OTTAWA -- Several border guards at the Emerson border crossing walked off the job Thursday in protest of a new policy requiring them to wear name tags.
The policy, instituted by the Canada Border Services Agency, was implemented Tuesday after more than a year of discussions with the Customs and Immigration Union, which opposes the policy.
Denis Vinette, director general of border operations for CBSA, said a significant number of guards who reported to work in Emerson Thursday withdrew their services, saying the name tags are a risk to their health and safety.
He said the agency was prepared for this possibility and deployed managers and guards who didn't withdraw their services. There was no service disruption for travellers or commercial operators, he said.
Throughout most of the day, there was no wait for travellers crossing into Canada and a 20-minute wait for commercial traffic.
This is the second time this week border guards have withdrawn services because of the name-tag dispute. Guards in Sarnia and Windsor, Ont., also withdrew services Wednesday. They returned to work after the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada Labour Program reviewed the situation and ruled name tags do not constitute a workplace hazard.
Vinette said the program is reviewing the Emerson situation and he hopes for a ruling soon.
Erik Lupien, spokesman for the Customs and Immigration Union, said workers have a right to refuse to work if they think they are at risk.
"A lot of the officers are not happy with (the name tags)," he said. "They think it exposes to them to the criminal element."
The Winnipeg Police Service does not require a name tag as part of the uniform. The police successfully fought a city hall motion for police to wear name tags about seven years ago, citing instances where police were harassed, intimidated or assaulted.
Winnipeg police only are identified publicly by their badge number.
Officers in most other major Canadian cities, including Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver as well as the RCMP wear name tags. So do United States border guards and Canadian corrections officers, said Vinette. He said the CBSA changed the policy in an effort to improve service to the public.
"There is an expectation of the public that they will know the name of the person they are dealing with," he said.
The border guards' union did not suggest the guards withdraw services, noting in a Dec. 6 memo of the "Obey now, grieve later" approach to avoid being CBSA discipline.
Vinette said there will be no discipline, noting it is a workers' right to not work if they feel unsafe. However, he said he is confident the labour program will rule the name tags do not constitute a hazard and workers will be back on the job soon.
A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he was disappointed with the workers' decision to protest.
"We urge these workers to air their grievances in an appropriate manner -- not in a way that targets Canadian workers, travellers and Canada's economy," she said.