The (Relatively Short) History of the CBSA

Clearit.ca's Blog on Customs Brokerage and News Updates

The (Relatively Short) History of the CBSA

They have their own flag, their own coat of arms, a lot of power at the border. And technically, they’re a teenager, because they were only founded in 2003. They’re the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), and despite how ubiquitous they are in our importing lives now, they’re pretty new on the customs scene.

Our borders weren’t open and unpatrolled prior to 2003, but the founding of the CBSA did represent a shift in how customs business is conducted in Canada.

Before the Agency

The CBSA’s duties — customs, immigration, and border protection — were previously overseen by three different agencies.

The now-defunct Canada Customs and Revenue (CCRA) agency wasn’t around for long. Founded in 1999 and disbanded in 2003, the short-lived merger of Canada Customs and Revenue Canada was split to create the CBSA and the modern Revenue Canada.

The CCRA oversaw customs business — and Revenue Canada’s current duties — and did so with a different focus than the CBSA. Customs and border business today has a stronger focus on risk and security, while the CCRA’s customs business was more concerned with duties and taxes.

The CBSA’s current immigration enforcement duties were previously overseen by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), now known as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Today, the IRCC doesn’t oversee immigration enforcement but instead focuses on the paperwork and legal side of citizenship.

Finally, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) previously oversaw all food importing and exporting business in Canada. The CFIA still exists, but they now share some of the border-based duties with the CBSA.

Founding the Canadian Border Services Agency

In 2003, someone in the government — the Auditor General, to be exact — decided that the current way of doing things just wasn’t working. Confusion over departmental communication was creating chaos. Things had to change.

By extracting the Canada Customs branch of the CCRA and staffing it with enforcement personnel from the CFIA and the then-CIC, the Canadian Border Services Agency was born. As a response to criticism that Canada’s border activities weren’t concerned enough with national security, the driving aim of the CBSA was more enforcement and risk-prevention based than its main predecessor.

The CBSA’s creation was formalized in 2005. Its officers were armed with small firearms shortly thereafter, a strong departure from the days when Canada Customs Officers relied on the RCMP for backup. The decision to arm CBSA officers was likely informed by the new focus on security and enforcement.

The CBSA Today

The CBSA has grown into its duties so well that younger Canadians may not even realize that their approach to customs enforcement is relatively new!

The CCRA has passed into history, but the CBSA works closely with its other parent agencies. Food importers deal with the CBSA for their import/export account and general customs business, and the CBSA refers food, animal, and plant imports to the CFIA. This frees CFIA personnel up to focus on food safety instead of stationing officers at every border crossing.

The IRCC and the CBSA work together for immigration enforcement. Immigration applications are processed by the IRCC, while immigration law violators are apprehended by the CBSA. Federal Court proceedings involving immigration are represented by the CBSA, not the IRCC.

Today, the CBSA operates 117 land-border crossings and maintains a presence in 13 international airports. Over half of CBSA’s crossings operate on a 24/7 schedule. In addition, CBSA officers staff marine operations at major ports, and inspections at 27 rail sites. Customs brokers like us work with them every day, and some of our readers might, too!