Experience tends to put one’s philosophical convictions to the test, and today I learned that lesson first-hand. The measures implemented after September 11, 2001, to tighten security at the Canada-US border made sense to me. A couple of noteworthy incidents where customs and immigration officials over-stepped their authority, most noticeably in the Maher Arar case, didn’t give me reason to change my mind. My experience today, on the other hand, did.
Traditionally, at this time of the year my father and I would make a pilgrimage to the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, just South of the Canada-US border near Vancouver, to pick up our annual supply of bottle-rockets, mighty-mites, and other explosive supplies needed for Halloween. While I neglected the tradition for a few years, I decided that this year I would make the trek myself and get a supply of firecrackers. Of course, I didn’t have the Lummi Indian Reservation to turn to, and I needed to find the nearest supply. The Manawake Indian Reservation, which happens to straddle the Canada-US border near Cornwall, Ontario, seemed like the answer.
It wasn’t. On the Canadian side, the locals were unfamiliar with the concept of supplying firecrackers near Halloween. In fact, the few people that I asked seemed genuinely puzzled, offended, or both. I decided to try the American side of the Reservation, theorizing that their American counterparts would be more enterprising, or at least more astute. I had to cross the border first, something that I didn’t anticipate being difficult. It was.
I was travelling with a friend of mine, who works for the Privy Council Office and just happens to be Ismaili-Canadian. He had remarked that it would be ironic if we were pulled over, considering he had spoken with US Ambassador Paul Cellucci just two days earlier with Cellucci expressing concern about the perception of ethnic profiling by American customs officials. Admittedly, our reason for visiting the US – just looking around – was bound to raise some concern. When we were asked to pull the car over, I wasn’t shocked. A little annoyed, but I figured that it would be over in a moment and we could get back to looking for our goodies. I thought that it was going to be a routine, run-of-the-mill exercise meant to demonstrate that yes, the border was being guarded closely.
As soon as I walked in the door to the customs office I knew that things were going to be anything but routine. Staring at us were two oversized framed pictures, one of Vice-President Dick Cheney and the other of President George W. Bush. While Bush looks very much like Alfred E. Newman from MAD magazine, Cheney sports a very sinister smirk that says “you’re in big, big trouble – and I LIKE it.” It reminded me of being a little kid and having to "see" the principal, with the teacher standing off to the side wearing the same knowing look. It didn’t bode well.
Sure enough, they gave us the gears. After filling out the requisite forms verifying that we were not bringing armadillos, pears, or large sums of cash across the border, they made us sit and wait. We were then called over to the interview table, where the immigration officer grilled us. When my friend protested that, according to Canadian and American law we only needed one piece of picture identification, the agent told us that we could either do this “the easy way, or the hard way.” This only confirmed the sense that I felt as soon as I walked in the door; our rights, at this point, were a philosophical concept that didn’t really matter to these people. If they wanted to strip-search us, hold us without reason, or just give us a hard time for the hell of it, there was little that we could do. We were on their turf and they knew it.
My friend had made the mistake of buying a book on Islamic fundamentalism earlier in the day (which is his doctoral specialization), which drew a number of deeply suspicious inquiries. Why were we reading this? With my friend just happening to share a skin colour with the evil-doers that punctured the sense of security that Americans had felt prior to September 11, 2001, this was even more suspicious. I later made the mistake of mentioning my discomfort with American border security, noting the Arar case as particularly troubling evidence. After mumbling that our countries had a difference of opinion on the matter, she sent us on our way, though not without puncturing our sense of security.
I can’t remember a time that I was happier to return to Canada. The behaviour of the Canadian border officer only reaffirmed that feeling. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we told her about our experience with her American counterpart. She was taken aback, spending minutes talking to us about it while the line of cars behind us grew. She even suggested that we file a complaint, saying that increased border security is no excuse for the treatment that we were given.
I’m not entirely sure what this incident means in a broader sense. I’m not going to claim that all Americans are like this, or that their country has truly sacrificed rights and freedoms for a feeling of safety, albeit one that is built on the backs of racially-motivated discrimination and harassment. I’m not going to say that this is further evidence of racial profiling by Americans, although it certainly felt like it. And I’m not going to suggest that our treatment was particularly unusual, because I don’t think that it was. But it’s clear that rights take a back seat to interests of national security in the United States, and that’s a disturbing trend. It’s also one that, thankfully, we as Canadians aren’t nearly so eager to make. I will say this much, though – Canada never looked so good.