Customs officers have long been Canada’s first line of protection. Canada Customs has played a long and honourable role in the development of Canada and is the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. The agency was created in 1841, predating the Dominion Police (1868) and the Northwest Mounted Police (1873). The Dominion Police were absorbed into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Canada on February 1,1920. Canada Customs finds it’s beginning in Her Majesty’s Customs service in Britain. The first record of Customs in Britain was in 742. The customs tariff was imposed by statute during the reign of Edward 1 (1272-1307). For centuries Britain and France contracted out the job of collecting revenue to the highest bidder in exchange for an annual payment into the royal treasury and applied this system to their colonies in North America. As the British felt that revenue was being lost under this system they ended this practice in 1671 and began appointing customs collectors in the colonies in 1696. It is unclear as to where the first crown-appointed customs collector in Canada was established but there is record of a collector at Annapolis Royal in 1719. It was impossible to control the collection from England so the American Board of Customs was established in 1767. Thus Customs in Canada was run from Massachusetts. The American Board of Customs dissolved at the start of the American Revolutionary War in 1776.

In 1787 the British Board of Trade recommended that the Canadian legislature be allowed to regulate inland trade with the United State. The first interior Customs office was established in St. Jean (Quebec) in 1788 with the intention of regulating trade along the Vermont-Canada border. The Customs Consolidation Act of 1841 created a single system for the new province of United Canada. With this consolidation of Upper and Lower Canada came the creation of Canada Customs. By 1845 there were 63 customs ports in Canada, the three largest being, Quebec, Montreal and St. Jean. Toronto at that time was considered an outport. In 1846 England regarded free trade more favourably and gave up direct control of trade in the colonies. At the time of Confederation a separate ministry of Customs was established along with a department of Inland Revenue which was responsible for collection of excise duties. It was not until 1921 that these two departments where amalgamated into one department called Customs and Excise. In 1925 income tax collection, begun in 1917, was placed under Customs and Excise. Two years later the department’s name was changed to National Revenue.

Throughout the history of Canada Customs there have been colourful personalities involved in its ranks. One such personality was Edward S. Busby (Busby of the Yukon).

Since the inception of Canada Customs, its officers have always been known for their cordial and professional manner in dealing with the public. As early as 1911 memos were issued about Officers appearance, conduct and dealings with the public. During the next two decades the heavy emphasis on courtesy towards the tourist increased, especially the American tourist. The department enforced their rules on treatment of tourists by “threats of banishment to the freight yards.” In April 1928 an advisory was issued regarding complaints which had reached the Department regarding the demeanor of certain officers:

“An examining officer who allows his temper to show itself, and acts in a discourteous manner, will not be allowed to continue in that capacity. If he is retained in Service then he will be sent to the freight yards or the manifest room where his peculiar temperament will not offend others. The Tourist season is about to open and visitors to Canada by automobile and railway must be treated with constant courtesy by National Revenue officers whose duties bring them into contact with the travelling public. There is no place in the Service for an officer who is rude and discourteous, and the sooner this is realized the better it will be for all concerned.”

During the 1930s the number of tourists continued to increase as did the number of inquires. The following are a few examples of some of the more “interesting” ones received by Customs:

“How can I address and seal a parcel so as to ensure that Canadian Customs will not open and examine it”
“What are the most satisfactory methods of smuggling goods across the Border”
“Has Ottawa any Capital”
“How much liquor can I drink in Manitoba”
Asked if they were U.S. citizens: “no just farmers”
Asked to state the length of residence in Canada: “Thirty feet by forty feet”
Asked if he was visiting Canada for pleasure, a traveler replied: “No, I’m seeing my wife’s folks”

In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War Canada Customs officers found themselves with added responsibilities. One of the many duties included searching for illegal exports that might be of use to the enemy. Officers also had to control the amount of money being taken out of the country. During the war the Canadian seaports provided Customs with the largest workload. Customs, along with the Navy, exercised control over all activity in the ports. All neutral ships were searched and secured by Customs. In the port of Vancouver, while searching a Japanese vessel a list of German agents in South America was discovered. Canada Customs war effort was not limited to the seaports. In Windsor, Ontario a customs officer captured an escaping German prisoner of war on the engine of a passenger train.

Up until the Second World War Canada Customs was almost exclusively male except for a few women on special duty at major ports. In 1947 the government imposed foreign exchange controls requiring more personal searches resulting in more female hires. By 1982 39.1 per cent of all employees in Customs and Excise were women.

After the Second World War the number of travelers to and from Canada increased rapidly. Originally the clearance of travelers dealt only with the protection and collection of revenue. All other matters such as immigration and agriculture were dealt with by officers of those respective departments. As the number of federal department increased so did the line-ups as separate questioning and examinations were required by each individual department. On Oct. 1, 1969 customs officer were responsible for questioning of travellers on behalf of all federal departments. Today, along with its own acts and regulations, Customs enforces 57 acts of Parliament and acts on behalf of over 80 other government departments.

The Canada Customs uniform has seen a number changes in its history. The first uniform, fashioned after Her Majesty’s Customs Service in England, was a traditional British Navy style, dark blue, double-breasted uniform. The department issued the brass uniform buttons and provided $7.00 a year towards the purchase of clothing. In 1931 the standard uniform allowance was increased to two uniforms a year at a cost of $27.50 each. The uniform saw a radical change in the 1970s when the department went to a teal uniform with a yellow shirt. On April 1, 1977 the department once again change the uniform to a peacock blue with a light blue shirt. In 1994 Customs return to the dark blue uniform however the shirt remained light blue. The uniform of today consists of a woolen military–style sweater, light blue shirt (long and short sleeve), dark pants, nylon patrol jacket (replacing the tunic) and a dark blue ball cap (replacing the traditional forage cap). The forage cap and a dark blue tunic are still worn for ceremonial purposes.

The basic insignia of Canada Customs has always been the same: a portcullis under a crown on a gold maple leaf. Under the portcullis is “Canada” and under that “Customs-Douanes”. These words were added in 1977. Douanes is the French word for customs and dates from about 1372. The connection between the portcullis and Customs dates from 1604 when a London merchant sued King James I for increasing customs duties without Parliamentary consent. The merchant lost, the judges decided that “seaports are the King’s gates, which he may open and shut to whom he pleases.” Since a portcullis is a large gate with spiked bars that can be raised and lowered to control access to castles, it has been said that Customs inspectors “guard our frontiers to control access to our ‘castle’: Canada. The hat badge from the early 1960s was the first to incorporate the ‘basic insignia’. This hat badge was one continuos piece out of gilt and enamel and had the ‘basic insignia’ in the center of Canada and Customs. In the mid 1960s the composition of the hat badge (the words "Canada" and "Customs" separated by the ‘basic insignia') remained the same but each piece was separate. The green uniform of the 1970s saw the "Canada" title omitted and replaced by "Douanes". The hat badge read "Douanes" (basic insignia) "Customs" for those in Quebec and "Customs" (basic insignia) "Douanes" for the rest of Canada. The male officer wore this on his forage cap. The female officer wore a bowler style hat with an embroidered one-piece hat badge. When the department changed to the peacock blues it also change to the current one-piece hat badge we see today.

Nearly all the original customs houses in Canada were at seaports or on the land frontier. As Canada’s industries and settlements grew so did the need for Inland ports. The inward expansion continued because of the railroads, highways, and air traffic routes. Today the majority of the customs ports are inland. Click here to view the frontier ports of entry in British Columbia (with their U.S. counterparts).