Monday, August 31, 2009

No More Cozy Canoodling with Canada

In the National Security Game, The Canucks Play Rough
© 2009 Leighann Lord


Going through Canadian Customs used to be smooth and painless, but things have gotten noticeably tenser along America’s northern border. Now it’s long lines, stone faced agents and random searches. Perhaps the national security paranoia of Canada’s southern neighbor is taking its toll. They could be just a bit bitter about a recent rule change requiring everyone crossing the border in either direction to have a passport. No more friendly traipsing back and forth.

I felt the chilly change while passing through Halifax, Nova Scotia. The line was so long I thought by the end of it I’d be getting into a night club or given a piece of bread. Not one to waste time or have my time wasted, I whipped out my "Wall Street Journal." About 20 minutes in, a customs officer with a dog came out to check the cued up travelers. That was new, but not unique. I thought there was nothing for me to do except let the cop and cur do their job, so I kept reading my paper. This was a mistake.

When they got to me, the officer snapped his fingers, asked to see my customs declaration card and in green highlighter wrote an ominous "P-1" on it. It mind as well have been the scarlet letter. In retrospect, I now know how suspicious I must have looked. Everybody knows Americans don’t read.

When I got to the head of the line, another Customs Official asked me a few perfunctory questions but that "P-1" told her everything she needed to know. I soon had the pleasure of standing in another - albeit shorter – line to be more thoroughly scrutinized.

While in the line of shame with other supposedly suspicious passengers, I overheard a search in progress. An agent was explaining to a detained traveler why some of his items were being confiscated. Apparently, it’s not that you can’t bring food into Canada, what matters is where that food comes from. Food from the U.S. is okay (overlooking tomatoes, peanut products and tuna) but Egypt? Not so much. The traveler being searched ahead of me was transporting a smorgasbord of Egyptian meat: sausage, chicken, beef. He was smuggling in a cookout. The officer confiscated half, but luckily the traveler was not in trouble because he had declared his moveable feast.

When it was my turn to have my privacy invaded or as a hard core Libertarian might call it – legally property raped – I was asked repeatedly about my travel plans: "What is the purpose of your trip? Where are you going? How long will you be in Canada?" At this point, too long.

Given the thoroughness of the search I began to worry about the contents of my bag. The most questionable items were vitamins and incense. Could I be detained for Flaxseed and Nag Champa? You can’t be too careful when it comes to international customs. A Canadian airport security guard once confiscated my travel size can of Static Guard. I’m still not sure if it was really against the rules or if she was just shopping.

As I began going through my mental Rolodex of international human rights lawyers, the customs officer said she was done and I was free to go. Admittedly pushing my luck, I asked why I was chosen for this special treatment. "What were you looking for?" She said they were selecting people at random to find those who weren’t declaring alcohol & tobacco.

I suspect, however, that I was "randomly" selected for lack of deference. I had the temerity to be reading and essentially ignoring the officer as he walked by. He had "selected" me before knowing whether I had in fact declared anything. He couldn’t have known until he asked for and looked at my customs form. I was getting the "P-1 special" whether I deserved it or not. Since they found nothing, I’m guessing not.

As I was leaving, another randomly selected traveler who had declared nothing, got busted with an excessive amount of perfume and clothes. When the officer called him on it, he began having trouble with his English, but managed to clearly say: "You didn’t ask about perfume and clothes. You asked about alcohol and tobacco." Good one, but the officer wasn’t buying. The fines were going to be hefty. They’re probably still tabulating.

I think Canada is getting testy in reaction to tighter laws requiring a passport to cross the border. As late as July 2009, Canadians and Americans could practically cross the border at will, visiting each other as good neighbors are want to do. But post 9/11, things have changed. Our once friendly open door, "Make yourself at home" policy is now, "How’d you get this number?" America is treating Canadians like Mexicans.

How long will it be before Canadians consider building a fence along their border? Who knows, but don’t expect the Canadian cold shoulder to thaw out any time soon.


Thank you for reading Leighann Lord's Comic Perspective!

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