Background Checks at Canadian Ports Too Weak

HALIFAX (CP) - Federal proposals for background checks on port workers contain too many loopholes, says a senator who argues the dockyards have been havens for organized crime.

Senator Colin Kenny viewed the proposed regulations for the Marine Transportation Security Act, obtained by The Canadian Press. He said the proposals permit too many exclusions for workers at the container terminals in Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal, allowing them to avoid screening for criminal records.

"Everyone should go through the same system," he said in an interview from his Ottawa office.

"(The regulations) are a partial step that probably will look good to some people, but won't do the trick."

He notes that in airports virtually all employees have a security check, while in ports there is still no federally mandated screening.

Kenny's 2002 Senate report on lax security in the ports, which came a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, helped kickstart a plan to do security checks on port workers.

Based on information from unidentified police officers, the committee said 15 per cent of checkers, who relay the movements of containers and cargo on the docks, and 36 per cent of 1,000 stevedores at the Port of Montreal have criminal records.

But the latest proposals for screening fall short of what's needed to tighten up the ports, Kenny said.

While the document states checks should be done on staff involved in "the planning and directing of cargo or container movement, including the loading and unloading into and from ships," federal officials are vague about the types of workers included in that definition.

For example, a port labourer who is simply following instructions isn't a priority for screening said Joanne St-Onge, a Transport Canada official leading the proposal process.

She said Transport Canada initially wanted all workers to be checked, but the agency changed its position after consulting with port authorities, unions and shipping lines.

"If you do everything at the same time, you're doing it too big and too fast, and it's not necessarily going to be more effective," she said.

The proposed changes are alarming to at least one security manager in a Canadian port, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said it appears most checkers, crane operators, forklift drivers and and flatbed drivers at his operation won't be screened under the current proposals.

"You tell me how 100 people moving boxes around in a congested, confined area cannot affect the security of our transportation system?" he said.

"Longshoremen and checkers can secretly put a container where it's not supposed to be. They can put it somewhere where it can be opened at night to be opened or have something installed in it."

"Meanwhile a secretary with access to a computer room has to have a security clearance. The equation doesn't work out, it just doesn't work."

A series of incidents have heightened concerns over thefts at the ports.

Last April, a cargo container the size of a boxcar disappeared from a terminal in Halifax. In another brazen heist, a 13-metre-long container was spirited away from the dockyard at the Fraser River Port Authority, based in New Westminster, B.C.

A spokesman for the Canadian Labour Congress said unions remain opposed to the proposed background screenings, arguing they are too invasive and lack an independent appeal process.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has said proposals to check credit histories and recent travel by spouses and employees is a violation of their privacy and unnecessary to ensure security.

"Senator Colin Kenny thinks everybody on the docks is a suspected criminal, without any proof of this," said Bill Chedore. "Don't paint everybody with one broad brush."

Kenny, who has called for a judicial inquiry into port security, agrees security checks need to respect human and privacy rights.

But widespread exemptions from the checks could make the system irrelevant, he said.

"Unions need to get a life. If a port gets a reputation for being a haven for criminality, people will go elsewhere."

St-Onge said the proposals will be discussed again by the government, unions and port managers. She said the goal is to have draft regulations ready for parliament by this summer.