Prime Time Crime  


Is there a legitimate role for dedicated ports policing in Canada

By Derik Latham

I was most disappointed to see Colin Wright's article RCMP back on the N Van waterfront promote the RCMP at the expense and memory of the former Ports Canada Police.

While their members are no longer operational and around to defend their long and proud history and contribution to policing in Canada, this is something I feel needs to be done on their behalf, at least to set the record straight. I am of the opinion that Colin Wright clearly never did his homework in this regard and that the much-quoted comments attributed to Insp. Eaton of the RCMP are more ‘disingenuous’ than they are candid.

The impression Insp. Eaton gave many readers with this article is that his North Vancouver Detachment of the RCMP always held this ports policing role and responsibility (for policing Ports in Canada - North Vancouver specifically) for as Colin Wright put it, “…but now they're back…”

The RCMP know full well that until 1997 it was the former Ports Canada Police who had the primary responsibility to police Canada's Ports and Harbours and waterfronts and piers and docks and cruise ship terminals etc., etc.   Clearly, Insp. Eaton should have been a little more forthright and upfront in delivering this kind of public information.

For the record then so the true history of policing in Canada’s Ports is known, here are some brief highlights your readers should also have an opportunity to know.

Firstly, it should be known that the oldest police force in Canada was the former Ports Canada Police.  They pre-dated the RCMP by many decades and this is an historical fact. Considering the colonizing of Canada by Europe started with troops and forts first, then followed by migration to these shores through ports; which grew into settlements, it is a common fact that historians would be hard pushed to refute as to ‘which’ areas were first policed and by whom.

There are documents in Canada relating to the Harbour of Saint John for example, that go back to the 1850s that state “…Laws to Regulate the Public Wharves and Slips, and for the due ordering of Vessels within the Harbour of Saint John, and for other purposes of the said harbour…” would be policed by the Harbour Master and/or his Deputies or “Hands” to enforce the law.  These dual roles also made them the forerunners of Port Policing in Canada.

In fact, one of the oldest forms of recognized policing in Canada goes back to Quebec and the River Police.  There is an actual Silver Chalice that used to be prominent within the Ports Canada Police offices there that honoured one Robert Henry Russell, formerly of the Scots Guards. In 1810 he served with the Irish Dublin Police and more importantly to policing in Canada, was Chief of Water Police, Quebec City, Canada, from 1840-1879.

This record alone “officially” predates the existence of the RCMP by over a quarter century and “unofficially” there is much more on record of men like Robert Henry Russell who have a proud history and contribution to Canadian Policing.  So the former Ports Canada Police are a very large part of Canadian Policing history and this fact (of their history of policing ports in Canada from the early 1800s) should not be so eagerly overlooked and discounted – not to their existence or to their contributions!

The descendents of the Quebec River Police, the modern federal Ports Canada Police were only disbanded some few years ago in 1997 – mainly by the political influence of organized crime that had worked hard for many years at whittling away at their strength and numbers and by port officials and 'other' police departments (like the RCMP) who for the most part, unknowingly just let it happen.

The Attorney General publicly opposed this eventual Ports Canada Police demise.  This disbandment was done without consultation; thereby putting the final burden of ports policing squarely onto the backs of the local BC municipalities.

While publicly decrying the demise of the former Ports Canada Police, the Vancouver Police Department for example were one department claiming they could do with 10 men, what it took 25 Ports Police Officers to do – obviously this would attract supporters, for various reasons.  This information is now ‘out there’ in the public domain on the Internet for anyone to find.  By comparison, one may well ask, how much policing and intelligence gathering (and sharing) and how much impact will one single RCMP police constable have, after a decade of police absence?

The fact remains though, that when 37 Ports Canada Police Officers can handle over 5000 criminal and 18000 service calls in one year alone and still contribute significantly and/or lead a number of joint investigative task force initiatives against organized crime, they must have been contributing in some form to policing the Vancouver waterfront (including North Vancouver).  I am quite confident if they were still here in existence today, governments (and various Canada Port Authorities and municipalities) would be adding to their numbers, not looking for ways to disband them!

The sad fact is, while many individuals and groups all got their eventual wish (the demise of the former Ports Canada Police), they weakened the security of this nation and allowed organized crime elements to proliferate and remain unchecked.  In the bargain, they also succeeded in making Canada one of the very few countries in the western world today without a Dedicated Ports Police Force.

Government and police within Canada will tell you this is no big deal and people like me will just look for the sensationalism in it. I am here telling you it is a huge deal and to the rest of the world, Canada’s contribution to global security is now very much suspect and will remain so for decades to come, because of it!

For whatever reason the Federal Government of Canada used in determining the disbandment of the former Ports Canada Police, they have still yet to justify it publicly, for there is yet, still no official public record of ‘why’ this was ever done.

No matter what you may have thought of the former Ports Canada Police, to disband a national police force means you need a lot of political clout and some kind of a reason.  The Canadian public (and every member of the former Ports Canada Police) deserve to know what that reason was – for the very presence of even one single RCMP Constable on any part of the Canadian Waterfront today, indicates there is government acknowledgment at least that this decision was wrong and there is a need for a police presence to fight against organized crime there again.

Besides, when they disbanded the former Ports Canada Police the federal government also abdicated their responsibility by putting this policing burden squarely onto the backs of the provinces and municipalities.  Most city police departments (and RCMP) should admit this decades long absence they all lament is because they have neither the resources, expertise, knowledge, nor experience to step in and take on the dedicated ports policing role.  If they only visit the waterfront when called (but no calls come), then quite conveniently one can claim that they are doing ‘a great job’ as the perception (not reality) is that now no crime exists on the waterfront anymore and we don't need to go there – a convenient approach to ports policing isn't it just!

So there's your brief history lesson for which the RCMP and VPD and a whole pile of other Lower Mainland Police Departments all got their wish and took over the responsibility for policing their respective harbours or waterfronts themselves and that's your reason why we have had a decades long absence of any kind of policing in Canadian Ports and specifically, here in BC.

After much political pressure from Senator Kenny and various former Ports Police members (who still support the premise of having a dedicated ports police - in charge of ports security) and the IAASP – International Association of Airport & Seaport Police, the best our Canadian government and the RCMP can do after a decade of unfettered organized crime control of Canadian Ports, is to come up with one single police constable to be responsible for enforcing the law on Canadian waterfronts starting in N. Van.

Does this kind of manpower commitment to policing seem adequate or worthy, as evidenced by the North Shore News euphoric celebration of that fact?  Prime Minister Paul Martin must surely be briefed by his Deputy PM and the RCMP about the state of our ports and as one who owns one of the country’s largest shipping firms, I am quite surprised that he considers this concept an adequate or acceptable form of policing. I thought he actually understood this environment.  Surely one man is a band-aid or token gesture only and it really does not do justice to policing of our ports in Canada.

Add the fact that any RCMP officer of any rank who knowingly distorts the truth and/or history or ‘conveniently’ omits such details (as to who historically has policed our Canadian ports) is just very poor PR indeed.

I sincerely wish Insp. Eaton’s single RCMP "Waterfront Constable" good fortune in his fight against organized crime, but if anybody for one single second believes one single Mountie is adequate enough to take on organized crime on the N. Van waterfront, I say they are seriously deluded.  It’s clearly time to resurrect the former Ports Canada Police (we need dedicated Ports Policing in this country, not one man RCMP Marine Divisions).  If the choice is going to be no return ever to a Dedicated Ports Police force in this country, but instead, RCMP Marine Divisions (doomed to fail before they even start) then at least give them a proper mandate to prove me and other detractors wrong and lets do this right; by giving them a proper budget, manpower and training and lets get serious about taking back our ports from organized crime.

Irrespective of what the official Liberal government version is, the true shape of security for our Canadian ports is that like our military, it is already 'nearly' beyond repair.  Maybe the article I read on the cover of the “National Post” business magazine (December 2003) with a picture of a Hells Angel member wearing his “colours” and sitting on his motorbike claiming "This is my Turf - how the Hells Angels took over Canada's Ports" is the more realistic truth of the matter that the Canadian government and RCMP still have not come to grips with, but which ironically, the public now accept as a known fact.

Sadly, with a little bit of homework (by your reporter Colin Wright) and no false claims (by Insp. Eaton) this could have been an excellent story - about the future and where dedicated ports policing really needs to go in Canada (not by misleading the public and trying to change history).  As it was written, it was a great disappointment.

To me, what is even more surprising than this article, is that the worldwide respected organization known as the "International Association of Airport & Seaport Police” an international association with members in over 60 countries, get little to no interest from the Canadian media, policing or government.  Visit: and read their history.  They are mostly past and current Chiefs of Police from around the world with direct ports policing experience and who are based in BC (for now).  When everybody is trying to reinvent the wheel instead of consulting the real experts, no wonder the state of our Canadian Ports make Canada the best success story in organized crime today.

Prime Time Crime current headlines

Contributing Writers