OTTAWA - Fewer border guards drew their guns, batons and pepper spray last year in an abrupt reversal of a previous trend toward greater use of force at Canadian border points.
There were 147 such incidents at border stations in 2011-2012, a significant drop from 184 in the previous year.
It marks the first significant decline in so-called use-of-force incidents over the last five years, a period during which guards were armed with handguns for the first time. Previously, officers had to call the local cops to deal with dangerous travellers.
The Canada Border Services Agency logs every incident in which their officers draw or discharge their duty sidearms, and pull out or use their truncheons and pepper spray.
So far, guards have discharged their handguns on duty just three times since July 2007, twice in loading-unloading accidents in which no one was hurt, and once deliberately to put an injured moose out of its misery in 2009.
But the agency also counts every time a guard pulls out his firearm to deal with a troublesome border-crosser.
A draft internal report on incidents in the last two years was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The statistics show batons and pepper spray were used or drawn fewer times last year than the year previous, while the firearm use — whether drawn or pointed — matched the previous year, at 105 incidents. There were no serious injuries or deaths in either year.
"We will not speculate on reasons why there seems to be a decrease in the number of incidents," agency spokeswoman Amitha Carnadin said in an email.
"Each incident is reviewed on a case by case basis to ensure that established standards and protocols were followed."
The drop may be linked to a decline in the number of American visitors crossing the border by car, partly the result of the strong Canadian dollar vis-a-vis the greenback.
Statistics Canada says the number of U.S. travellers crossing by automobile fell by five per cent between 2010 and 2011, to 13.6 million.
"I've been told that traffic went down in a lot of places," said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, representing border guards, when asked about the drop in incidents.
So far, the duty firearm — the 9 mm Beretta P4X Storm handgun — has been used in 152 incidents since the first one was issued to a border officer in July 2007. Most of the incidents have occurred in the busy southern Ontario and Pacific regions.
The Canada Border Services Agency said in 2006 that it planned to arm 4,800 guards within 10 years, and so far has trained and armed 2,072.
Carnadin said the project "remains on schedule and on budget," at about $781 million. Last month, the agency opened a large firing range at Rigaud, Que., after relying on smaller ranges in Chilliwack, B.C., Ottawa and Charlottetown for training.
Officers will eventually be armed at all 119 land and 34 marine ports of entry, Carnadin said.