08/18/2014 02:44 EDT | Updated 10/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Union says guards who left border post to backup RCMP were suspended

EMERSON, Man. - The union representing Canada's border guards says three of its Manitoba members have been suspended without pay after leaving their posts at the request of the RCMP to help arrest a suspect.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, says the guards were asked a few months ago to provide backup for the RCMP less than a kilometre away from the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson. The guards left their posts to help the Mounties, who were staking out a hotel and bar where they had tracked a suspect believed to be involved in the kidnapping of a child.

Two guards kept watch over several exits while a third guard went into the bar, said Fortin, who added the border remained staffed by three other guards on the night shift.

The three who went to help the Mounties returned to their posts less than an hour later following the suspect's arrest, he said.

The Canada Border Services Agency investigated and announced last week that it was suspending the guards for up to 25 days without pay because they left their posts for an "unauthorized purpose," Fortin said.

The guards had no choice but to help the RCMP, he said, because the Criminal Code compels them to co-operate fully with law enforcement officers.

"They did the right thing," Fortin said. "They haven't done anything wrong."

Both RCMP and border guards fall under the federal Public Safety Department, Fortin said.

Neither the RCMP nor the Canada Border Services Agency responded to several requests for comment.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney also wouldn't comment.

But in a letter dated Aug. 12 to the president of the agency, the minister said he was "concerned" about the disciplinary action.

Blaney said, while he understands the agency has the authority to discipline its officers, the Criminal Code requires any citizen assist law enforcement officials.

"Therefore, I would like to request a report on this incident and further clarification on the policy of the agency on requests for assistance in cases such as these," reads the letter, which was obtained by The Canadian Press.

Right after the arrest, the guards were thanked by the RCMP for their help, Fortin said. It's not unusual for border guards to help other law enforcement agencies, he added.

The guards, who cannot be identified, should be commended rather than punished, he suggested.

"These officers should actually be applauded and be recognized (for) reacting to keep — not only our border safer — but our community safe."

The suspended guards were armed and had received some of the same training as RCMP officers, Fortin said. The guards weren't new recruits and some had many years of experience on the job.

The union will be exploring all options to fight the suspensions, he said. At the very least, Fortin expects the guards to grieve the decision.

"We strongly feel this is abusive on behalf of the Canada Border Services Agency."

— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg