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B.C. mayors object to unpoliced ports as fentanyl crisis endures

Delta Mayor George Harvie says there's no coincidence B.C. is grappling with a horrible illicit drug overdose crisis as its ports remain unpoliced.
Delta Mayor George Harvie, Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord, Former RCMP Deputy Commissioner Peter German and Delta Police officer Jim Ingram are united in the belief Canada's federal government needs to establish a dedicated police presence in B.C. ports; They say it's no coincidence toxic drugs are having a greater impact in B.C. as a result of this lack of law enforcement.

As B.C.’s illicit drug market continues to kill close to seven people daily, B.C. mayors are calling on senior governments to re-establish a police force at Canada’s Pacific ports, to start screening cargo containers and stamp out organized criminals suspected of operating at terminals.

Metro Vancouver mayors agreed on Nov. 24 to write to the provincial and federal governments to request a response to the fact B.C. ports not only have no dedicated police presence, they also have little federal law enforcement oversight. This, the mayors say, leads to a free flow of contraband, to say nothing of the human trafficking and trade-based money laundering potential.

Leading the push has been Delta Mayor George Harvie, who is the Metro Vancouver regional government chair. Harvie believes there’s a direct line between a lack of port police and the province being among, if not the worst jurisdictions in North America for illicit drug overdoses due to fentanyl, whose source chemicals are largely imported from China, according to U.S. officials.

"So here we are talking about a fentanyl crisis and everything that the provincial government is trying to do, yet the federal government is ignoring the fact that it's an open season for the cartels and others to take advantage of lack of policing at the port to have their products put through and then supplied through the Lower Mainland and throughout the country,” said Harvie.

The City of Delta oversees basic policing of Deltaport, which is set to double on Roberts Bank. There, outside the gates, Glacier Media met with Harvie, Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord, Delta Police officer Jim Ingram and former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German who has recently published the report Policing our Ports, on Harvie’s request.

To put matters in perspective, the Port of Seattle, which handles a nearly identical amount of cargo as Port Metro Vancouver, has 103 dedicated officers and 50 support employees, who may also be assisted by municipal, state and other federal entities, German’s report notes.

And in Vancouver?

“Nobody’s got boats here,” said German.

It is difficult, said German, to readily ascertain who is doing what in Vancouver, after the federal government axed the Ports Canada Police in 1997 at a time when the ports underwent quasi-privatization.

Port Metro Vancouver discontinued its financial contribution to the RCMP-led Waterfront Joint Forces Operation (WJFO) in 2015 and pursued a policy of improving security, with the likes of fencing and CCTV cameras, to deter theft. This is because, as the port states, its mandate is only to be accountable to its tenants, whose customers are large international shipping companies, including the likes of state-owned enterprises from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The WFJO website linked from the port’s website presently shows an error message. German says the best he can determine from his research is that there are less than 10 dedicated members to it and that doesn’t include vacancies; furthermore it appears to be operating from the airport, said German.

“We really don’t know is the answer,” he said.

German said checking some containers, perhaps one in 100, is the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). But they don’t investigate the source of contraband; rather they direct it to RCMP. And with no dedicated force, German says investigations are falling by the wayside.

“CBSA only turns their cases over to the RCMP. So, all this contraband that comes in, they make a phone call, they call the RCMP here and they say, ‘We’ve got contraband here, do you want to deal with it?’ And if the RCMP says, ‘Ya, we’ll come out and start a case,’ they start a case. If the RCMP says, ‘No we’re too busy,’ then CBSA basically takes it as a no-case seizure,” explained German.

Public Safety Canada told Glacier Media via a statement that, “investigating criminal activity on Canadian soil is led by police of local jurisdiction across the country.

“The law enforcement agencies that form part of the Public Safety portfolio, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Services Agency, provide additional support specific to their area of influence, in a joint effort to disrupt criminal activity,” added the agency, which did not indicate the staff levels at WFJO.

That the federal government expects local police to take up policing of the ports hits the wrong nerve for Harvie, who does not see a benefit when looking at the taxes the port pays (about $4.7 million).

“When I say it’s a loss, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the taxes; it’s about the fact we have an open group for illegal drugs, fentanyl and everything,” said Harvie, who proposes a $10 per container charge to fund a new department that should have dedicated funding. 

Dubord, who has been publicly advocating for port police for the past five years, said his officers are acutely aware of individuals entering and exiting the port who have known connections to organized crime.

Furthermore, Dubord reports his officers having trouble accessing information from port employees and tenants. He himself doesn’t even have unfettered access to the secured areas.

And, said Ingram, “Typically, when we get on the port, work shuts down and there’s not a lot of cooperation.”

“They do not show any social responsibility at all,” Harvie said of the port.

Dubord describes Delta Police’s primary role as policing routine matters such as traffic and criminal acts, not to be a pilar of national security.

German said longstanding concerns organized crime is operating at the port have not gone away.  

“The police have to ask for permission to go in, organized crime is already inside,” said German, who says, taking what he was told at face value, the port officials and police in Seattle have a good relationship and there are no reports of organized crime infiltrating operations there.

In his report, German stated that a 2018 Transport Canada report on port operations “did not mince words when it described how organized crime, ‘to facilitate their smuggling activities… are involved in the corruption of port workers and have embedded members and associates within port facilities by way of legitimate employment.’

“The ports emphasize security but it’s their own security. The fences are to keep people out but our concern is what’s inside,” said German.

Harvie’s concerns about a lack of port police don’t just stem from what he’s hearing from his police chief. A recent work trip to Australia led him to speak to port and government officials there.

“As Metro Vancouver chair at an international conference with other mayors, I took the opportunity of meeting the federal agents responsible for policing and investigations at the Brisbane port and for the country too, and they knew all about Canada. But I just want to say one thing, I asked them what they thought about Canada not having a presence of port police. and they just use one word: insane,” said Harvie.

“They're very concerned about the fact that from an international point of view, Canada is not a partner in trying to stop organized crime in our country,” said Harvie, who also noted many members of Parliament he has spoken to are unaware Canada has no port police.

South of the border, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency frequently charge international drug traffickers and manufacturers.

While Indian sources of precursor chemicals are ramping up, China remains the primary source of the products. Despite pledges by the PRC government to curb the shipments, such exports are tied to international organized crime groups, particularly in Mexico where cocaine flows into North America, according to the DEA.

“We know that the global fentanyl supply chain, which ends with the deaths of Americans, often starts with chemical companies in China,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland after indicting eight China-based chemical manufacturers on Oct. 13.

In B.C. this year to Nov. 1, 2,039 people have died from an overdose from an illegal and unregulated drug. This is a rate of 45.3 people per 100,000 residents. Last year was a record rate of 44.8, whereas in 2013 the rate was 7.2. The massive uptick is largely attributed to drug toxicity, according to the BC Coroners Service.

Fentanyl is detected in 83 per cent of all victims, the service says.

B.C. is the worst jurisdiction in Canada for such deaths. In 2022, the rate across the country was 18.8 people per 100,000 residents, although Health Canada notes this figure is likely lower due to undercounting of some overdose types, such as with stimulants.

In America, the rate was 32.5 people per 100,000 residents in 2021, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control.