Every seven minutes, a car is stolen in Canada, and many of them are packed into shipping containers for export to places like West Africa.
Border officers stationed at Canada’s ports seize suspected stolen vehicles when they find them and then notify police, who are supposed to investigate.
But interviews and internal government emails obtained by Global News reveal that the system is falling apart at eastern Canada’s busiest port.
And the CBSA says that if there is no police investigation, it has no reason to hold the cars and must release them — effectively allowing them to be exported overseas by crimes groups.
“It’s a huge concern,” said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union. “And this has been going on for over a year right now.”
In an email last month, a CBSA official wrote that border officers could find it frustrating to release stolen vehicles simply because police “are declining to attend.”
But the official said if the practice ever became publicly known, police would get blamed. “If it should become a media topic, the onus and negative media attention would fall on the police.”
About half the $24.6-million worth of stolen cars recovered in Canada last year were found at those ports.
“We’re not aware of any change in the directives so we continue to operate as we’ve operated,” said Steve Kee, the IBC spokesperson.
But Fortin said police have argued privately that costly, time-consuming investigations were resulting in light sentences, and they had more pressing priorities.
“The RCMP are saying that, because of the time that these guys would be serving in jail, which is less than a month, they’re saying ‘we don’t want to do this anymore,’” he said. “The RCMP was very clear with us that, right now, they will not be pursuing people who are in that kind of business.”
The Montreal police and Sûreté du Québec are similarly not taking such cases, Fortin said.
“We’re kind of in a dead end situation where apparently the RCMP is telling us it’s not their responsibility,” he said. “Everybody is saying they don’t have the resources to do this.”
The result is an apparent gap that could see border officers knowingly allow suspected stolen cars to leave Canada. Fortin said that had not happened yet. But he said there had been cases in which vehicles that had been released for export because of a lack of investigation had later been determined to have been stolen.
The CBSA said its role was to detain goods until it received direction from the police. Spokesman Nicholas Dorion said that “in the event that no direction is received, the CBSA has no legal authority to detain indefinitely.”
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The RCMP said it answered all assistance requests from the CBSA. But it said it could only take on cases that fell under its mandate, meaning there must be a link to organized crime or terror financing.
“If no link is established, the information will be passed on to the police of jurisdiction,” Sgt. Camille Habel said.
The Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal said the RCMP was responsible for investigating federal crimes at the port.
“Therefore, the SPVM does not investigate crimes committed in the Port of Montréal, including stolen or recovered vehicles,” said spokesperson Marylou Bossé.
Fortin said the problem was only occurring in Montreal.
“We have stolen cars being exported from Halifax, we do have stolen cars being exported out of Vancouver. But I’ve been told the RCMP are prosecuting in those areas. But the Montreal area seems to be unique that the RCMP are not going forward and laying charges,” he said.
“Nobody wants to take the responsibility for this,” he added.
He said border officers were “really upset” about the situation.
“Our members are there to do a job and they are very annoyed by the fact there are no prosecutions. It’s like saying, are we legalizing stolen cars?”
The internal government emails express concern over what the CBSA should do when police in Montreal won’t take action on suspected stolen cars identified by the agency.
“I can fully comprehend the officers’ frustration especially if they are asked to release stolen vehicles that were intercepted by the CBSA for which the police agencies are declining to attend,” an official wrote.
But the official said the agency was limited in what it could do.
“The police should understand that our mandate is to report our findings to them as far as for the stolen vehicle file, and take action based on their answer,” the official wrote.
“If they are not interested in attending, even at a later date, then our mandate to report, for the stolen vehicle file, is fulfilled and since they cannot attend then we would have to release the goods.”
That approach generated pushback within the CBSA, with one official writing in an email, “I cannot fathom that the officers would be expected to release cars that have been proven stolen.”
“We cannot simply let the cars go because there is no investigation due to lack of resources and priorities,” the official added. “Just the impact in the media alone if this were to come out would put a negative image on the export program the CBSA as a whole.”
While the CBSA policy was that seized goods were to be transferred to police, the agency’s enforcement manual had not been updated since 2004 and in Montreal neither the RCMP nor municipal police “have the resources to assist us, nor is it their priority,” the official wrote.
A solution could be to reach agreements with the RCMP and Montreal police that would give border officers the option of transferring recovered vehicles to the Insurance Bureau without involving police, the official said.
But a CBSA official nixed the idea, writing in an email response that the Insurance Bureau was not a government agency “and thus we cannot transfer any goods or information to this organization.”
Fortin said another option would be to change legislation to allow border agents to carry out investigations into stolen vehicle cases.
“We did provide options like hire more officers on the CBSA side or that the RCMP take the responsibility that should be theirs,” he said. “It’s a very good opportunity for the government to jump on it. And we can make sure that these criminals will be prosecuted.”
Prof. Kelly Sundberg, a former CBSA officer who now teaches at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said police have the primary responsibility to act on stolen vehicles, but the CBSA had a secondary duty and it was concerning that the agency could knowingly allow the export of stolen vehicles.
If police fail to respond to stolen car interceptions, and the CBSA lets the vehicles leave Canada, the result would be higher insurance costs for Canadians, he said.
Rather than releasing stolen cars, the CBSA could pursue charges under the Customs Act, he said.
“It would appear to me that the police were the cause of this issue, and should act on the information provided by the CBSA,” he said.
“However, when the police decline then the CBSA should, in my humble opinion, take an enforcement action under the Customs Act against the exporter for attempting to export stolen goods — the vehicles then become evidence in the Customs Act violation.”