OTTAWA — The number of clashes at Canada's borders rose again last year as more officers pulled their guns and swung their truncheons to deal with troublesome travellers.
So-called use-of-force incidents are up 170 per cent in just four years -- and more border officers are needed to respond to each problem, says an internal report. The actual number of incidents -- 137 in the fiscal year that ended on March 31 -- is a fraction of the 80 million people processed at border points over the period.
But critics have said with more and more guards carrying sidearms, it may only be a matter of time before a handgun is discharged to end a violent episode.
So far, just one bullet has been deliberately fired in the line of duty since July 2007, when officers first began packing guns. The shot was to put down an injured moose on a British Columbia highway last summer.
And on May 8 this year, an officer in Queenston, Ont., accidentally discharged a duty sidearm while loading it. No one was injured.
Last year, 17 border officers were injured in scuffles, as were 13 assailants, none seriously. All received medical attention.
The figures are from a draft version of the agency's annual use-of-force report, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Guards are pulling their sidearms from their holsters about three times a month. Currently there are 1,386 armed officers, with the number set to rise to 4,800 by 2016 at all land and marine border points.
A spokeswoman for Canada Border Services Agency declined to comment on the rising numbers of clashes.
"We will not speculate on reasons why there seems to be an increase in the number of incidents," Sabrina Mehes said in a email response to questions.
"CBSA officers are prepared and trained to deal with a broad range of options when responding to potentially dangerous situations, and they assess situations, using their skills, training, tools and good judgment."
The 137 incidents in 2009-2010 are up by 10 from the previous year, but the number of officers needed to resolve them rose dramatically to 348 from 284, bringing more weaponry into play.
Guns were drawn in 32 incidents, and batons were pulled out seven times -- and twice used. Oleoresin capsicum, also known as pepper spray, was displayed 11 times and actually discharged in one case.
Most of the clashes happened in the agency's Pacific region, with 47 incidents last year, followed by Quebec with 20. Mehes declined to comment on the regional numbers.
Officers are trained in use of the 9 mm Beretta P4X Storm handgun, and are required to fill out forms whenever it is drawn from the holster to resolve a border incident. They've been armed with batons and pepper spray since 2003; any use of these also requires extensive paperwork.
The draft report does not include details of each incident, though previously released material suggests guns are typically drawn when a belligerent traveller is believed to be carrying a concealed weapon.
About a third of the incidents last year were at the highest level of alert, when officers believed a person was acting in a manner that could cause "grievous bodily harm." About a quarter were at the next highest level, when a combative traveller punches or kicks.
The agency recently relaxed its rules to allow officers to wear a duty firearm even when leaving a border station for a meal, for rest periods or when attending job fairs to recruit more border guards.