Goodale won't call border crossers a 'crisis' - but U.S. did after 2017 Quebec border tour

Ralph Goodale (Getty Images)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale refused to use the word "crisis" when describing the phenomenon of border crossers streaming into Canada during a committee appearance in Ottawa yesterday.

However, internal emails obtained by CBC show U.S. officials saw things differently when they came to Canada last year, when the flow of asylum seekers crossing the border was at its height.

RCMP officers stopped 3,134 people in July of 2017 and 5,712 people in August, 2017.

Numbers released earlier this month show the number of people intercepted by the RCMP decreased significantly last month, with 1,263 entering the country outside official border points compared to 1,869 in May.

Speaking in front of the Commons immigration committee on irregular migration on Tuesday, Goodale defended his government's plan to deal with the spike in asylum seekers crossing into Canada, while swatting away Conservative claims the border-crossings are a crisis.

"There is a challenge but it is not a crisis," Goodale said.

But that's the very word U.S. officials used to describe the situation at the border in Lacolle, Que. when they came for a tour last summer.

According to emails obtained under access to information laws, last July the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Border Patrol asked the Canada Border Services Agency for permission to tour the facilities near the Roxham Road border crossing and chat with RCMP officers there.

It was pitched as a way to show "how well we work together in the eyes of the embassy leadership," said one email from a U.S. Border Patrol staffer.

U.S. side 'looking to do more'

At first, the Canadian side resisted the Americans' request for a tour.

"My concern is that it would be better to have a consensus and to review our procedures and processes with our Canadian partners before exchanging them with our American partners," wrote Pierre Provost, CBSA's acting regional director general for the Quebec region.

But they eventually went ahead with the tour. As one CBSA strategic adviser wrote in an email, "it would be useless to refuse this request since they would then only have to cross the point of entry to come see the Canadian side."

About 16 people took part in the tour, according to an itinerary recently released under the Access to Information Act.

The day after the Aug. 2 tour, U.S. officials sent a note to the Canadian side promising action.

"We received a heads up that the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires will send a cable to Washington stating that the Lacolle situation is a 'crisis,'" wrote Melissa Bindner, a strategic adviser with CBSA, in an email.

"Border Patrol will be looking to do more and have more resources. They want to discourage and interrupt the movement as much as they can within the current leg (sic) framework. They will also try a better (communications) approach to discourage the movement."

Goodale says we shouldn't be surprised

The tour happened before U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft officially took up her position, so the chargé d'affaires would have been the top serving diplomat at the embassy at the time.

Neither the U.S. embassy nor border patrol would answer specific questions about the tour and the promise of more resources.

The U.S. embassy in Ottawa said it "doesn't comment on internal U.S. government communication" and would only add that the U.S. "is working closely with the Government of Canada to understand the evolving flow of northbound asylum seekers."

During Goodale's committee appearance Tuesday, he noted that irregular migration is a global problem.

"We should not be surprised that it's affecting Canada too," he said. "And we should not expect there to be easy, quick solutions to what is a complex, global problem."

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said he's glad to see the U.S. called the situation a crisis, even though the Canadian side hasn't.

He said it wasn't until May of this year that his team finally noticed a change in operations between the Canadian and American border services.

Fortin pointed to the work both countries are doing to stop Nigerian asylum seekers with American travel visas from entering Canada. Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen described it as comparing notes.

Since Canada talked to U.S. officials earlier this year about the growing trend of Nigerians with U.S. visas seeking asylum in Canada, those officials have been applying more rigorous screening procedures to the American visa application process. That has led to a 10 per cent increase in the refusal rate in the U.S. system, said Hussen.

Fortin said his members also have noticed more of a U.S. presence at the border since last summer's tour.

"They're pretty well staffed," he said.

'Seamless' operation, says new minister

The Canadian side wouldn't respond to Fortin's comments.

"The Canada Border Services Agency routinely meets with its domestic and international law enforcement partners, such as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, to discuss various border-related issues," wrote spokesperson Patrizia Giolti in an email.

"The CBSA emphasizes a multiple border approach which often involves domestic and international partners to enforce Canada's border legislation along the travel continuum: at the earliest opportunity overseas, in transit, and upon arrival at the Canadian border."

While hundreds of asylum seekers are still streaming across the border, their numbers seem to be falling.

Canada's government recently pivoted its response to the situation by appointing Bill Blair as minister in charge of border security. His mandate letter hasn't been made public yet.

Blair visited the Roxham Road crossing in Lacolle, Que., on Monday and described the processing as "absolutely seamless."

"It was a really impressive operation," he told the immigration committee Tuesday.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel tabled the motion for the "emergency" meeting, noting that the influx of asylum seekers is putting a serious strain on some cities like Montreal and Toronto.