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My Rant Oct 23rd 2011 – Why I became a Customs Officer

Why become a Customs Officer?

I don’t know about other officers…but I know why I did…if you don’t mind I would like to share with you my thoughts.

My journey to become a Customs Officer started with the realization that I felt most fulfilled when I helped other people. Perhaps it’s genetic…I don’t know…my parents also devoted their lives to help others to the chagrin of my grandparents. Both sides sacrificed a lot to give my mother and father the best education and life possible only to have them declare their path to be one not focused on material wealth but one of religion and helping mankind.

Now I love to help people, but don’t get me wrong…I hate to help people under the duress of obligation. I love to help people because…I want to…not because I have to. It is more kind in my opinion to do something nice for someone because you want to, with no benefit to yourself other than self satisfaction. I know, I know, not exactly altruistic. But it’s the truth.

I get such a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment by going above and beyond for people that can never repay me. It’s not the same when someone does you a favour hoping for some kind of reciprocal behaviour.

That’s why random acts of kindness blow people away. They don’t expect it.

Unfortunately at Customs, this is precisely often the case….Nobody expects kindness.

The public says they expect professionalism and service. But what they really prepare themselves for is gruffness. They expect harshness. They expect rebuke. They expect disgruntled unionized public servants feeding off the trough of taxpayer dollars. Too often they return home as weary travellers only to be met by long line ups, grilling questions, and surly attitude.

I can sympathize with my colleagues though as sometimes dealing with person after person can be trying even on the most patient of us who wear the uniform. If Mother Teresa was poked in the forehead hundreds of times a day for 30+ years I’d suspect even she might not be remembered as the figurehead for peace, love and service to mankind….OK maybe Mother Teresa…but I think you get my drift.

It’s not an easy situation. People are cranky and tired after a long flight. People are annoyed and frustrated sitting in line on a bridge for hours with screaming kids in the back seat. Importers and brokers want their goods yesterday and everyone thinks that as a citizen or taxpayer they should not be subject to questioning, delay, scrutiny, entering or shipping their own personal effects into their own country.

Many people erroneously believe that their Charter rights are being violated. But in truth the Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the Customs process.

According to the decision in R v. Simmons, “The degree of personal privacy reasonably expected at customs is lower than in most other situations. Sovereign states have the right to control both who and what enters their boundaries. Consequently, travellers seeking to cross national boundaries fully expect to be subject to a screening process. Physical searches of luggage and of the person are accepted aspects of the search process where there are grounds for suspecting that a person has made a false declaration and is transporting prohibited goods.”[1]

Further more, the decision goes on to say…

“Persons entering Canada, whether or not they are citizens, are placed in a unique legal situation at the point at which they enter the country. They expect to submit to a certain degree of inspection of their baggage, and in some cases, their person. Their situation is distinguishable from one where an individual is stopped or detained in the course of his activities within Canada.”[2]

What about if you want to lawyer up?

“The purpose of the right to counsel is to ensure that the individual is treated fairly in the criminal process and, in particular, to prevent the individual from incriminating himself. In a border search the issue is not one of self‑incrimination. A search at the border is part of the process of entering the country and is not part of the criminal process. The right to counsel will arise only where a searched person is placed under custody as part of the criminal process. This does not mean, however, that no right to counsel can ever arise in searches which occur at ports of entry. Where the purpose of the detention, interrogation, or search arises in criminal proceedings, as distinct from those concerning entry into the country, the Charter protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to counsel will apply.”

So my point is yes you do have charter rights…but within the process of crossing a border, and those rights are not the same as they would be domestically once you have entered the country…citizen or not…unless you are being pursued criminally.

So yes it’s not easy having people become indignant at the first question.

Could things be done better, more efficiently? For sure they could. But front line officers don’t make those decisions. We don’t decide how many officers we should staff on a given day or how many new recruits we need to replace the ones that are retiring. We also don’t write policy. Currently there is a hiring freeze and cuts to our budget due to the current fiscal policy to save as much money during these difficult economic times.

I wish the public understood that like most law enforcement officers, as a Customs officer, a gatekeeper to the country and our home…in order to do my job well…I believe… that I must work on a balance of possibilities and not probabilities. You’re probably an upstanding resident of Canada but there’s a possibility that you are not and therefore I need to make that determination in order to safe guard this country and the people that call it home.

Customs officers on the other hand could turn it down a notch and realize that not everyone is a criminal or lying. I’m a proponent of Pareto’s law or the 80/20 principle. For the purposes of my rant, I believe that 80% of people are compliant to the rules and regulations. 80% are hard working honest people. But the other 20% will be in various levels of non compliance from the failure to mention a trinket purchased for a nominal sum, the drug mule, to the terrorist bent on the destruction of western societies.

So instead of viewing every person with suspicion…I urge my coworkers to hone their ability to detect this 20% and save the hard line for them and not for the family coming back from Disney.

I urge my fellow officers to let the “spirit of the law” dictate their discretion. This world is not black and white. It is filled with shades of grey. Policy is not legislation and you are not a robot. You are…I hope a sentient being, a human being and a Canadian.

As a Border Services Officer we are empowered by the law to make “unfettered” decisions and to exercise our discretion. So stop and consider what is behind the legislation. What was the intention? If you follow the spirit of the law then you will be aligned with the purpose behind the legislation; and you cannot go wrong.

One of our agency mandates right now is to focus on “Service excellence” or Client Service. I believe this means more than just meeting our service standards. I believe this to mean, in broader terms, to serve Canada by serving Canadians. How do we do that? By helping the public adhere to the policies and regulation, by educating and outreach, and by behaving and treating the public in a respectful, fair and professional manner.

Berating a member of the public achieves nothing but to anger them and nurture negative sentiment. Refusing to help and throwing the proverbial book at the smallest unintentional infraction is not what the spirit of the law intended. We were given powers of discretion for a reason. You are also a human being with a heart. Use it!

Our responsibilities are paramount to the economic prosperity and safety of Canadians. We are mandated to facilitate the free flow of people and goods. This is vital to our economy in this day and age of globalization.

We also need to keep the wrong people out and let the right people in.

Without immigration this country cannot remain competitive or support its growing aging population. Canadian are not having enough children. Who will pay for all the services we need when we are old? Who’s going to pay the taxes? Who’s going to fund healthcare? CPP may not even be around in 20 years.

We need educated law abiding new immigrants who are willing to come to Canada and start a new life and be part of the economy. We need immigrants who will invest in this country by creating businesses and jobs. We need skilled workers to come to Canada and help fill the void in occupations where we have known shortages.

But I digress. My intention was to write this post to explain why I chose to become a Customs Officer and then I started ranting. Sorry. I guess I feel passionate about this stuff.

I became a Customs Officer to make a difference and serve my country.

It makes me happy when I know that I have helped someone, really helped someone, and not just given directions to the washrooms or to stand in this or that line. I enjoy many aspects of the job too, not all, but many. The rush of finding concealed narcotics fulfills my enforcement side and guiding and educating the public on how to import their goods equally satisfies my desire to help others.

This job is great if you like interacting with the public. This job is also rewarding if you excel in the area of critical analysis and have good work ethic….you will find the contraband.

If you don’t like people and you don’t like to dig…this job is not for you.

This job truly encompasses the old police motto of “serve an protect”. That is what we do. I feel the same joy whether I find GHB (narcotic known for being used as a date rape drug) knowing a little more is off the street, or I help teach some mom and pop small business importer how to clear their first shipment.

Our new motto by the way is “Protectio, Servitium, Integritas” or “Protection, Service and Integrity”.

Our values are “Respect, Integrity and Professionalism”.

As you may have noticed, Integrity is in both the motto and one of the values and I am not going to comment on whether we live up to this but it is definitely a goal worth striving for, and I hope, I implore, my fellow officers will join me in striving to uphold this.

And to the public, I say, try to understand what we have deal with everyday. Try to understand that some of us chose this profession because we care. Not because we didn’t have a choice or we wanted some cushy government job. Try to understand the scope of our responsibility and how we are mandated with encouraging Canada’s prosperity and ensuring its safety.

Recently I have seen quite a few colleagues retire and it saddens me. In some ways this is a thankless job. And after 35 years, a plaque and a handshake, you’re out the door and a few months later it’s like you never worked there. People forget you and the big wheel keeps on turning.

Many officers end up embittered about how this or that happened to them over the course of their career and never recover. Why does this happen? I think it’s because they are so over invested in their jobs that the smallest thing is blown out of proportion. So then they react negatively completely out of proportion to the issue. They lash back at coworkers, management, the agency or even the public; ending in discipline or being sidelined from career advancement. The result then is that sooner or later they feel stabbed in the back by the system, agency or management. After a while they stop caring. They come into work just to collect their pay cheque and they start counting the days to retirement.

Sometimes the complaints these types of officers have is legitimate. But if you let it get to you, it will do you no good. This job has to be done for its own sake and for Canadians. You have to find your own motivation to come in each day to do the best job that you can.

My martial arts master once said, “…most people are not good at everything. Some students will excel at punching, some at kicking, some at throwing and some at grappling etc…so take something you enjoy like punching and cultivate it and make it yours. The end result will be that it will transfer over to other skills because the principle behind them is all the same; Circle Flow Harmony.”

I try to carry this philosophy with me on the job. I don’t let things get to me. When I’m frustrated about something, I focus on what I enjoy and love and it miraculously expands. It carries over into everything else I do.

When I am finished my shift for the day, I go home. I spend time with family and friends, I blog 🙂 and each day before I start my shift I pray to God and ask for help in being the best officer I can and for the ability to help someone.

One day, my day will come and it will be time for me to move on.

When that day comes I will leave knowing I did my part, and I did my best. I will not leave angry. I will leave with the satisfaction that I made a difference in my own way; which is why I became a Customs officer in the first place.

Thanks for reading.

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[1] R. v. Simmons, [1988] 2 SCR 495

[2] R. v. Simmons, [1988] 2 SCR 495

[3] R. v. Simmons, [1988] 2 SCR 495


How to become a Customs and Immigration Officer in Canada – A job as a Border Services Officer

This post is to help those of you interested in becoming a Customs and Immigration Officer for Canada. In Canada, the duties of a customs or immigration officer are performed by a border services officer. In 2003, the Canada Border Services Agency was created in a response to 9/11 to amalgamate the enforcement and front line processing of Customs, Immigration and the Food plant and animal legislation. The goal was to create an Officer that can perform all functions at the port of entry. I.e. land border, seaport or airport.


Prior to 2003, there were 3 different types of officers at the port of entry, Customs officers, immigration officers and officers from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Now, they are all one…the border services officer.


The mandate of the CBSA is to “provide integrated border services to support national security and public safety priorities and free flow of people and goods, including animals and plants that meet all the requirements under the program legislation.” The official mission is to ensure the security and prosperity of Canada and Canadians by managing the access of people and goods to and from Canada.


In a nut shell, the above paragraph captures what the Agency you possibly hope to work for is all about. The CBSA is Canada’s version of the Department of Homeland Security in the US.


Below is the basic overview of the hiring process. Keep in mind that you need to be screened or pass to move on to the next level.


Educational Requirements
I have noticed that this seems to change from time to time. The minimum education requirement I have seen on a job poster is 2 years of post secondary education. That means 2 years of college or University. Previously, high school was sufficient but not any more.


* note that you will have to prove your education through diploma, degree, or official transcript.
*When applying, it helps to get screened into be invited to write the exam for your area of study to be law or enforcement related.


No experience is required to apply, however to get screened in to write the entrance exam you must show that you have experience applying rules, by-laws, legislation, or enforcement, or been in a position of responsibility, position of authority, dealt with the public etc…anything that would help in preparing you for a job where you deal with the public and have to uphold the law or some kind of rules or regulation. Many officers I noticed used to work in banks, customs brokerages, and some type of security.


Where to apply
All applications are now processed online through the Government of Canada Jobs site at www.jobs.gc.ca . If you’re interested you should check periodically or sign up an account and set up an email alert for the type of job you are interested in. At the bottom of the job posting you will see where you can apply directly online. You can complete all the required information directly or copy and paste your cover letter and resume from somewhere else.


In order to get screened into write the test I recommend reading over the key words in the posting and ensure that you have addressed how you meet the requirements or skill sets.
There are many Border Services Officers retiring in the next few years so there should be lots of openings if the economy begins to improve.


For more detail on the entire process visit the CBSA Website where the CBSA breaks down the entire process.


The Border Services Officer Test
This is not an easy test nor is it extremely difficult. It is 4-5 hours in length and is basically an aptitude test. You will need to know Math and English (grammar and spelling). You will need to do memory work and be able to apply logic and reasoning.


You need a minimum pass mark of 585 out of 900.


When I prepared for the exam I used a book called the Police Prep Test available at Chapters or Indigo. Now the same company has Test prep book specifically for Border Service Officers called the Comprehensive Guide to Canadian Military, Border Services, Corrections and Security Exams. I highly recommend this.

Click on the image below to purchase this book through Indigo Chapters.

The Comprehensive Guide to Canadian Military, Border Services, Corrections and Security Exams

 The reason I recommend this book is because it teaches three crucial aspects to successfully passing the test.


    1. Understanding the format of tests. Going in blind is a huge mistake. The examples on the CBSA website are not indicative of the level of difficulty of the actual test.


    1.  Practising and learning basic memory, logic and reasoning skills, and knowledge of math and English. The book also gives basic training in all these areas.


    1. And lastly, Time! Because the test is timed and the test is broken down to different section, each with a time limit…practising with a timer is crucial. The prep book has practice tests and how long you have for each section so I highly recommend practicing within the time constraints. There are no deduction of marks for wrong answers so the last thing you want to do is not answer a question.


 So if you want the best chance in passing the BSOT I would prepare for it using the above study guide and practice tests.


The CBSA Learning Centre in Rigaud, Quebec
The college in Quebec is where all new recruits must attend and pass POERT, which is Port Of Entry Recruitment Training. The course has varied in length of time. It has run anywhere from 13 weeks – 9 weeks. With the arming of Border Services Officer, at some point firearms training will be part of the curriculum and the length of time at the college will probably increase.


During this time, if you are not already an employee of the Government of Canada, you will not be paid. There is a small weekly allowance now but it’s not even worth mentioning and you most likely won’t see a penny until near the end or when you’ve already finished. There are 2 determination points or testing phases in Rigaud. You must pass both to graduate. The college is stressful and there’s a lot to learn. But if you survive you will come out of it with a job/career with the CBSA and the Government of Canada.


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