the decision to arm agents is long overdue.
"It's embarrassing," Lupien said. "Can you can imagine that the people guarding your border, who are first in line to stop suspect criminals, suspect terrorists — don't have guns?"
Harper also reiterated Thursday that $101 million Canadian (US$81 million; euro63 million) will be spent to hire 400 additional officers. They will be used, among other things, to double up on Canada-U.S. border crossings that only have a single officer on duty.
The CBSA operates at about 1,200 points across Canada, handling an average of 260,000 travelers who enter Canada each day.