By Steven Bull
Two hundred years ago at a meeting in Washington, D.C., Richard Rush and Sir Charles Bagot signed an agreement that would forever change life on the Great Lakes. Rush was the Acting United States Secretary of State in April 1817, and Bagot was, effectively, the British Ambassador to the U.S. (although his actual title “Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinaire” was unnecessarily convoluted). Known to posterity as the Rush-Bagot Agreement, it limited naval presence on the Great Lakes, but it did not end policing.
Regulating shared waterways is complex, difficult work. Having two defined sides does wonders for clarity of jurisdiction, but policing on or near that invisible dotted line in the middle is extremely delicate. Previously, it created a loophole in the law that sent bad guys veering straight for it.
“Criminals in the past have taken advantage or exploited the borders… in exactly that scenario,” RCMP Sgt. Marc LaPorte explained during a tour of the tight quarters of the Thousand Islands between Ontario and New York. We were riding one of the intimidating, but remarkably comfortable big black RIBs with white RCMP-GRC markings along the inflated tube.
“We weren’t able to cross,” he said. “Our jurisdictional authority stopped at the border. And if there was no American law enforcement on the other side there was nothing we could do about it.”
Now, that’s not the case.
Sgt. LaPorte is part of the St. Lawrence Shiprider unit. His team is made up of three RCMP and one U.S. Coast Guard officers on board a Canadian RCMP boat. The same thing can happen on a U.S. Coast Guard Boat with the ratio flipped.
That specially trained foreign officer on the boat is the “Shiprider,” the unofficial name for the program. It’s much easier to say than: Integrated Cross-Border Maritime Law Enforcement Operations.
“This allows us to pursue a vessel into the States or from the States into Canada, eliminating that advantage that the criminals had along the borders,” Sgt. LaPorte said. “Shiprider basically allows us to eliminate the border between the two countries. With the designation, we have authority to enforce the laws on the U.S. side. When we’re with our U.S. counterparts, we work under their direction…when we’re in Canada it’s vice versa. The U.S. Coast Guard has the same authority in Canada under our direction.”
It’s not everywhere and it wasn’t easy. There are only a handful of units operating though the pilot projects go back well over a decade.
There were short-term test units along the Detroit River between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario in 2005, and again in 2006 when Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL and during the Vancouver Olympics. In 2012 it became more permanent and those pilot project locations got the first two units.
The St. Lawrence Unit that I rode along with is based out of Kingston, on the RCMP side, and there’s another one in Niagara.
To be hyper accurate, when I said, “rode along” with, I actually meant “rode alongside.” The bilateral legislation is so specific and strictly enforced that only people who are specially trained can be on board when a vessel is in Shiprider mode.
I was offended only slightly less after learning the Governor-General of Canada and the commissioner of the RCMP had also been denied a true ride-along.
In fact, the specifics carry on to you if you’re stopped. There’s no wiggle room when you’re trying to walk a fine line between laws of two nations, so everything down to the greeting is outlined.
“(Hello/My Name Is) I’m with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. My team and I are with the Shiprider program. We’re specially trained and cross-designated to enforce laws on both sides of the border in shared waterways…”
If you’re boating in a patrolled area, you may encounter that greeting, as it’s not just criminals in high pursuit that might meet a Shiprider team. They do customs checks, too. In the Thousand Islands, where the border zigzags around and between islands, there are a lot of accidental crossings so you may be in foreign waters and not even realize it.
When the U.S. Coast Guard returned to New York I was able to get on board the other RCMP boat, a Canadian-made Titan, now no longer in Shiprider mode. They took me through a small channel known to make a big point.
Carved between Hill Island, in Ontario, and Wellesley Island in Jefferson County, New York is a thin strip of water known as the International Rift. It was barely wide enough for us to get through. It’s so narrow that the 20-foot bowriders docked on the New York side would have to straddle the border, which runs down the middle of the channel, to stay in deep enough water.
Complexities of cross-border policing and jurisdictional issues are hard enough out on the open lake or an ocean. Here it’s nearly impossible, but the Shiprider program makes it more straightforward. You have both U.S. and Canadian authorities on board who are able to enforce the laws of either side, depending on the location of the stop.
Where the stop takes place determines which laws are enforced and who is in charge.
“That’s how we keep the sovereignty of each country in check,” Sgt. LaPorte said as we cruised back to the docks. “So we don’t have a law enforcement officer from the U.S. working in Canada on his own, he has to work under the direction of a Canadian officer. And the same applies on the U.S. side.”
In other words, you won’t see the U.S. Coast Guard by themselves in Canada or the RCMP on their own in the States. You might see a U.S. Coast Guard Boat in Canadian waters or an RCMP vessel in American waters if it has a Shiprider team on board. And if you do, don’t let the paint job on the side fool you. That boat isn’t a foreign visitor; it’s the local law.