Security Questioned at Airport in Newfoundland

Customs officers working at an airport in Newfoundland aren't getting the tools they need to detect infiltration by terrorists, a security forum was told yesterday.

Ron Moran, national president of the Customs Excise Union, said officers are being denied access to passport screeners and computer databases that list suspected terrorists because Ottawa has not designated the airport a customs service site. The union represents 4,000 uniformed customs officers.

Moran said Deer Lake, Nfld., is the destination of commercial flights from Gatwick International Airport in London, England, "a major airline hub through which hundreds of thousands of passengers travel each year en route from Europe to North America."

"Customs officers are asked to clear these flights with no access to the computerized customs or immigration lookout systems, so they don't run on-site checks on passengers," Moran said. "The officers process passengers in a fire hall, while Canadian immigration officers do not show up at all."

Moran acknowledged that officials in Halifax do security checks on the passengers while these planes are in flight.

But he charged that in an era dominated by security concerns, "Canada is going in the opposite direction by allowing that overseas flights be cleared in a fire hall, with no computer access and no immigration officers present."

Helen Leslie, a spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency - created last year to keep entry points secure - confirmed yesterday that the Deer Lake airport receives one international flight per week, averaging about 70 passengers per flight. Many are wealthy Europeans bound for a resort.

She acknowledged that processing arrivals in a fire hall was not "ideal," saying there are proposals for a new structure. She took issue with Moran's concerns about security, however.

"I can assure you that all security arrangements are in place for the safety and security of the public, the passengers and our employees," Leslie said. "Appropriate equipment is in place to process these passengers properly in keeping with our standards."

Immigration officers were not usually on hand, she acknowledged, but added, "If there was a concern, we would take the appropriate steps."

Moran also charged that the federal government is taking a risk in hiring 1,200 students in summer to perform work usually handled by staff officers.

"These are young kids who are barely trained, who don't pass tests to demonstrate they qualify, who aren't supervised, and yet are given the keys to our first line of defence against terrorists, criminals and smugglers," he said.

Moran acknowledged that students aren't allowed to enforce the Criminal Code, and that hiring them may save the government $12 million.

But, he said, "if one inadequately trained or qualified student lets just one terrorist into Canada and that person wants to blow up a building, it won't be long before that $12 million saved is lost tenfold."

Leslie said the students received "an appropriate level of security clearance equal to that of any regular CBSA employee," that they were "appropriately trained" and never left unsupervised.