OTTAWA — Canada’s cultural treasures — including religious objects from Quebec and aboriginal artifacts — are “racing out of the country” because government controls are ineffective and Canada’s border agency isn’t interested in enforcing them, Canadian Heritage has been told.

“It should be pointed out that the recent creation of the (Canada Border Services Agency) as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has resulted in a significant reduction in the priority given to issues not related to health, safety and security,” reads an internal evaluation by Canadian Heritage, obtained by the Ottawa Citizen under the Access to Information Act.

“The CBSA has explicitly indicated that … export controls are outdated and it wishes to get out of the business.”

Key informants from government and private cultural institutions, who were interviewed for the evaluation and warned of the lost treasures, indicate significant numbers of cultural exports bypass controls, and that some institutions ignore temporary permits for travelling exhibitions completely.

Anyone attempting to export cultural artifacts from Canada must fill out a detailed application to obtain a permit.

In some cases, it is referred to one of approximately 275 expert examiners to determine whether the artifact is of “outstanding significance and national importance,” in which case Canadian institutions are given time to obtain financing and keep it in the country.

Last summer, as part of an evaluation of its movable cultural property program, Canadian Heritage looked into whether export controls were effective in protecting the country’s treasures.

Evaluators found that only 15.8 per cent of border agency permit officers — who are ultimately responsible for flagging the items for further review — felt there were adequate resources to do their jobs. Three-quarters were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the amount of training they had received.

“It could be argued that it is impossible to quantify the extent to which these shortcomings are leading to the loss of Canadian cultural property and that the existence of the export controls represents a reasonable investment and level of deterrence,” the document says.

“However, based on the resources and priority devoted to export controls, it would be unreasonable to expect them to be successful.”

In addition, the evaluation suggests Canada isn’t fulfilling its international obligations to spot illegal imports from other countries due to underfunding.

Import controls have allowed Canada to seize cultural objects — including Egyptian artifacts, Byzantine mosaics, Mexican tomb figures and Colombian gold — on 13 occasions since the 1970s, returning them safely to their countries of origin.

However, the document argues “even more so than export controls, the evaluation identified troublesome findings on the import controls.”

It notes that by 2004, “the effectiveness of CBSA procedures to identify and support investigations of illicit cultural objects was reduced and personnel with the most experience and training in cultural objects were re-assigned to other priorities.”

Importers complained that controls weren’t well known and unclear, while other informants criticized Canadian Heritage for not recognizing the increasing importance of the illicit trade in cultural objects.

Catherine Jensen, director of moveable cultural property for Canadian Heritage, defended government controls Monday and insisted the department takes artifact smuggling seriously.

“Canada has a well-regarded reputation on the import side and on returning cultural property that’s been illegally exported from the country of origin,” she said. “So people can say all kinds of things, but that’s the fact. That’s true to say that we have a good reputation in that respect and do our best to maintain that.”