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How Canada laid a hard welcome mat for the Sun Sea

It was one of the largest shiploads of illegal migrants to land in Canada.

The arrival of the MV Sun Sea's 490 Tamil passengers last August sparked a national debate over whether Canada was too easy a mark for human smugglers.

A Canada Border Services Agency memo obtained under access-to-information laws by The Globe and Mail provides a detailed timeline of how thousands of government officials, Mounties and soldiers swung into action to board the Sun Sea and detain the migrants, one of whom turned out to be a self-admitted member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist organization banned in Canada. The Immigration and Refugee Board on Tuesday ordered the Tiger's deportation, making him the first of the migrants who to be declared inadmissible to Canada.

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As the Canadians assumed control of the ship about 12 nautical miles off Vancouver Island, Canadian sailors were primed for far more than just huddled masses of exhausted migrants. The Harper government was pressing the visitors to verify whether the captain had been a crew member on the last migrant ship to stop in Canada. He was not. Rumours swirled that passengers were members of the LTTE.

The account - which was among files held by former CBSA president Stephen Rigby - stretches from four days before the Sun Sea berthed near Victoria. (Mr. Rigby has since been tapped to be Stephen Harper's national security adviser.)

Canadian authorities had plenty of warning that the Sun Sea might be headed to Canada and had received the Ocean Lady, another migrant ship, only the year previous.

The document reveals the basic Canadian government template for handling vessels loaded with asylum seekers. Canada waited until the Sun Sea crossed into this country's territorial waters before intercepting it, boarding it hours later at 9:03 p.m. (ET) on Aug. 12.

Border agents and Mounties conducted a "deep rummage" of the ship, scouring its walls and compartments for secret stashes of people or goods.

The timeline also shows how the Canadian Forces send over a "prize team," an old naval term, to assume control of a ship. This is a boarding party that comprises a skeleton crew, which allows authorities to seize the "prize" - or in this case a rusting hulk.

According to estimates released last month, the cost to the CBSA of intercepting and processing the Tamil migrants was $25-million.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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