Vol. 80, No. 1Cover stories

Male police officer facing group of people walking toward him.

In search of a better life

Striking a balance between security and compassion

An RCMP officer awaits asylum seekers as they illegally cross the border into Canada near Lacolle, Quebec. Credit: Pascal Milette, RCMP


It was a long night at the RCMP detachment-turned-processing centre in Lacolle, Quebec. Asylum seekers were doing their best to get comfortable, huddled up with blankets, to get some sleep.

The sound of a crying child drew RCMP Cpl. Caroline Letang out of her office.

"The child was scared, her mother said. She was just shivering and crying," says Letang. "I thought, 'Well, that's enough of that.' "

She brought the mother, her three children and crying infant and their blankets to an empty room. She gave them juice boxes, made sure they were comfortable and turned off the lights.

The family was one of many that had illegally crossed the border from the United States to Canada. Upon arrival, they, like the others, were taken into custody for the offence.

"I couldn't leave them like that," says Letang. "It was one of those moments when you had to do something. And at that moment, I had a spare room."

The family slept in the room the entire night. And in the morning, Letang says she received the only thanks she would ever hope for. "I saw a smile."

Unprecedented numbers

Letang is a supervisor with the RCMP's Champlain Integrated Border Enforcement Team (IBET). The RCMP is responsible for securing Canada's border in between ports of entry, protecting the country from threats to national security and illicit organized crime activity.

In Quebec, four IBETs cover 810 kilometres of the border between Canada and the United States. Champlain IBET is responsible for 168 kilometres.

In 2015, the number of people illegally crossing the border northbound was minimal, maybe a few per week, says Insp. Martin Roach, the officer in charge of the West District IBET in Quebec, which is comprised of three IBETs including Champlain.

But month by month, beginning in August 2016, that number started to rise.

By August 2017, a year after the influx began, an average of 150 migrants were crossing the border each day, with more than 400 on some days.

While the IBET's mandate remains the same, the influx of migrants has meant it's been far from business as usual.

"We operate 24-7, but throughout the border doing patrols," says Roach. "Normally we wouldn't be 24-7 in one particular area, but because everyone was coming through one area, we had to establish a stronger presence there."

The team needed a space to process incoming migrants close to the site. At first, they were given extra office space from their partners at Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Then they set up their own satellite office to be able to efficiently process the steady stream of asylum seekers.

With entire families being picked up by the RCMP, IBET members quickly realized they had to go out and buy car seats to transport children safely.

"The situation continued to evolve," says Roach. "Then police vehicles were no longer enough. We had to get buses to transport the migrants coming in."

Since migrants would be in RCMP custody for up to 24 hours to verify their identification, they needed food and supplies on hand, which was the responsibility of the RCMP.

"Now if you're hundreds of people, that's meals, that's diapers, baby food, all of that. Our members had to think of all of this," says S/Sgt. Brian Byrne, Champlain IBET.

Entry point

Migrants learned about Roxham Road in Lacolle, a small town south of Montreal, through a mix of traditional and social media. It became the hotspot for migrants illegally crossing the border into Canada in search of a better life.

Letang's been on the front line in Lacolle since the influx began.

"You can see how desperate some of them were," says Letang. "It doesn't take much for the human in us to come out. It's not just a police officer talking anymore."

As migrants were preparing to illegally cross the border into Canada, the RCMP could see them coming.

"Before they cross, we try our best to encourage them to go to a port of entry," says Letang. "That's our job — to prevent crime. But as soon as they step on our side, the process starts. They're arrested."

It's the reality of the situation, says Letang. Although RCMP officers are aware that the migrants are fleeing, often from life-threatening situations in their country of origin, it's illegal to cross the border anywhere but a port of entry.

Yet those seeking asylum in Canada are willing to risk arrest. They've learned it's a way to bypass the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States. In this agreement, asylum seekers are required to claim refugee protection under the first safe country they enter. In this case, that's the United States.

However, the agreement only applies at legal ports of entry, which gives those who cross elsewhere — illegally — a chance to make a refugee claim.

Police officers quickly realized they had to adapt to the changing situation. It wasn't the typical criminal who was crossing the border — entire families were crossing. Even women in late stages of pregnancy with a child on their hip were arriving.

"There's a really human way of handling the situation," says Letang. "You search them for your own safety, but you can't handcuff them. It could cause emotional damage to a young child. You have to use your own judgement and do what you're comfortable with."

But that compassion must be balanced with protecting national security.

"We still have to be vigilant," says Byrne. "You can't say someone is just another migrant. All kinds of offences occur around the border and we have to investigate each person."

After the arrest, a member of the RCMP will search the migrant and their belongings for safety purposes. They're then brought to the RCMP office where their identification is verified and they're interviewed.

"If we're satisfied that all elements have been covered, and there are no national security issues, then they'll be transferred over to CBSA where the immigration process begins," says Roach.

A united front

From the start of the influx, the RCMP worked closely with CBSA, and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as well as its American partners, including Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard, United States Border Patrol and United States Customs and Border Protection.

Roach says all government operation centres were activated throughout the situation.

Having established relationships with each of the partners allowed for timely exchange of information, communication and co-ordination of resources.

Steven Gaitan, the Chief of Operations at CBSA's refugee processing centre in Lacolle, says that ongoing communication has been key to the success of handling the needs of migrants.

"Our relationship with the RCMP is extremely important," says Gaitan. "They really understand what our reality is and I know what their reality is. We work together to be as efficient as possible."

This includes sharing office space and supplies, like food and shelter, as well as transporting migrants.

It was through experience that the RCMP learned what it needed. And those needs changed, sometimes from week to week, whether it was supplies or the number of officers on the ground.

In March, after a beloved IBET member, Cst. Richer Dubuc, died in a car accident while on duty, they knew they needed to relieve the IBET members. In addition to grieving the loss of their co-worker, they had been working long shifts to keep up with the files.

According to Roach, the members had a hard time stepping back.

"Our members didn't like that too much," says Roach with a smile. "They're dedicated and had become attached to Roxham."

Internally, they created a team in charge of logistics, a team in charge of scheduling and a team in charge of operations to handle the evolving situation.

"Every day, I meet with the senior officers here to review what happened today, what we can do differently and what we had to adapt to every day," says Roach.

Ongoing efforts

While the numbers aren't as high as they were at their peak, they're still well above average.

"We have no idea what tomorrow will bring," says Gaitan. "Technically, we're lucky because they all show up at Roxham Road. If they would come in all over the border, the RCMP would be running all over."

Every day, RCMP officers continue to work along the border, speaking with refugees, carrying small children and helping people with their luggage.

"That was what we saw every day here — our members, giving kids high fives and trying to make people as safe and comfortable as possible," says Letang. "We've never had to say to our members, 'show compassion.' Every member I work with was showing compassion automatically."

Roach couldn't be prouder for how Letang, Byrne and all the members on the front line have stepped up over the past year. He says that pride extends to the RCMP officers from other provinces who deployed to Quebec to help with the effort.

"These are people coming to Canada for a better life," says Roach. "We have shown them the professional image of the Mountie and are welcoming, while still carrying out our mandate. Our members have done a tremendous job doing that — they've taken the human approach."

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