Border incident illustrates Canadian arms dilemma
At 9 p.m. on Sunday night surprised travelers headed for the Canadian border were confronted with “road closed” signs just north of Ferndale. Just before the Portal Way exit, traffic slowed to barely a crawl.
A Canadian AM radio station announced minimum two to three hour waits at the Pacific Highway and Peace Arch crossings, and lines getting longer at the rest of the county’s ports of entry.
Drivers familiar with the area skirted the line through Blaine to find state patrol had closed the D Street on-ramp, “until the freeway clears,” and cars lined up down the hill on D Street, waiting to turn onto truck-route traffic.
People climbed the fence from the freeway to dash into the restrooms at the U.S.A. gas station and the Pizza Factory, scheduled to close at 8 p.m. stayed open and busy until 10 p.m.
“We’ve got to help people out, they’re really stuck here,” said a young employee.
There was speculation along the line about security threats and terrorists, but the delays were triggered by a lone biker, reported to be armed and dangerous and headed for Canada.
At approximately 2:15 p.m. September 24, the day of the annual Oyster Run motorcycle rally to Anacortes, Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers at the Huntington crossing “exercised their legal right to refuse to work after receiving information an armed and dangerous individual may be approaching the border,” said CBSA public affairs officer Faith St. John.
Officers at the other three Whatcom County ports of entry did the same in the following half-hour, and traffic ground to a halt as Huntington and Aldergrove briefly closed, while Douglas and Pacific Highway crossings had only one lane open until managers could be called in to take over primary inspection lanes.
“A lot of our managers were at the Police and Peace Officers Memorial Service that afternoon in Stanley Park,” St. John said, so it took longer than it had on previous occasions to get the ports processing traffic at full capacity.
A similar scenario plugged the border three times in five weeks in early 2006.
According to Customs Excise Union Douanes Accise (CEUDA) communications officer Erik Lupien, officers received information through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security that a murder suspect, armed and riding a motorcycle, was traveling through Washington and would try and cross into Canada.
State patrol trooper Kirk Rudeen said the information had come from a California detective and had suggested the lookout subject would try and blend into the thousands of riders participating in the Oyster Run, many of whom come from Canada.
St. John said the RCMP was contacted and in conjunction with CBSA managers did a risk-assessment. “It was determined an armed presence was not required at Pacific Highway and Douglas crossings. We did have one at Huntington and Aldergrove.”
4 p.m. at the Douglas port of entry a vehicle
with U.S. license plates sped through the
primary inspection lanes without stopping.
Managers arriving to take over inspection duties were able to get a license plate number but the vehicle was not apprehended.
CEUDA President Ron Moran said the unarmed officers were unwilling to stay at their positions during the risk-analysis process and follow a policy of allowing the potentially dangerous person to proceed while notifying law enforcement. “This person was coming and they knew it and there was a refusal to bring in armed backup now,” he said. “I’m not going to stand there with my life on the line while this gets kicked around.”
Moran said the union would continue to pressure the government to speed up a timeline to arm CBSA officers.
“I think it can be done in five years,” he said. CEUDA vice-president George Scott has said officers would not leave their positions if they were armed.
In the House of Commons September 25 member of parliament Derek Lee drew criticism for calling border guards who walked off the job “a bunch of wimps.”
“We tried to ask him informally to cease doing that,” said minister of public safety Stockwell Day.
Day said the government had committed $101 million to begin the process of arming CBP officers, adding armed officers would be in key positions by next year. He also asked Lee to apologize for calling “the courageous men and women who serve us every day and night,” wimps.
By 8 p.m. the night of September 24 managers had all available lanes open at the Peace Arch and the Douglas crossings. By 11 p.m. the state patrol had reopened the D Street northbound on ramp. The lines were back to normal at the Pacific Highway crossing by midnight and at the Douglas crossing by 1 a.m.
St. John said despite the volume primary inspections continued to be rigorous.
“No one matching the description on the lookout entered Canada,” she said. She added “the investigation continues” to look for the vehicle that ran the border, and, according to Rudeen, for the biker who never showed up.