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Crossing the Line: Customs Agents or Professional Bullies?

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
The Execution, by David Yerga, in memory of Robert Dziekanski.
The Execution, by David Yerga, in memory of Robert Dziekanski.

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 <at> mediacoop.ca and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

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Comments

Please Share Your Border Experience!

This is to be a continuing investigative piece on the Canadian Border Service Agency and it's policies. Please send us your personal accounts and a way of contacting you so we can measure your incident against what CBSA  policy wonks tell us is or isn't policy.

thanks for your participation in your media co-op.

I had a very similar

I had a very similar experince flying into the Calgary Airport, I was returning from a trip to Asia when I was pulled aside for "further screening"  I had no problem with this at first until the female Border agent basically accused me of being a Pedophile a proceeded to rip my bag including several religious items and wedding presents for my brothers wedding the next day.

 

I was told to wait while a older Couple got waived through without even passing their bags through the X ray, the border agent then went through all 800 pictures I took of the temples and my holiday saying that I may have "embeded" child porn in the photos.  I was blown away by this and asked for her name and badge number so I could file a complaint naturally she refused. 

 

I have travelled the world extensively and have never been treated worse then when I tried to return to my own home.  Sad that the CBSA feels the need to harrass innocent Canadian with no cause. 

not only that but they use wikipedia as cause to search you

http://travismccrea.com/2010/08/09/canadian-customs-use-wikipedia-for-ba...

 

I was detained by customs because when my bags were accidently sent with me to Vancouver, they did a Google search on my name, and then used whats in my wikipedia article (not even my wikipedia article but my userpage) as justification to do an intensive search. 

 

At the time I had not been given my Canadian citizen documentation but on my profile page I claimed to be a dual citizen (becaues I was... I am a Canadian by birth, I don't need documentation to claim I am a Canadian -- I am, and always have been... I wasn't using it in any legal sense). So he asked to see my Canadian passport or Canadian form of ID, and wouldn't believe me when I told him that I didn't have any.  He couldn't grasp the idea that someone could be a Canadian, without actually having documentation of it, even after I explained it to him.

 

Anyway... long story short... I know how you feel

Before spouting off with this

Before spouting off with this nonsense, you should familiarise yourself with the Customs Act and the various Supreme Court decisions pertaining to searches.

A couple of points:

1. No grounds are needed for a luggage / personal effects examination as you experienced. That is, the officer requires no reasonable grounds to suspect or believe any contravention of law has occurred. You obviously don't like that, but it's the law in Canada, and, I would hazard a guess, in most every other country on Earth.

2. Considering your point of departure, finding a trace amount of THC in your luggage would not be abnormal. Even if you did not use marihuana on your trip, you were likely around it.

Get over yourself.

Ah, so intimidation is the law?

I see Anonymous, your point on why we don't go into this any further is that summarily dismissing people's freedom of movement, rights to reasonable privacy, and intimidating them for passing through a border, is that such systemic behaviour is the law? 

Well, we'll see about that. And how do you know about the act, AND supreme court rulings? You're just an average troller are you? 

OK, so let's take you up on the Act:

 

98. (1) An officer may search

(a) any person who has arrived in Canada, within a reasonable time after his arrival in Canada,

(b) any person who is about to leave Canada, at any time prior to his departure, or

(c) any person who has had access to an area designated for use by persons about to leave Canada and who leaves the area but does not leave Canada, within a reasonable time after he leaves the area,

if the officer suspects on reasonable grounds that the person has secreted on or about his person anything in respect of which this Act has been or might be contravened, anything that would afford evidence with respect to a contravention of this Act or any goods the importation or exportation of which is prohibited, controlled or regulated under this or any other Act of Parliament.

So what constitutes reasonable grounds? That is a matter of interpretation, and the VMC has gathered quite a number of cases which suggest that 'reasonable' grounds often seem very flimsy indeed. Anon Y Mous, most people we've talked with subjectively consider CBSA agents to be the most outlandishly unreasonable border guards they've ever come across, I think it clearly behooves us, as this holiday travel season approaches, to pursue this common subjective view to see if it has any objective grounds. If you cared about the state of your country' (your Canadian?) perception in the world, I'd think you'd be interested in more investigation and transparency about the first face of this land our visitors see.

Section 98 cannot be read on

Section 98 cannot be read on its own without taking the related common law into account. That section is really referring to strip searches and bedpan vigils, not baggage examinations. Baggage examinations require no grounds whatsoever. Resource limitations do not allow all baggage to be examined, so a risk assessment approach is used. It seems you were deemed a higher risk than many others on your flight that day. Your goods were examined. No contraband was found. Now go out there and enjoy life rather than bitching about the little inconveniences life occasionally throws your way.

RE: Before spouting off...

@ Anon Y Mous

It's interesting that you see the law justifying, enabling and protecting this kind of behaviour as anything but a scathing indictment of the legal and political institutions in this country. Using the same logic, would you also argue that during WWII, for instance, we should have happily accepted the embarrassing and unjustified internment of Japanese Canadians in BC simply because the War Measures Act allowed it? (And afterwards, no need for an apology, much less reparations, right?) No need to go on...

The question is, regardless of what's on the books, is this the way you think the CBSA should be treating people? And at the root of it all, what justifies these types of actions in the first place? Are ordinary people such a threat (to what/who?), so untrustworthy, and so undeserving of respect that all of this somehow makes sense? I find that hard to believe.

In regards to your second point, I had a one hour stopover in Amsterdam. My bag went from one plane to another, just like everybody else's, so the only way that THC could have got *into* (again, *inside*) my bag would have been for someone handling it to open it, remove all my clothes, and drop some weed in the bottom of my bag, then put everything back, close it up, and rush it over to the next plane. What do you think the likelihood of that is versus a CBSA agent falsifying the test results? Hopefully you're at least reasonable enough to come to the same conclusion that any other rational person would here.

Finally, next time you berate someone for publicly objecting to an injustice, perhaps you should think twice about the irony of doing so anonymously. Unfortunately, thanks to the acts and court decisions you pointed to, nobody travelling across the Canadian border today has anything even slightly resembling the privilege of anonymity and privacy that you enjoyed in making your remarks.

I wish those involved in drug

I wish those involved in drug smuggling, child sex tourism, people smuggling, weapons smuggling, etc. were willing to tattoo a notice of their indiscretions on their foreheads to make them easy to identify. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Recognising that, the Supreme Court has stated that people have a reduced expectation of privacy at the border. Deal with it.

Regina vs. Monney - Drug Smuggling via Pearson

So I did go and read all the cases I could find regarding reasonable searches by customs. And, seemingly, the main case that deals explicitly with searches at the border that did go all the way to the Supreme Court, was whether or not 84 pellets of ingested heroine were admisable as evidence because the guy wasn't offered medical attention. 

He'd lied a couple times to customs agents, was sleepy, sweating bricks, etc. But actually none of that was per se reasonable grounds, which couldn't be canceled out by the mule not being taken to proper medical attention. The Supreme Court did rule that him being offered medical attention and being closely monitored along with about 5 distinct signs that were directly deduced, (much more than I've heard distinct intimidation over) made for valid evidentiary seizure, but still what I would think you, Anon Y Mous, would consider to readily 'reasonable' made it all the way to the Supreme Court on appeals.

Seems like what you verily desire to be the law isn't actually the law. The supreme court seems to interpret the Act in conjunction with common law, much more stringently than you seem to hope it does Anonymous. You might want to declare your interest in the matter at this point if you have integral interests in law enforcement 'Anon Y Mous'.

The second paragraph of your

The second paragraph of your post doesn't make any sense. Did you read through it before posting? Regardless, R. v Monney is a relevant decision, but if you do a little more research I'm sure you'll find an even more relevant case. Have fun, now.

As a dual citizen

I love both the United States and Canada as a whole. I am a dual citizen, and they both feel like "home" to me.

 

The United States is very much like this, and I am constantly annoyed at how easily our rights can be invaded for "national security"... however, thats why I love coming to Canada, because I typically don't deal with that. When I try to enter Canada, the people ask me "what are your plans here" I say "hang out with friends... meet some women" make a joke or two and I am on my way and they usually laugh at my dumb jokes. 

 

Coming into the United States I tell a joke and it becomes something that makes me seem extra suspicious. 

 

So it is really depressing when Canadian Customs abuses its power like this, because it just makes me feel like I am back in the states.

Oh also

I don't know if I put it in my entry, but I had an issue similar to the backroom thing... They took my passport and went off into a back room, and had it while doing all these different tests on my luggage, and interrogation of me... and they STILL HAD IT even after I was done. They said "you are free to go..." so I almost walked out and realized they still had my passport, so I told the guy "umm... you still have my passport" and he tried to tell me that he had given it back to me, and to check my stuff. 

 

FINALLY... one of the guys who was watching this thing the entire time finally came forward and stood up for me and took the guy aside and pointed at the black room which they had taken my passport... and apparently told them they still had it, because the guy told me to wait for them to come out to give it to me. 

 

I have no issue providing my passport, its a common requirement (at that time I didn't have my Canadian citizenship paperwork)... However, I don't like being somewhere, and the people who have been entrusted to my passport, not knowing where it is. Bad things happen to people who don't have their passport on them.

I am a Canadian citizen, my

I am a Canadian citizen, my fiance is American.

Everytime he comes to see me he is detained and searched.

On one occasion he was told he was being "arrested", because the prescription had expired on his bottle of Tecta....an antacid medication.

When my fiance asked, if I am being "arrested" as you say, when will the police be here.  The agent stated, "This is a border arrest, the police have nothing to do with it."

He was kept at the border, unable to enter Canada or re-enter America for 13 hours.  He didn't know if he was going to be sent to Canadian jail, or sent back to the states.  When he asked the Canadian border agent when he would be able to leave, this "polite" Canadian agent said "We can keep you detained for an undetermined amount of time"

The prescription had expired by 2 days, he was detained for "Bringing drugs ilegally" into Canada.

He was arrested for smuggling antacids into Canada.

Let this be a warning, do NOT bring antacids to Canada.

 

 

 

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