Categorized | Immigration

Eyes on this border crossing are 700 kilometres away

Posted on 21 September 2016 by admin

Morses Line is one of those places where the Canada-U.S. border is truly just an artificial stop on a country road.

In the late 1800s, it was a literal line established by a distant government that was crossed by villagers from the province of Quebec and the state of Vermont going about their business, which was mainly farming.

It has developed, but remains today as one of the smallest, most remote of the 117 crossing points along the 5,000-kilometre Canada-U.S. land border— one where populations on both sides share names, blood and a French mother tongue.

But after surviving threats of closure in Washington and absorbing budget cuts ordered by Ottawa, Morses Line has become ground zero for what could be the future of border management.

Where there was once a bucolic, white building welcoming people to Canadian soil and a century house next door that the head agent called home, now there is a state-of-the-art security structure loaded with cameras and defended by a guard located 700 kilometres away in Hamilton.

The Remote Traveller Processing program — a one-year pilot project — has been underway since February but the Canada Border Services Agency already has plans for similar operations at 19 other points-of-entry across the country if the program is deemed a success.

It works much like a high-tech drive-thru. Those seeking to enter Canada at Morses Line enter into a closed garage and park next to a kiosk that allows them to communicate with a border agent, show their passport and even pay duties on alcohol, tobacco or other goods with the swipe of a credit card.

“Are we letting our guard down?” said CBSA spokesperson Dominique McNeely. “The building was designed with enhanced security in mind. There are additional gates, there are many cameras and, compared to other border crossings nearby, there’s much more technology here to secure the border.”

That includes impact-resistant gates, a garage door that doesn’t open unless the border agent is satisfied there is no risk, and plenty of powerful cameras.

“We can see small writing on documents and we can actually zoom in very close and detect any type of signs,” McNeely said. “It’s like your classic interview at the border but it’s done remotely.”

If the agent has doubts, a traveller will be directed to the nearest staffed border crossing, which is 13 kilometres away. If there is something more nefarious, nearby agents are dispatched to conduct a more thorough search.

The potential national program is being tested at Morses Line for very local reasons.

In 2011, the United States Department of Homeland Security proposed the closure of its border post, which was built in 1934, processed about 40 vehicles each day and would cost $5.5 million (U.S.) to modernize.

Around the same time in Ottawa, the cash-strapped Conservative government decided to cut daily operating hours to between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

On both sides of the boundary, citizens, local politicians and businesses warned about the potential ramifications.

It would split up families and friends, impede first responders who regularly dash across the border to help out with emergencies and imperil the local economy, Saint-Armand Mayor Réal Pelletier told a parliamentary committee in November 2010.

The Morses Line crossing was due for a renovation. The work was extensive and involved demolishing the old structure, digging out a new basement facility for the imposing new superstructure and paving a nearby field for parking and vehicle traffic.

The project was also in line with joint Canada-U.S. border infrastructure plans. An April 2013 document on the subject speaks about equipping such stations with radiation detectors and limiting remote inspection to one side of the border to make sure there are “officers present on the other side, should an incident occur.”

The changes are a bigger problem for Canadian border agents, who could find themselves increasingly going to work in the equivalent of distant call centres far from the physical crossing points if the pilot project is expanded to some of the 75 other posts defined as small and remote points of entry.

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