Customs and Air Operations

The newest responsibility for Customs must be Air Operations; it is the younger sibling of our land and marine operations. The great fleets of seaplanes (clippers) expanded flight for the first time transoceanic – KLM, Pan Am, British Imperial Airways – spanned the globe for the first time.

But from a border protection view this was just another form of Marine clearance. Clippers landed and taxied to docks just like ships. With the arrivals of airships they could and had to report inland at airports which had just started development for domestic flights and military use.

R100 duly departed for Canada on 29 July 1930, reaching the Canadian mooring mast at the airport in Saint-Hubert, Quebec in 78 hours having covered the great circle route of 3,300 mi (5,300 km) at an average speed of 42 mph (68 km/h).  The airship stayed at Montreal for 12 days and over 100,000 people visited the airship each day she was there.  A song was composed by La Bolduc to commemorate, or rather to make fun of, the people’s fascination with R100.  R100 also made a 24 hour passenger-carrying flight to Ottawa, Toronto, and Niagara Falls while in Canada.

British aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919.  They flew a modified World War I Vickers Vimy bomber from St.John’s Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland.  Although they succeeded in crossing the Atlantic, paying passenger service would not occur for another 11-12 years.

After the Second World War, air travel expanded phenomenally; the fifties saw passenger aircraft production start to exceed military aircraft making.  By the late sixties the introductions of aircraft like the Boeing 747 brought extreme pressures to the clearance of passengers, with more and more international flights coming from the most out of the way exotic locations.  A whole new set of rules had to be considered, for no longer were Customs just dealing with similar-minded American visitors, it was confronting new cultures and a whole new set of threats to Canada.  More medical threats, more food threats, protection of endangered species, cultural properties, animal protection, and of course the smuggling of contraband, all became an increased concern.

The cartoon shows the problems that the travellers faced in the early sixties, with ever increasing numbers.  The idea of multiple questioning could not function.  In the spring of 1966, it was obvious that something had to be done to cope with the overall increase in air traffic and with the knowledge that jumbo jets would soon be arriving in Canada, which would mean there would be an ever increasing demand for more facilities.  The number one problem was to speed up the various required inspection services examinations without cutting necessary safeguards against the illegal entry of goods and people, in order to ensure the protection of our economy, the nation and the environment.  The solution was to have the initial inspection carried out by then Customs officers – instead of four representatives of other departments.  A step in the right direction had been taken two years previously when Customs and Immigration integrated their primary Processing and procedures just in time to cope with the rush of Expo 67 visitors.  On Oct. 1, 1969 customs officers became responsible for questioning of travellers on behalf of all federal departments.


It’s a little known fact that although Customs is the oldest enforcement arm of the Federal government, slowly over the history of Canada it fell from prominence.  The introduction of Income Tax in the First World War and the King-Byng Affair was to bury Customs and made it a minor player within the cabinet of Government.  But to know the heights that Customs achieved, all one has to do is look at the architecture that is Ottawa.  After the beauty of Parliament Hill and the majesty of the Chateau Laurier the next building that is a corner stone of the landscape that is Ottawa is the Connaught Building.

This beautiful edifice, built just for Customs and Excise, rivals the Conference Centre and the Victorian Museum.  The Connaught is the anchor of the ByWard Market; look west from anywhere in the Market and you see the Connaught.  Now the building is occupied by the CRA…it’s a little-known fact!


Barry M. Risk

Retired 35yrs with Customs

Ex Senior Intelligence Officer, Counter Terrorism/Counter Proliferation

Author of “The Thinner Blue Line”  The Thinner Blue Line Book Cover