Thoughts on culture, education, and having been a Canadian in the US
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Things not to do at the border….

12:15 pm

Well, here’s an interesting way to spend a morning AND an afternoon. Early this morning, my entire “Intro to Canadian Culture” seminar, 3 students from my Can Lit class, and several others left Burlington. All was going according to plan until we hit THE CANADIAN BORDER….

Now, let me start by saying that for me, up until this very moment, crossing into Canada has always been accompanied by a sigh of relief, sense of finally being home where I will not have to worry about anything. Canada Customs has always been friendly, or at least friendly compared with the people who greet me when I’m returning across the US border. Today, though, our bus was targeted for a random search and, without going into detail, the Canadian border guards discovered minute traces of something that one should never carry across the border.

That was over two hours ago, and as I write this we are still at the border…. We’ve finally reached a point where every one of the 25 people on the bus is going to be thoroughly searched. Once that’s done with the dogs will arrive to search the bus itself. Needless to say our entire itinerary for today is due for a serious revision. Everyone on the bus is starving, frustrated, and getting a bit grumpy. BUT, to the credit of the students (and my colleagues), we are all making the best of things.

1:00 PM

What a terrible introduction to Canada, though! For most of my students, this is their first time across the border. You can only imagine that this will be THE story that everybody remembers out this trip — me included!

Not that this is any fault of the border guards, although their approach is clearly disproportionate to the nature of the offense. My student did not bring anything with him, but simply failed to think that there may still be residue which could suggest that there might be more…. somewhere else. It’s clear that one of their main objectives is to deter anyone from ever dreaming of bringing anything with them across the border.

The customs officials have locked the bathroom on the bus and for anyone to use the facilities the driver has to go to the Customs office to request that an officer come to the bus to escort a student in to the washroom in their office. Needless to say, anytime someone has to go, it takes one of the customs officers to look after them rather than continuing to search people on the bus. This could take hours still….

They are searching everyone, going through every item in each bag, every pocket of every item of clothing… how long this will take, I have no idea. We’re now at about three hours and there’s no end in sight….


We’re now back on the road to Ottawa after a short break for lunch. We were removed from the bus shortly after my last entry and all moved to a separate building where we stood in a line so that the dog could check us all for any indication of drugs. From there, we were all kept off the bus until the dog finally finished going over every square inch of the bus. The whole ordeal took us four hours and 15 minutes.

While we were waiting to be let back on the bus, one of my students told me that this was the first time he’d ever experienced feeling like his rights had been taken away from him. Me too, almost. The only other time I’ve had a similar feeling was when I was refused entry to the US in 2003 when I was on my way to Burlington to shop for a house. In that case, the US border guard had no legitimate reason to give me a hard time — he was simply in a bad mood and decided that he didn’t like me. And so, he refused to allow me into the country and told me that I’d better not try crossing into the US at any other point. When Senator Patrick Leahy’s office intervened on my behalf later that night, I was finally allowed into the US but was made to sign an entry card that stated I would stay in the US for no more than five days. When returning to Canada at the end of that trip, I first had to report to the border to prove that I was leaving the US. In both cases, it was entirely unsettling to feel that someone else could have complete control of my freedom until such a point that they decided they were done with me. Feeling something like that even for a short time reminds one of how lucky we are to be in countries where people only rarely find themselves in such a situation.

1 comment

1 Anonymous { 12.04.07 at 2:27 pm }

oh god, that is horrible. probably the worst case of customs i have heard, thankfully i have never had any issues