*** Important to consider that America remains target #1 and extremists ARE trying to use Canada as a staging ground for either attack against or infiltration into, the United States. We have a responsibility as a good neighbour (yes, that's how we spell it up here) to do our utmost to prevent that. MS ***
By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - More people were caught trying to sneak into Canada at remote border points with the United States in 2008 than the other way around, a newly released intelligence report reveals.
It was the second straight year that continental human smuggling and other surreptitious crossings tilted in Canada's direction.
The RCMP attributes the trend to factors including a U.S. crackdown on undocumented workers, more American agents along the border and the shaky state of the U.S. economy.
The figures, the latest available, show 952 people were caught entering Canada between legitimate border crossings, while 819 were U.S.-bound.
The numbers appear in the 2009 Integrated Border Enforcement Team threat assessment report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The 15 binational teams strung along the border include members of the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and other American agencies.
They work at strategic points between border crossings to thwart smugglers of everything from people and drugs to currency and firearms.
Human smuggling groups identified by the teams have international contacts and focused in 2008 on the B.C.-Washington state border as well as the Quebec-New York-Vermont corridor, the report says.
"They charge excessive fees for directions and send many uninformed migrants on their way to the U.S. and to Canada to claim refugee status."
The report, which says many of the people coming northward are from the Americas, does not indicate how many were legitimate refugees fleeing persecution. However, it adds: "The unknown intention of individuals seeking illegal entry into either country is a concern."
The report calls for a public awareness campaign on the Internet to advise potential border crossers of hazards including extreme weather, dangerous rapids and whirlpools, and even wildlife.
"We have seen cases where people have been injured," said RCMP Supt. Warren Coons, director of the border teams.
"Other people have tried to swim across very dangerous waters in order to get into the country. And others have been caught in snowbanks and, if not for being rescued by emergency services, would have died of exposure."
Though the government and the RCMP have flagged human trafficking — the movement of people for exploitation in the sex trade and other fields — as a concern lately, the teams uncovered no such cases between Canada and the U.S. last year.
They've also seen no hint of extremist groups trying to slip across the border undetected, Coons said.
"There hasn't been any indication in the time that I've been in the IBET program that would suggest that terrorist groups are using between-the-ports methods to cross the border," he said in an interview.
Coons noted that terrorism cases in both countries in recent years have tended to involve homegrown radicals rather than violent plotters arriving from abroad.
"But we're definitely vigilant because we recognize that those networks that move contraband or individuals across the border aren't necessarily concerned about national security issues the same way we might be," Coons said.
"So we have to do everything that we can to ensure that they won't be exploited by terrorist groups.
"National security is our No. 1 priority, make no mistake about that."
The report says cross-border smugglers are becoming "more sophisticated and discriminating" in their adoption of technology, using BlackBerry messaging, scanners, geopositioning devices and satellite phones to their advantage.
The assessment recommends bolstering the border teams with more investigative personnel and analytical support, such as mapping and geospatial specialists.
The report also says uniformed officers should be added to the teams to work alongside the plainclothes Mounties who currently toil there.
Now, the team members aren't necessarily connected to nearby border communities, said Coons.
"They're not in the coffee shops, they're not visible to the communities along the borders," he said.
"From a safety standpoint for both our members and the community, we see a uniformed presence as being an important element to border security."