This is the story of my unsettling experience crossing the line into Canada. For some background, please see the introduction to this series here, and if you’re comfortable telling your own story, please do.
I arrived at the YVR international terminal on a night in late September on a flight from Amsterdam. Trying to get into town quickly for a birthday party I was already late for, I raced ahead of the passengers disembarking the plane to the customs area and faced the choice between a short line-up for the normal customs process with an agent, or no line at all for the new electronic customs terminals. If you have yet to try out the new machines, I still have no idea how they work, but basically you just put in your customs card, scan your passport, enter a bit of information and out pops your customs card with a code printed on it. Proud that I had figured out how to work the things, I rushed towards the baggage carousel only to be stopped short by two CBSA agents, a perhaps 33-35 year old woman and a man of about the same age. Strange, I thought, as it seemed like the whole point of having these machines was to reduce the need for more agents.
The man - let’s call him John since he refused to give me his name - asked all of the questions, starting with ones everybody is used to by now, where did you travel, for how long. Standard questions, met with polite and standard responses. Then he started throwing some strange ones at me, and became more and more aggressive: Who do you know in France? Why did you fly through Amsterdam? Where do you work? How long have you worked there for? How did you pay for the trip? That last one took me by surprise. “With money that I earned from the job I just told you about,” I answered, honestly and accurately. That didn’t seem to sit well with John for some reason. He just couldn’t understand how I could have possibly paid for a trip after only working in my current position for a month, which made me wonder, don’t border agents get paid and have savings and credit cards, too? After a few more questions along those lines, although John obviously found the basic workings of personal finances highly suspicious, he decided to let me move along and collect my bag.
I had suspicions of my own that he wasn’t done with me yet, though. As I stood waiting for my bag to make its way from the belly of the airplane to the hypnotically-snaking conveyor belt, my fears were justified: John and the other agent approached me again.
“You’re going to have to come with me,” he said. “You need to be searched.”
“I know that you have a job to do,” I told him, “but I respectfully decline. I know I haven’t done anything wrong, and you have no reasonable grounds to search me.”
My appeal to reason and basic civil rights was met with a threat: “Then I’m going to arrest you.” I’m still not sure if John could have actually arrested me in that case (although I suspect he could have), or if that was just a slick way to get me to consent to the search under duress, but either way, it worked.
Once I had my bag - which of course took another 20 comically uncomfortable minutes to show up while John and his partner hovered behind me - I was led to the inspection room where a number of African, Asian and Middle Eastern men and women were already being searched by other agents. (Later, John would fail to appreciate my pointing out that I was the only white person there.) They put my backpack and checked luggage up on a counter, asked me to open everything, and then donned latex gloves and proceeded to go through all of my dirty laundry. The female agent left shortly after this process started, but would return later to play a key and disturbing role - more on that later.
I tried to engage John in a friendly conversation, asking him how he had got into this line of work, if he enjoyed it, what he took in school, if he had always aspired to go through people’s luggage, that kind of stuff. It turned out that he was studying to take his LSAT and saw working with the CBSA as a way to get some good experience that would contribute to his law career. His answers got shorter and more and more terse as he kept rummaging, and when he asked me to empty my pockets and proceeded to read every single text message in my cell phone I just stopped that line of discussion altogether. Looking through my clothes I could take, but reading my personal and private messages to my partner, my family and friends - that was a massive and unnecessary invasion of privacy. That was going too far.
Immediately I started challenging John, asking him which federal act allowed him to do away with my privacy rights, what he thought he might find among the “I love u :)” and “See u in 5” messages that justified such an intrusion, how he could conscionably do such a thing, how he could think it was right... how would he feel if I was going through his phone? Of course, this only pissed him off further. He stopped reading shortly to explain the process of the search (again), threatened to strip-search me (again), and gave the Orwellian explanation that “The law says I have the right to search everything on your person, and since your cell phone was in your pocket, that means I can read everything in it.”
I can’t imagine a Canadian law somewhere that actually says that - a law which basically amounts to: regardless of any and all existing privacy and civil rights laws, at an airport or border crossing, CBSA agents have the right to treat anything and everything you might happen to have with you as potential evidence for who-knows-what crime, but hey, between looking through your dirty laundry and reading all your text messages to your mother, we’ll figure out what you did, you terrible rotten faithless scum... bow down to the image of Fuhrer Harper!!! And salute it! Why aren’t you simultaneously saluting our Great and Supreme Father as you bow down in front of his holy visage?!?! You worthless communist rat!
Sorry, got carried away there.
As John continued to “scan” every single text message in my phone for “signal words,” as he informed me, his female partner returned, and then the fascist party really started. Out of nowhere, John barks at me, “Tell us what drugs you’ve done.” Huh? Again, “You have to tell us what kind of drugs you’ve done.” Still obviously dumbfounded, he switches tact, sweetly crooning, “It’s okay, you can tell us. We’re not going to arrest you for anything like that.” Not convinced, but seeing no harm in being honest like I had been the entire time, and certain that they really actually couldn’t arrest me for past drug use, I divulged my extremely limited experience in that area.
Before I go on to what happened next, I’d like to make a public service announcement (if it weren’t already obvious): IT IS EXTREMLY STUPID TO GIVE THE CBSA, RCMP, VPD AND OTHER SECURITY AGENCIES ANY INFORMATION OF THIS NATURE. As far as they should know, unless they actually see it happen, BC is 100% clean. Otherwise, they’ll just use it against you, as will be seen shortly.
“I’m going to swab the inside of your luggage for chemicals, explosives and banned substances,” the female agent finally spoke up. Strangely, and this part stuck with me and unsettled me more than anything else that happened that night, she and John then stepped back slightly and whispered a few sentences to each other, and then she left with the swab and went into a room with blacked-out windows, supposedly to run the test.
John finished reading my text messages while she was gone, moping a little bit that he hadn’t found the “signal words” he was looking for. An awkward and angry silence ensued. The female agent returned a few minutes later, looked quickly (and nervously, I thought) at John, and informed me that she had found traces of THC inside my luggage.
“Impossible,” I blurted, outraged. “That’s absolutely impossible. Prove it. Where’s the printout of the test? Show it to me, I want to see the evidence.”
“What, are you calling us liars? Are you saying we don’t know how to do our jobs? This is insulting, you’re insulting us. You wouldn’t even understand the test anyway. You can’t even go back to that area. We’re not going to show it to you,” was the immediate and forceful reaction. They said something to the effect of implying that I was running drugs across the Atlantic, that this might warrant a strip-search.
I was ready to go to jail before being humiliated like that. “No effing way am I going to let someone plant drugs on me, make me strip and let them feel me up,” I thought. I resolved to go to jail before I let that happen, realizing full well that the RCMP and VPD likely have vastly more experience in that area, but at that point I was just so focused on refusing to let either of these two agents of deception get near me that I didn’t care.
Luckily, I think my continued and aggressive challenge of their claim threw them off a bit, and they decided to search my backpack before deciding what to do with me next. Enraged, I warned John (who earlier had been making comments like, “I shouldn’t even be doing this. The free market is so much more efficient, some private company should be doing airport security”) that he was about to find himself fist-deep in leftist literature, including the radical dark lord himself, Noam Chomsky. He opened the bag, saw Liberating Theory and Z Magazine, promptly took his gloves off and told me, “Oh, okay. You can leave. Why didn’t you just say you were a lefty?”
Before leaving, he briefly attempted to justify the whole ordeal on the “reasonable suspicion” that I had flown through Amsterdam and that I had only been gone for a week. Then John and his partner walked away, laughing, leaving unrestrained contempt for innocent people, multiple strip-search threats, groundless invasions of privacy, and manufactured evidence of drug smuggling hanging thick and unresolved in the air.
Like I said to John before, he had a job to do.
Please take a moment to reflect on your own experiences and other similar stories about crossing the line into Canada you’ve heard over the last few years. If you’re comfortable sharing your account, please, contribute to the discussion: either leave a comment on this story, sign up for a free VMC membership and post your story as a blog entry with the title prefix “Crossing the Line” (so we can find it), or if you’d like to be interviewed and have us write it up, send an email to vmc mediacoop.ca and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible."