The head of a union representing Canada’s customs and immigration officers says chronic staffing shortages mean long waits at the border won’t necessarily disappear when use of the controversial ArriveCan app soon becomes optional.
Mark Weber, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, warned Tuesday that if travel volumes start to increase substantially there will be “significant delays” at Canada’s border points.
Weber spoke at a House of Commons committee meeting looking at the ArriveCan app, which has been used for providing travel and public health information before and after people enter Canada.
The cabinet order mandating vaccine requirements and use of ArriveCan for incoming travellers expires at the end of Friday and the government says it will not be renewed.
Weber said the Canada Border Services Agency needs thousands more officers to fulfil its mandate.
He urged the government to hire additional staff to keep goods and people flowing across the border, not rely on technology like the "ill-designed" ArriveCan app.
"As far as border officers are concerned, the last months have shown that ArriveCan fails to facilitate cross-border travel, while doing very little to address the severe gaps in border security that are plaguing our country."
Weber said it was part of a pattern of overreliance on automated technology that senselessly sets aside security considerations.
"What I urge the government and the agency to do now is to turn their attention to the severe deficit in personnel afflicting border services throughout the country," he said. "The reality is really bleak."
He suggested the agency cannot adequately curb the smuggling of dangerous goods, despite the best efforts of officers.
At some of the busiest land border crossings this summer, the border agency often had little choice but to choose between properly staffing commercial screening or traveller operations, he added.
Duty-free stores at the land border across Canada were forced into almost complete closure at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Barbara Barrett, executive director of the Frontier Duty Free Association.
"We were, without exaggeration, the hardest hit of the hardest hit," she told the committee.
In recent months, while Canada's economy was recovering, sales at duty-free stores remained considerably lower than pre-pandemic levels, she said, attributing the slump to federal restrictions and mandatory use of the ArriveCan app.
Barrett said many U.S. seniors found the ArriveCan app too much of a challenge and simply stayed away, while others did not have a smartphone on which to use the app or needed help from store staff to fill in the required information.