North Border’s Guards Who Don’t

Times Staff Writer

The 100-mph car chase ended in a blaze of gunfire at the Peace Arch, the graceful marble monument that straddles the U.S.-Canada border here and proclaims the two nations to be “Children of a Common Mother.”

As two murder suspects from California blew past the U.S. customs station and raced north for the border, a deputy sheriff managed to ram their vehicle with his squad car, spinning it down an embankment and across a broad lawn between the two border stations before it finally came to a stop. The suspects fled on foot, and in the ensuing gun battle, one was wounded; in the end, they were captured.

Although the Jan. 24 episode was by far the most dramatic encounter between fugitives and law enforcement officers at the border in recent months, the reaction on the Canadian side unfolded along a standard -- if contentious -- script: The Canadian border guards walked off their posts.


Roughly a dozen times in the last four months, Canadian border guards, who unlike their U.S. counterparts are unarmed, have left their posts in response to reports of dangerous suspects heading north.

The walk-offs, spanning the border at posts from here to New York, have closed the crossings for periods of a few minutes up to several hours. In the most recent incident, Feb. 10, traffic heading from Blaine into British Columbia was backed up for three hours after Canadian guards left their posts in response to a report that a murder suspect from the Seattle area might be headed their way. The alleged killer never materialized.

The tie-ups have been a source of major aggravation for motorists, and of minor diplomatic headaches. They became an issue in Canada’s recent national elections -- with the victorious Conservative government promising it would support arming the border guards, an idea backed by the union that represents them.

“Primarily, this has been an image thing. We’re a peaceful nation, with Canadians being proud of the fact that we don’t greet people at the border crossings with someone who’s armed,” said Ron Moran, the union’s president.

“But the reality is that we don’t live in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood anymore,” added Moran, whose 10,500-member Ottawa-based group is officially known by its English-French bilingual name, the Customs Excise Union Douanes Accise. “The reality is that our officers should be armed.”

The issue of whether the border officers should carry guns has been debated for years.

Officials of the Liberal Party, which was in charge until recently, generally opposed the idea. As then-Revenue Minister Martin Cauchon put it a few years ago: “Side arms would not reflect our image.”


But the new Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, vowed during his campaign to give “our customs and border guards the training and equipment they need -- including side arms.”

Harper also said he would address guards’ concerns about the solo shifts that some of them work at remote border crossings. U.S. border stations have two or more guards.

On Jan. 31, a guard with the Canada Border Services Agency refused to work at his post in remote Roosville, B.C., after hearing reports about an armed and dangerous suspect who had evaded Montana authorities near Lone Pine State Park, about 60 miles south of the border.

Police in Flathead County, Mont., issued a bulletin saying the suspect was possibly heading north and had warned authorities that he wouldn’t be captured alive. He was apprehended two days later, found hiding in the bushes of a park in Kalispell, Mont.

The Canadian border post was reopened after a few hours when a nonunion management official took over. The location was so remote that only four trucks and one car were lined up on the U.S. side.

Management has stepped in during other walk-offs by the guards, but not always with enough staffing to stop tie-ups, as was the case here last weekend.


At this busy crossing about 110 miles north of Seattle and 30 miles south of Vancouver, B.C., traffic was proceeding smoothly the other day. Canadian border guards on duty politely referred questions about the walk-offs to Paula Shore, a spokeswoman for the border services agency.

Shore said there had been “a bit of a slowdown” because of the ongoing dispute over whether guards should be armed. She said the guards -- who are issued bulletproof vests and pepper spray -- were exercising a legal right under Canadian law to leave a workplace they consider unsafe.

Although the U.S. and Canada have different regulations over side arms at the border, she said, “We all want the same thing: safety and security for our countries and their citizens.”

No Canadian guard has been killed or shot in recent years by a fugitive crossing the border, Moran said. But several have had guns or knives pointed at them, and have had to follow Canadian procedure: Let the suspected criminals go by without confrontation, then call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to give chase.

In the incident involving the California murder suspects, at least two Canadian guards left their posts after hearing that the fugitives were headed their way.

After Whatcom County sheriff’s Deputy Stuart Smith spotted the suspects’ car at a rest stop about five miles south of Blaine and attempted to arrest them, the pair sped off.


Smith followed them to the end of Interstate 5, witnesses said.

“It was like something out of a movie,” said Miguel Ramos, the owner of Paso del Norte, a Mexican restaurant a block or so from the U.S. border station. “These cars came screeching through here; there was a big crash” -- Smith ramming the suspects’ vehicle -- “and then they ran off toward the Canadian side.”

The shots that stopped them were fired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors, said Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo.

Elfo, a former Blaine police chief, said the incident was the most sensational border apprehension he could recall.

“You know they’re not armed at the station across the border,” Elfo said. “That’s always a consideration” for U.S. law enforcement personnel when they are deciding on a course of action during a pursuit.

Moran said members of his union were responding appropriately to the risk by walking off their posts until danger had clearly passed.

“It’s normal human behavior,” he said. “It is strictly a question of these men and women wanting to make sure they get back to their families at the end of their shift.”