By Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
It sat on a desk in a CN Rail office north of Toronto.
No calls to CN police were made for over an hour.
It was referred to as a “banned item” in an internal CN memo and found at CN’s MacMillan train yard north of Toronto in August – the “Crown Jewel” of the largest railroad in Canada that reaches deep into the United States.
The item was a black semi-automatic handgun found next to a tanker car up from Memphis, TN and wasn’t spotted until the train made it to Toronto.
An APTN National News investigation found this semi-automatic is just one example of the dangerous elements that could be crossing into Canada through a number of porous freight rail border points.
And APTN found that unlike security at airports and vehicle crossings, no one from the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) is on the ground checking freight cars coming to Canada from the United States.
And it’s something the federal government has known for a long time.
In 2009, before the Conservatives got majority of the Upper Chamber, a Senate committee traveled across the country and saw the holes themselves.
It was clear then, according to Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny, enforcement along freight railway border crossings was non-existent.
Kenny was prepared to tell the country of his findings.
But according to Kenny, before the report on the Senate’s findings could be written in 2010, disgraced Sen. Pamela Wallin killed it and much of the work the Senate’s committee on national defence and security had been doing.
Kenny told APTN it would have clearly indicated there is a “wide gaping hole in Canadian security” on freight trains entering the country leaving Canadians vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks because the CBSA doesn’t properly examine freight trains from the United States.
It hasn’t just been known by the Senate or the Conservatives, as APTN spoke to a variety of sources, including a senior RCMP officer with knowledge of investigations into guns, drugs and contraband involving joint investigations by the CBSA and RCMP.
In fact, the RCMP officer described the current situation as the easiest way for criminals to transport their illegal goods because “there’s no enforcement.”
“The poorest element, the most dangerous element of the border,” the officer said about freight trains entering Canada and who asked not to be named.
But the officer rang off detail after detail about how the system is in dire straits which will be part of APTN’s ongoing investigation in the days to follow.
“Rail is one of the least scrutinized cargo methods so if you have something that you need to move, one of the best ways to move anything is by rail…and that’s because there’s no enforcement,” the officer said.
How is it so easy?
With no one there checking the freight coming in on the ground the CBSA relies mainly on railroads filing manifests electronically at least two hours prior to crossing. Based on those manifests CBSA may decide to investigate cargo. By then the cargo is already in Canada and many times in the hands of criminals said the RCMP officer.
Then, is when the CBSA may investigate the officer said.
It turns out, the last line of defense at the border is CN’s own police officers, who are employed by the railway and are accountable to no one, including the federal government, as reported in September by APTN.
To be frank, they run unchecked much like freight cars entering Canada. They answer only to their police chief who answers to the CEO.
In 2010, Kenny saw his once robust national security committee take a nose dive.
He explained to APTN in 2009 members of the defence committee traveled the country inspecting ports of entry, including airports and some of the 27 ports for freight trains.
Kenny was amazed at what he found.
“All of the freight, and it’s a huge amount of freight, comes through without anybody checking. We found that absolutely astonishing,” said Kenny in an interview.
For example, during his trip Kenny had CBSA agents drive him to a port in Vancouver.
“We took a look at it and I had CBSA drive me to train yards in Vancouver and it was astonishing, because the CN police there were very concerned because they hadn’t seen custom agents there before,” said Kenny. “It was a huge surprise and they were pretty candid about it, admitting that this was a gap in the system.”
By this point Kenny chaired the Senate’s national defence committee that had exposed gaps throughout the system for years and he said to APTN similar gaps were found at airports.
When the trip was over Kenny sat down with the former president of CBSA, Stephen Rigby and current president Luc Portelance in 2009 in his Senate office.
They wanted to know what Kenny found on his trip.
He told them the most pressing issue was “nobody is taking care of freight coming into Canada and that is a huge opening…We don’t want drugs coming in, we don’t want guns coming in. We’re not the only people, you and I aren’t the only people, that know this is a wide gaping hole in Canadian security.”
Kenny said the hole leaves Canada susceptible to a terrorist attack but added Canada’s saving grace is the country is not a big of a target as the U.S.
APTN approached Kenny after weeks of investigating and shared some details of into its reporting on rail crossings.
Part of the investigation focused on Sarnia where the Aamjiwnaang First Nation sits surrounded by dozens of petro chemical plants within city limits.
In October, APTN visited Sarnia where an underground tunnel connects to Port Huron in the U.S.
The tunnel runs under the St. Clair River and Imperial Oil. CN is said to run up to 30 trains a day through it.
APTN came within metres of tunnel and could see three cameras – two facing up the single track leaving the tunnel into CN’s yard to the east.
It’s not known whether anyone is actively monitoring the cameras. If there was, APTN journalists would have been easily spotted walking through heavy brush, knee high, for about a kilometre before walking past them and setting up a camera.
A third security camera was visible and was looking right down on them the entire time.
At the tunnel, there did not appear to be any security unlike vehicle crossings where custom agents grill people coming back and forth over the border and where they conduct vehicle inspections, including transport trucks.
The tunnel was built in 1994 and is named after Paul Tellier, a former public servant who was brought in by former Prime Minister Brian Mulruney in 1992 to slash jobs and begin the deregulation of CN. It was fully privatized in 1995 under the Liberals. Since then it ceased to be a Crown corporation with few regulations.
The tunnel replaced the much older and smaller St. Clair tunnel which is now used by workers driving vehicles to, and from, the U.S.
After about 15 minutes of filming a worker dressed in orange coveralls appeared from the old tunnel in a pick-up truck.
He seemed surprised by the presence of people with a camera, but didn’t approach APTN. He walked a few feet, down a flight of stairs, crossed the tracks and up another set of stairs before entering a building.
About 15 minutes later APTN left and followed the tracks about two kilometres where a CN police officer was sitting in an SUV cruiser next to the VIA station.
The officer approached the journalists to see why they were filming trains there and warned them not to go onto CN property or they’d be fined with trespassing.
He appeared to have no knowledge of APTN’s whereabouts just minutes prior, because he never mentioned it and was adamant he’d fine the reporters if they took a few steps forward off VIA’s property, which is next to CN property.
“What do you do, watch the trains go by all day,” a reporter asked the officer.
“We handle security. We do a lot more than watch the trains,” said the officer who declined to go on camera but said the ‘Sarnia boys’ would like to do a TV interview if head office would let them.
Up until this point the CBSA, in a slew of emails, had told APTN it handled security at railway ports of entry and after being pressed on the issue said CN police played a “role” but refused to say what it was when asked.
A spokesperson turned down a request for an on-camera interview. They did not give a reason. APTN waited days between questions sent via email.
When asked what role the CBSA plays on the ground the CN officer seemed puzzled.
He paused and said the only time CBSA is involved is when someone tries to enter Canada illegally.
“If we catch someone coming through illegally we turn them over to the CBSA,” the officer said, adding a few years ago they saw a spike in illegal aliens trying to enter Canada.
“We had people smuggling a few years ago. They hop on the trains and come through the tunnel. We’d find them over on Confederation Street and we’d pick them,” he said.
A spokesperson for CN said they work closely with local, provincial or state and federal law enforcement agencies.
“To ensure the security of CN’s rail network as well as all goods transported on CN’s system. Its duties include physical security, criminal investigation and detection, as well as the collection, analysis and integration of intelligence related to infrastructure security,” said Mark Hallman who responded via email.
APTN asked about the cameras at the tunnel wanting to know who operated them.
Hallman answered on behalf of CN police.
“CN Police will not discuss the security systems that are in place nor how they are monitored in order to protect the integrity and effectiveness of these systems,” said Hallman who works in corporate communications for the company.
Throughout its investigation APTN spoke to a number of people and tried to speak to current employees.
Many times APTN was told they feared for their jobs.
But one CN engineer said cases like the gun from Memphis is a small scratch on the surface of what goes through the Sarnia yard because the cars on the way back to Sarnia are not inspected by CBSA agents.
“I have never had a (CBSA) customs agent come on my train, a customs agent search my train or a CN police officer. Never,” said the engineer who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal from CN head office. “You can get anything through the tunnel into Canada. Nobody is checking and it’s been going on forever. It’s easy and I can’t believe more people are not on to it. With a good drug mule – the window is wide open.”
APTN is familiar with engineer’s work history and experience, but has held back on details that may identify the person.
That’s not the case for trains entering the U.S. as Homeland Security x-rays cars entering their country with items known as a VACIS machines. After the trains enter into Port Huron from Sarnia they stop while a U.S. customs agent walks the train.”
“They pull cars off left and right. They’ve got a big crane over there to pull (cars) off and inspect them,” said the engineer.
When told what APTN learned about Sarnia and the holes in border security Kenny said “that’s true right across the whole system.”
Kenny said during his investigation he was annoyed to learn U.S. customs had offered to let CBSA use the same VACIS machines when material was coming in from the U.S. to Canada but the federal government said no thanks.
“We turned them down because we didn’t have enough money to pay the customs officers to man the machines,” he said. “It’s not just about money; it’s about the commitment of the government to keep Canada safe. The whole purpose of us having customs people there isn’t to collect a bit of tax dollars here, and bit of duty there, it’s to make sure nothing is shipped into this country that we don’t want.”
When asked what’s changed since he met the heads of CBSA Kenny said “nothing has changed” despite them leaving him with the “impression that closing the rail freight gap would be high on their ‘to do’ list.”
That was about three years ago.
And according to the CN engineer it’s no different up to this very day, at least in Sarnia.
APTN was first made aware of gaps in border security by private investigator Derrick Snowdy, an Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi north of Ottawa.
Snowdy took an interest in 2008 when an investor asked him to look into CN.
He had been tipped-off about the apparent gaps and began looking into it. His focus quickly narrowed in on Sarnia.
Snowdy learned the only security on the ground was CN police.
APTN has previously written the federal government, despite granting policing powers to CN police, same as Canadian Pacific police, through the Railway Safety Act, has no authority to investigate a railway police constable or police service.
It’s also been reported by APTN that CN police have been known to lie before the court to obtain warrants in a criminal investigation of a former employee. In that same case, CN head office directed their police officers on how to conduct its investigation into the employee. A CN police officer admitted to this on the stand. He was the lead officer.
Snowdy then filed a complaint with the CBSA Jan. 11, 2013, the same day thousands of Aboriginal protestors converged on Parliament Hill on the Day of Action in the height of the Idle No More movement.
Snowdy walked with the protestors along Wellington Street but instead of turning left to Parliament Hill he went right and into the criminal investigations branch of the CBSA.
There he met with two agents and over several hours said he laid out, in a ninth floor boardroom, what he knew about Sarnia’s port of entry. As he spoke, Snowdy could hear the protestors down on the street.
“That afternoon I sat in the CBSA’s criminal investigation division and discussed with them for several hours…the very nature of the business transactions and with me were a number of documents that detailed how the border access point in Sarnia was being controlled by CN Rail,” he said.
He said the agents seemed receptive to the information and made copies of documents and told him they’d be following up with him in the near future.
Several weeks passed when Snowdy said he received a phone call from a CBSA agent who didn’t give his name in February.
“After that I got a phone call from one person at CBSA and they were advised to drop the matter. When it came to investigating CN there was an issue of authority and jurisdiction over how CN conducts its business and essentially if CN was found wanting with regards to border security and border integrity that CBSA neither had the resources or the manpower to assure security at those ports of entry,” said Snowdy.