Short-staffing and outdated technology at Canada's borders could be helping groups abroad build weapons of mass destruction.
The findings of a new audit, tabled Tuesday, found almost a fifth of high-risk exports are not being screened, while gaps in screening could mean exporters are gaming the system.
Things making it onto airplanes and ships could include nuclear materials, chemical and biological agents, and even types of missiles.
Following the audit, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has promised to draw up plans "to reduce the proportion of targeted high-risk shipments [that are] not examined."
The agency, which is charged with counter-proliferation of dangerous weapons at the border, works with intelligence agencies to determine which exports should be checked before leaving Canada.
During the 21-month audit, 29 per cent of shipments deemed high-risk had not complied with the agency's rules. While most of the issues were minor, the CBSA thwarted "several shipments that were cause for national security concern."
17 per cent of these high-risk shipments weren't examined at all.
It's unclear whether that amounts to scores, hundred or thousands of unexamined shipments. Officials for the CBSA and the auditor general told VICE News they wouldn't disclose how many exports were deemed high-risk, citing security reasons.
One of the key reasons such shipments are bypassing screening is that border cops have no automated risk-assessment tool. Exporters can still make shipments using paper forms, which allow some high-risk shipments to evade scrutiny.
In 2014, around 95 per cent of forms were submitted in an electronic database which records Canada's annual exports "but does not have the capacity to automatically identify declarations that may be high-risk."
That system is set to be replaced next January, which will be the fourth attempt to do so in the past six years.
But 5 per cent of export declarations — at least 44,000 — were made on paper forms, which the agency does not always check against watch-lists as it does with every electronic record.
About one-sixth of these paper forms were submitted to a local CBSA office instead of the shipment's port of exit, meaning they don't always get to the screening officer in time. Whether electronic or paper, such forms are only required two hours before a shipment is loaded onto a flight, and two days before being loading onto a ship.
Of the 17 per cent of high-risk shipments that weren't examined, the CBSA blamed a third of these cases on receiving risk assessments "after the shipments had already left or been loaded on planes and ships."
As a result, frontline border agents are wasting their time assessing shipments that have already been flagged as high-risk by a risk unit, while missing some.
But even when border agents have these risk assessments in hand, shipments are still leaving Canada unchecked due to limited staff, misplacement and carriers ignoring requests to halt shipments, according to the audit.
In a scathing section of Tuesday's report, the audit claims CBSA are so short-staffed that they've been cutting corners.
"Partly as a response to staffing levels, the counter-proliferation targeting unit had reduced the number of shipments that it had been recommending for examination," reads the report.
"At one port of exit, no export control examinations were conducted when the assigned border services officer was on vacation."
Such problems create patterns in which high-risk shipments aren't screened, potentially allowing nefarious exporters to game the system.
"The agency did not conduct any examinations at one large Canada Post centre for processing parcels exported from Canada," notes one example. "We were told that this was due to insufficient staff and a need to focus on examining items entering Canada."
The report suggests numerous shortfalls could jeopardize Canada's international obligations, which includes sanctions against North Korea, Russia and Myanmar.
Auditors estimate that in the last fiscal year, fewer than 1 per cent of the CBSA's full-time employees were dedicated to export control, though import staff sometimes assist in such tasks.
The wide-ranging audit was completed by a team of 10, who monitored CBSA's export controls between April 2013 and December 2014. The audit excluded exports to the United States, which often don't require declarations.