Cargo scanners won’t solve exported stolen vehicles issue: port head

Scanning more shipping containers for stolen cars may do little to curb auto theft, the head of the Halifax Port Authority said this week at a House of Commons committee.

Port president Allan Gray appeared before the national security committee to testify for a study into rising car thefts.

Political leaders including Ontario Premier Doug Ford have called for more cargo scanners at ports to catch cars being shipped out of Canada.

“Let’s beef that up,” he said during a news conference in Ottawa on April 29. “Put more scanners at the port of Montreal and really crack down on these criminals.”

But Gray is skeptical of that as a solution.

“Spending a lot of money on scanners may not fix the problem,” Gray said.

He explained that even if they were to identify a shipping container with a car in it, it doesn’t necessarily indicate if the car is stolen if shipping paperwork is falsified. He said verifying if a vehicle were stolen would require opening the container and verifying the VIN number.

Gray said in his five years working in the Halifax port, he has never seen a car seizure.

An Équité Association report prepared for a national auto theft summit organized by the federal government in February, found more than 70,000 cars were stolen in 2023, based on an analysis of police data from across the country.

It found between 2021 and 2023, the number of stolen vehicles climbed 48 per cent in Ontario, 58 per cent in Quebec and 34 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

Police say while as many as one-third of stolen vehicles are being resold within Canada, a majority of stolen vehicles are ferried out of the country by organized crime rings, often in containers bound for Africa and the Middle East.

Last month, the Canada Border Services Agency seized 600 stolen vehicles in Montreal, all of them destined for overseas markets.

In January 251 stolen Canadian cars were seized at an Italian port by RCMP officers collaborating with Italian authorities.

Gray told the committee that very few shipping containers are ever scanned on export, but it wouldn’t be worth their time to do it anyway.

Gray said there are more effective solutions.

“We have issues in data sharing amongst ports, terminal operators, and supply chains,” he said.

He said there is limited ability for ports to verify shipping documents, which are produced by the shipper.

“Neither the terminal operator nor port authority have the right to hold or open a container unless directed by the shipper, shipping line, or CBSA.”

Gray said being able to look at documents for discrepancies could make an improvement.

He also said there is an inadequate patchwork of security clearance systems for Canadian ports to screen employees.

He said each port has its own systems with their own style of identification badges. Gray said the unified security systems in other countries make it more difficult for organized crime to enter the chain.

“The more you could do to validate the security credentials of people involved in handling the cargo along the chain, the more likely you are to reduce the number of trusted (criminal) insiders in the system,” he said.

The February auto theft summit brought together governments, police and vehicle industry representatives to try to find solutions to the growing problem.

Ottawa announced $28 million for the CBSA just prior to that summit to bolster its capacity to search exported goods.

“The Government of Canada will continue to play a convening role in coordinating efforts to crack down on auto theft,” a spokesperson for public safety minister Dominic LeBlanc said in an emailed statement.