By Richard McGuire
Special to the Chronicle
Roca, a four-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, has a job to do.
She’s a detector dog with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and she’s working at the Port of Osoyoos, the customs post for people crossing to B.C. from Oroville in Washington State.
Roca is trained to detect nine odours – eight narcotic scents, as well as firearms, said Stephen Robinson, the border services officer and detector dog handler who looks after her.
Robinson releases her to sniff around some pieces of luggage that were pulled from a vehicle. Roca sniffs intently at the bags, bringing her nose closer to one bag to be sure.
She deliberately goes into a sitting position, looking up proudly at her handler. Robinson immediately rewards her with lavish praise and a favourite toy.
This is her signal that she’s found something, said Robinson.
“She is a passive indication dog,” he said. “An active dog would scratch at the item. She indicates passively by sitting after smelling a source.”
A search of the bag locates a handgun with an oversized magazine – a prohibited weapon.
Roca was only doing a demonstration for media last Wednesday when she showed off her amazing sense of smell, but border services officers often encounter undeclared firearms at Port of Osoyoos.
It’s that problem that prompted a media conference as CBSA tries to make the public better aware of Canada’s firearms laws and the need to declare all weapons at the border.
Upstairs at the facility, Eron Labadie, the superintendent who oversees the Port of Osoyoos, speaks about the problem. On both sides of the room, tables are covered with seized illegal firearms. Reporters are told they can look and take pictures, but not touch any.
“We are here today to remind and educate the travelling public about Canadian rules and regulations, and encourage travellers to leave their handguns at home,” he said, speaking from prepared notes.
“If you are a visitor to Canada, you cannot import prohibited firearms under any circumstances,” Labadie said. “Canadian residents cannot import newly acquired prohibited firearms under any circumstances. For all other firearms, our website clearly outlines the procedures for individuals to import or export firearms.”
The key to eliminating the possibility of prosecution, he said, is to declare any weapons at the first opportunity to a border services officer.
The officer may immediately take possession of a pistol for safety reasons, but if the traveller declares it, they will be given the opportunity to return the weapon to the U.S. or forfeit it to Canadian authorities. And they won’t be prosecuted.
Undeclared weapons will be seized, and the traveller may face criminal prosecution and be deemed inadmissible to Canada.
Despite occasional high-profile gun smuggling seizures, such as one in February 2017 involving Alex Louie of the Oliver area, most illegal weapons at the border are being brought by Americans who simply don’t know the rules.
“Definitely people just don’t understand the laws,” said Labadie. “People who may be used to carrying firearms in their vehicles forget they’re there. That’s usually the situation that we see here.”
Labadie said border services officers see all kinds of weapons. Most of the guns on the tables are handguns, but there are also Tasers and a blow gun.
Since 2013, 214 guns have been seized at crossings in the Okanagan and Kootenays alone, he said.
Border Services Officer Cecilia Christian was acting superintendent when the Louie arrest occurred.
“It appears that firearms were being brought in to turn around and sell as crime guns,” she said.
Louie, 50, had two handguns tied under his vehicle. When asked if he had firearms to declare, he said no.
Louie was sentenced to three years in jail in March and was banned from possessing weapons.
Such cases, however, are the exception. In most cases, it’s just ignorance.
Outside the building, Robinson opens doors of a car and lets Roca jump inside to sniff. He points out compartments, which she sniffs at diligently. As she inspects the front passenger side, she suddenly sits, again looking proud of herself.
Robinson showers her with praise and gives her a favourite toy.
He’s had Roca for a year and a half and says the two have bonded. He had another dog for five and a half years and has been working as a detector dog handler with CBSA for seven years.
For obvious reasons, he doesn’t want to discuss Roca’s work schedule. But, depending on a dog’s health, they typically work for 11 years before being adopted out to a good home to enjoy their retirement.
For more information about importing weapons into Canada, visit: https://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/import/iefw-iefa-eng.html.