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Canada’s border officers need more support from government to fight coronavirus, union says

Click to play video 'Canada closes borders to most non-Canadians; U.S. citizens still allowed' Canada closes borders to most non-Canadians; U.S. citizens still allowed
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced Canada will ban entry to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen or Canadian permanent resident. But diplomats, flight crews, and American citizens will still be allowed. Mike Armstrong reports.

Border officers need more help from the federal government as they find themselves on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, the head of Customs and Immigration Union said Tuesday.

“We need more support,” Jean-Pierre Fortin, the union’s national president, said after raising concerns about the urgency at the borders with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office.

Among the union’s concerns are that only two or three Health Canada officers are assigned to border locations — not enough to assist officers tasked with interacting with travelers, said Fortin.

“It’s not sufficient in light of what’s going on,” he said.

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He also urged the government to place further restrictions on U.S. travellers, allowing only those performing essential tasks to enter Canada, in order to limit the risks to border staff and Canadians.

Only American citizens arriving for vital purposes, such as the flow of commerce and medicine, should be admitted, while those on daytrips and visits should be told not to come, he said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — CBSA employee at Toronto Pearson airport tests positive for COVID-19

That would reduce traffic at land borders — and the associated health risks, he said. A Canada Border Services Agency worker at Toronto’s Pearson airport is among those who have contracted the virus.

Fortin said there was a “lack of clear direction” from the government but added he was encouraged the minister’s office had committed to looking into the concerns the union had raised with them.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus around the world: March 17, 2020' Coronavirus around the world: March 17, 2020
Coronavirus around the world: March 17, 2020

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shifted the fight against COVID-19 more heavily to the borders, banning all but U.S. citizens from entering Canada.

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The government has not halted the flow of “irregular migrants” walking across the border between crossings to claim refugee status, but said they would be screened for COVID-19.

Blair’s office said the U.S. State Department was advising American citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19.

“As per CBSA’s updated operational posture, there is and will continue to be enhanced officer presence at Canada’s major ports of entry to carry out public health screening and outreach.”

READ MORE: Ontario government declares state of emergency amid coronavirus pandemic

Prof. Kelly Sundberg, a former CBSA officer who teaches at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the government should restrict travel from the U.S. to those with “trusted traveller” cards or work permits specific to an essential profession.

“Moreover, it would be advisable for the government of Canada to temporary locate those officers from the airports that have been closed for international travel to either ports of entry along the border, or to one of the four designated international airports,” he said.

CBSA officers must also be equipped with “the necessary protective equipment to safeguard them from COVID-19, and also to effectively enforce Canadian law at our borders and in our communities.”

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Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca