Less than a week before the Canada-U.S. border is set to reopen on August 9, Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) employees could go on strike this Friday, causing delays in border crossings and mail distributions with the United States.
More than 8,500 unionized staff with the CBSA have voted for a strike, throwing into question the federal government’s plans for a smooth reopening of the border as a federal election nears. The strike vote was held between June 16 and July 23.
A union rally by the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU), a component of the Public Service Alliance Canada (PSAC) was supposed to be held on July 28 in Fort Frances but was cancelled due to severe weather. Another rally was held in Rainy River on Friday.
PSAC and CIU members at CBSA include border service officers at airports, land entry points, marine ports, commercial ports of entry and postal facilities, inland enforcement officers, intelligence officers, investigators, trade officers, hearings officers and non-uniformed members.
Andrew Wiersema, branch president at the northern Ontario customs and immigration union, said negotiations stalled on Friday evening and there is no certain date to get back to the bargaining tables.
“It’s really coming down to the wire. And that’s unfortunate,” Wiersema said.
An impasse was called in December and the Public Interest Commission was established to make suggestions that could get the parties to hopefully reach a tentative agreement. They union finally received that report back on July 28.
The union cannot call a strike until seven days after the report is back. They are now in a position to call a strike.
“As things were progressing, there was no offer to go back to the table,” Wiersema said. “We’re thinking the border is going to open soon, at some point you would think the [CBSA] would want a collective agreement; we definitely want one.”
August 6 will mark seven days since the report was released and the day the union could legally call a strike. This is just three days before the border is set to reopen and could cause many delays such as significant disruption to the flow of goods, services and people entering Canada and the impact of the collection of duties and taxes on goods entering Canada.
Some of the union’s demands include paid firearm practice time, recommending new protections for employees in the context of discipline and language that ensures officers aren’t required to work alone.
Wiersema said he and many of his colleagues are frustrated that a collective agreement could not have been made sooner.
“It should have been before this,” Wiersema said. “And now we’re sitting here, finally in a legal strike position and the government wants to call an election, and the government wants to reopen the border. They’re leveraging that reality with the fact that we need a collective agreement. And we’re now pitted against a potential reopening of the economy for the tourism sector in northwestern Ontario.”
Wiersema said he resents the position they have been forced in.
“We have family members and friends, all in the tourism industry. We know how important that that is to northwestern Ontario and the last thing you want to do is strike,” Wiersema said. “But it’s been three years of kicking the can down the road and not dealing with our demand seriously. Well, now they’re going to have to come back with a seriously changing mandate. And we’re hopeful that that’s coming.”
Wiersema said what they are asking for is not out of the realm of what other law enforcement officers in Canada already have in their contracts.
With all the new protocols that border agents are going to have to follow because of COVID, it will already take time to process everyone coming through, Wiersema said, but a strike on top of that will slow it down even more because they will work to rule.
Wiersema said the government needs to make a collective or tentative agreement soon so that they can focus on safely welcoming people back to northwestern Ontario.
“Our members are willing and ready to do that,” Wiersema said. “And trying to do whatever we can to make sure northwestern Ontarians are safe.”