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Crossing the Line: Introduction and Call for Stories

Cruel and disturbing behaviour at the Canadian border; my own story, and a request for yours.

by Andre Guimond

Canadian customs at YVR.
Canadian customs at YVR.

Also posted by Andre Guimond:

After a long trans-Atlantic flight, saving a few minutes passing through customs seems like a great idea. Returning to Vancouver from Europe in late September, the non-existent queue for the automatic customs machines was so tempting that I had to try it. A few hours later, the border services agent that had been questioning, searching, and threatening to arrest and strip-search me told me that choosing the electronic customs line was my first mistake.

It’s doubtful that the machines had much to do with it, though.

A quick glance at reported border crossing incidents over the last few years reveals that my experience – from being searched without cause, to repeated threats, to having drugs “found” in my luggage – is far from unique, and far from the worst. Picking almost at random, take the account of a woman being strip-searched at the Ottawa airport in 2009 after having traces of heroin and THC planted on her toothbrush, or of a border crossing guard strip-searching and sexually groping four young women at the South Surrey crossing in 2007. Another woman was mocked and humiliated as she was strip-searched without cause at the Vancouver airport in 2009 and, perhaps most disturbingly, were the reported threats of gang-banging and rape by the police towards young female detainees at the G20 summit this year in Toronto - not a border-crossing incident, but the trend is clear enough.

Unfortunately, this is only a small sample of the unusually cruel physical and psychological treatment that Canadians and people from all over the world risk facing at the hands of Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents at airports and border crossings. In the same vein are the increasingly frequent and intrusive invasions of privacy, like in the case of a CBSA agent in Vancouver who apparently felt his position afforded him the privilege of using the passport information of attractive women to try and contact them for dates.

Doubtless few Canadians are shocked to hear about stories like these; they seem all too commonplace now, these conditions having become expected, almost normal. It’s a fair guess that you either have a story of your own to tell or that you can easily recall one you heard from someone close, and that the majority of these stories have yet to be made public. At the same time, many are surely wondering what purpose could possibly be served by subjecting innocent people to such callous and dehumanizing acts. The obvious question then is, are these stories indicative of something new in Canada, of larger policy initiatives to resort to these kinds of measures? Are there institutional pressures at work in the CBSA (formed in 2003 to take over border services from the Canada Customs Revenue Agency) that are in part responsible for this kind of behaviour? If so, why and how has this happened and how can it be stopped? And how many more stories have we yet to hear?

What follows is my own recent experience crossing the line, recounted in the interest of raising awareness around the tactics of the CBSA and beginning a broad investigation into its policies and actions. I hope my own account will also serve as an invitation to others to come forward with similar stories to continue to build our understanding of what seems to be a sudden shift towards cruelty, contempt and intrusion as the default behaviour of Canadian security agencies. Who or what factors initiated these changes, why were they made, and how can concerned citizens enact humane, decent policies in their place? We need structures and processes that at the very least we need not fear every time we travel, and at the very best are examples that we can be proud of.

Read my story here. Other stories will hopefully appear in this space soon.

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> and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.  

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