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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


My Rant April 3rd 2011 – Federal Election 41

So there is an upcoming election.

As of yet I have had no response from anyone regarding their policies or proposals on the current state of the CBSA. What I would like to know is each party’s stance on the current hiring freeze, budget cuts and the ongoing arming initiative.
Why be on Twitter if you are not going to reply to followers?
If you are wondering why there are long line ups at the airports and border crossings…its due to the lack of staffing and restrictions on overtime. The lack of staffing is a result of attrition. Staff retire or move to a different department or agency and their spots are not backfilled. We have pools of people waiting for jobs but no money to hire them. Everyday we are expected to do more with less.
I understand that we are trying to come out of a recession but to cut back on an agency that is responsible for the movement of people and goods, directly affecting the  economic prosperity of Canada; not to mention aside from Canada Revenue Agency, as far as I know we are the only other federal agency that actually brings in significant revenue.
So I would like to know….Mr. Harper, Mr. Igantieff, and Mr. Layton, what do you plan to do about this going forward?

I would like to know the following:

1. How do you plan to address the lack of staff and more importantly lack of funding for the CBSA?….the agency that is responsible for the security and economic prosperity for Canada.

2. What is your position on the ongoing arming initiatives?

3. What is your position on the current hiring and competition process administered by the public service commission? I find the current practice extremely ineffective as it rewards people that can write tests and perform in interviews which is not an indication of them being the best fit for the position. Much as passing the bar doesn’t mean you will excel at being a lawyer or getting your teaching certificate means you will be a great teacher.

I will probably not get a response to this post...but I’m putting it out there. I hope any Canadian reader outs there will question there MP about this. Especially  those of you that I know have experienced the frustration of waiting in long lines at customs, waiting days for a response from the agency, waiting days for the results of an examination so you can get your shipment…and most of all those of you that feel that our service standards are sorely lacking. Some of these things are unavoidable….but many are not. Everyday I feel the public’s pain and there is not much I can do but do my part to try make things better…but in reality my hands are tied because we don’t have the staff, and we don’t have the resources. What resources we do have…much is allocated in the wrong way….and then there’s all the red tape.
So if you travel, import, export or even order or have goods shipped to you…please call or write your MP and ask them when they come knocking….what are you going to do about this?

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