The Astral Log

23 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Border Hell

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest, The World In Which We Live — Andrew T. @ 23:44

My time in Canada may have been four days of bliss...but I'm an American citizen, I live in the U.S., and I had to get over a little something called an "international boundary" before I could have the pleasure of returning home. There was one tip ingrained in my mind: Do what they say, and ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. The truth might be awkward, but lying is worse. If you lie at a border crossing and they find out, you might never be allowed to cross.

Weeks before when I was planning out my trip step by step, my relatives tried to ease my concerns about the border crossing by giving me reassurance: "It's a busy crossing, so there will be lots of cars. They can see your Wisconsin plates; they know you're an American citizen coming home; they won't ask many questions. They want to get people through as fast as possible." Bullshit. Maybe that was true in the halcyon days of the 1990s (pre "war on terror" et al), but it isn't true any more.

The border crossing near Pembina, North Dakota was about six lanes across, and there was not a single other car anywhere in sight. I rolled up in my red car, sticking out from the grey scenery as conspicuously as a sore thumb. That was probably strike number one arousing attention for myself. I rolled my window down and flubbed the next line. That was probably strike number two. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Good mor...uh, afternoon. How are you today?"
Agent: "Your identification?"
I hand over my passport. No surprises so far, though I resent how the days of getting by with a driver's license are over for good.

Agent: "Where are you coming from?"
Me: "Winnipeg."
Agent: "How long have you been out of the country?"
Me: "Four days."
Agent: "When was the last time you were previously in Canada?"
Me: "The summer of...uh, 2002." In all honesty, it had been far too long.
The invasiveness begins. Still no surprises about the questions, though.
Agent: "Where were you staying?"
I give them the name of the hotel I had checked out of earlier that day.
Agent: "Why were you in Canada?"
Me: "I was on vacation, sightseeing and attending a conference."
Agent: "What conference was it?"
Me: "It was the River City Reason Fest conference."
Agent: "What kind of conference is that?"
Me: "It was on the topic of...uh, secular issues and current events." I feel red-hot...I'm in rural North Dakota, and I feel on the verge of having to defend my godlessness to an unsympathetic ear. The conversation turns on a dime, though...and the agent starts delving into topics I hadn't rehearsed for.

Agent: "What is your employer?"
I tell her.
Agent: "What were you doing in Canada for your employer?"
Me: "Nothing. This wasn't a trip for work, it was a trip for pleasure." Oh, but the agent keeps on digging...
Agent: "Where did you go to school?"
I fail to see what this had to do with anything...after all, I've tried to banish memories of my school experiences from my present life...but I knew what to do: ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. I spill the beans about my West Virginia high school and college days.

Agent: "Is this the usual port of entry that you cross at?"
Me: "Since I cross the border so infrequently, I don't really have a usual port. I actually came into Canada at the next crossing west because I was sightseeing in that area." That was probably strike number three, and it was my own fault: Never volunteer information at a border crossing unless explicitly asked. Coming back a different way from which you leave is a red flag of its own, though.
Agent: "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?"
Me: "U.S. or Canadian?"
Agent: "Both."
I rifle through my wallet and count everything up. It isn't much...probably about $60 in all.
Agent: "Do you have any medications with you?"
Me: "A little cortisone for my rash" I say, pointing to a reddish patch on my palm. Never mind, that was probably strike number four.
Agent: "Are you returning with any goods you did not have when you left?"
Me: "Just five T-shirts," I say, holding up my palm with five fingers outstretched. Strike number five was more like it. The amount I paid for the shirts was well under my personal exemption and I had receipts, so I had nothing to fear. Or did I?

Agent. "Proceed to Garage 1. Your ID will be returned to you there."

Proceed to Garage 1? What was that supposed to mean? Were they going to open the rear hatch and let me go on my way, which was the most that happened crossing into Canada and the most I experienced in the summer of 2002? Never mind, I was to do what they said; they were still holding my passport, after all.

I pulled in. Agents swarmed around, and gave me orders. "Exit the car and empty the contents of your pockets. Leave any digital devices in the car." I reluctantly leave my digital camera on the car seat and dig through my pockets...the prospect of being searched hadn't even occurred to me when I had put things in them. I pull out my keys, wallet, and every scrap of paper I was carrying around with me, and lay it on a tray. The interrogation begins.

"What were you doing in Canada?" I tell them. "What are you bringing in with you?" I tell them. "How much money are you bringing into the U.S.?" Hadn't we gone through all of this already?

Then we got to the paper items, and tension builds. "What's this?" "That's just a hotel bill." "What are these?" "Those are the receipts for the T-shirts I mentioned earlier." They weren't interested in looking at them, though.

"What's this?" the agent says, pulling out a piece of scratch paper covered by addresses for everything from gay bars to Safeway stores. I turn red. "That's a list of tourist attractions in Winnipeg I was planning on visiting." "What were the places that you visited?" "May I take a look at the list?" "You don't remember?!"

I borrow the piece of paper and start going over some of the places I visited and some I wanted to but didn't...the Museum for Human Rights, the Mulvey Flea Market, the University of Manitoba, the Assiniboine Park Zoo, the Royal Canadian Mint. Twenty seconds later the issue is diffused, but a stink is in the air.

"Wait in this room," an agent says, guiding me to a detainment chamber bounded by bulletin boards and wired glass. I looked out through the window. My car was opened. The interior was searched and scrutinized. My suitcase was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. My backpack was removed, and its contents removed and sorted through one by one. The agents picked through my bag of dirty underwear and flipped through the pages of every paperback book. They found the pad of paper on which I had been writing my streams of consciousness during the trip and seemingly stared at it for minutes on end, flipping through every page and going over every line.

I lost track of the time...the wait might have been 20 minutes, it might have been 40. Was I going to be kept there for hours on end? Were they going to photocopy every page in my travelogue diary and forward them to the FBI to put in my "un-American activities" file? Were they going to confiscate my property? Were they going to let me into the country at all? There was nothing I could do but stare, whimper, and grimace, wondering what would become of me. Until suddenly, the door opened. "You can go now. Your passport is on the dashboard of the car."

"Is everything repacked in my car?" "Yes." I pulled over as soon afterward as I could, and confirmed: My car had been repacked and nothing had been taken, although everything had been repacked in a different place from where I had left it and the whole exercise felt like a violation.

Entering the United States in this day and age is like entering the Iron Curtain. Is this the new normal since the people of West Virginia enabled George W. Bush to create a police state under the 49th parallel?

The scariest take-away about my experience is that it could have easily been even worse. What if I had resisted during the interrogation? What if I had brought my laptop with me, and the agents insisted on checking or confiscating that? What if I had been an ethnic minority instead of a white cis-man? The possibilities and consequences make me shudder.

18 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 6: Exit...Road Left

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest — Andrew T. @ 23:17

Monday morning began day six of my adventure, and it began much like any other. There was an air of finality in the air, though: The conference was over, and so was my time in Winnipeg.

I checked out of my hotel, drove around trying to find a Tim's or some such...and found myself unable to make left turns because the entire street layout around Polo Park was torn to hell for reconstruction and there were lane barriers everywhere. One-way traffic added to the mayhem, and at one point I became so confused by the concrete maze I was in that I actually ended up on the wrong side of the road! I was able to awkwardly dart back to the right side before any harm was done, but it was a thoroughly embarrassing experience.

Thankfully, that was all over by the time I drove south to reach one last tourist destination: The University of Manitoba. I toured the campus and spent the better part of an hour in the Elizabeth Dafoe Library, where I met a kindly if strange person at the microfilm reader who said "eh" a lot and assumed that Wisconsin was in New England. I also had the good fortune of seeing Andrew Osborne of the French department, who happens to be one of the people I know from my license plate hobby. It's funny how specialized interests always bring different people together!

South of Perimeter Highway, I just had to stop one last time and photograph a street sign commemorating my namesake. Turnbull Drive was named after a Thomas Turnbull who was active in Winnipeg politics and agriculture in the early 20th century, and whose father and son were both named...Andrew Turnbull. (A hat tip to the Manitoba Historical Society for documenting that bit of local trivia!)

I felt sorrow at having to leave Canada...four days simply wasn't enough to take everything in, and I hope to go back to Winnipeg again. But it was time to go home, and I had a lot of driving to do...if I could get across the border first.

17 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 5: Around and About the Forks

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest — Andrew T. @ 00:00

When I finally emerged from the realm of Human Rights, I still had a fair bit of parking time paid I took a look around. The rotunda inside Union Station looked as grand as ever. The Winnipeg Railway Museum was open with free admission that day...although I got there 20 minutes before closing time, so I had to hurry! A BNSF GP39-3 locomotive was idling in back, and I was actually invited to climb aboard as the engineer described the operating procedures, instruments, and controls.

The museum had a Griswold crossing signal on display with a rotating stop sign (identical to the one I photographed above in Wisconsin, sans sign, six years ago). I commented on the signal as I was on the way out the door...and the staff person I spoke to hadn't realized before that the sign rotated. Thanks to me, he learned something new that day!

A few quick steps soon brought me to the Forks Market, where I walked into the Travel Manitoba Visitor Information Centre wearing a "Wisconsin Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics" T-shirt. As I buried myself in brochures and looked quizzically around the room, I said "Good afternoon. Do I look like a tourist who's not from around here? Gee, I can't imagine why!"

Later that day back at the hotel, I went for one last walk in the asphalt jungle that surrounded it to see if I could find any engagement there. Target's Canadian experiment had crashed and burned, so they weren't open for business. Their competitors weren't any less deserted, I discovered that all stores were closed on Sunday evenings.

Is Manitoba a last refuge of blue laws, or is shutting down at 6 p.m. some unwritten rule with lockstep adherence? Either way, I wouldn't have guessed.

16 October 2015

Reason Fest Day 5: Human Rights

Filed under: Canada, River City Reason Fest, The World In Which We Live — Andrew T. @ 01:08

Shortly after Stephanie's presentation the day before, one of the leaders of HA²M came up before the stage and commented that the group had a "commitment to diversity." A commitment to a cause is an encouraging thing to hear, but it needs to be put into action in order to be credible. Some of the chatter I heard in the back channel suggested that the speakers were disproportionately white and didn't reflect the true diversity of Winnipeg. One point that I thought stuck out was that although this was a Canadian conference with an overwhelmingly Canadian audience, over half of the speakers were American. I did have a good time at the conference, met a number of great people and new friends, and felt fortunate to be there...but in the interest of questioning and seeking betterment in everything, I wonder if it could be improved.

The post-conference period was spent sightseeing and looking for hidden treasures. I visited two indoor flea markets that an acquaintance suggested might be good places to find old license plates. Alas, it was not to be. Some nut at one had hoisted the Gadsden Flag in his booth, and the only plates I found at the other were overpriced examples surrounded by crucifix, hunting, and neo-Confederate paraphernalia. Very doubtful.

To wash away the experience, I headed downtown. The Esplanade Riel is a cable-stayed footbridge over the Red River that opened in 2003. It's unapologetically modernist, and leaves a terrific visual impact from any angle.

Near the west abutment of the bridge lies the Citizen Garden, covered in thousands of tiny
blue flags decorated with peoples' faces. My initial reaction was pensive: Was this the memorial to some tragedy, like so many installations in the States? No: It was a celebration of life and optimism in the present day. Each flag represented a real person in Winnipeg...2015 of them in all...and their thoughts on what was "cool;" simple as that.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights completed the dramatic aura of the vicinity. It had opened almost exactly one year to the day before, in September of 2014.

Underneath the complex, irregular exterior lies an interior of spiraling corridors and labyrinths that slowly wind their way to a glass observation tower at the very top. Many of the interior spaces are open above, with courtyards visible across many levels. There are artifacts, information, and multimedia exhibits on subjects ranging from individual achievements to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The staff simultaneously say "hello" and "bonjour," in a nod to Canada's multilingualism.

The museum's scope and limitations have been debated, and almost inevitably been mired in controversy...and I wouldn't doubt that there are human rights atrocities going on that didn't warrant a mention in its walls.

Nevertheless, the museum packs an emotional wallop. It reminded me how the human right of universal healthcare is taken for granted in most countries of the world...yet denied in mine. It continually reminded me that I'm livid that my own neighbors and family have rolled back and eliminated labor rights, gay rights, and women's rights south of the border in Wisconsin and Michigan, and I'm livid that a white-supremacist, Christian-nationalist ideological cult is revered as a major political party by almost half the voters in the USA.

The Holocaust exhibit was prominent, and especially poignant. Of the photographs on display, two were particularly eerie as they represented scenes of concurrent, "ordinary" German life: One was of a commercial building partially covered in national flags (i.e., Nazi banners) and posters promoting the national leader (i.e., Hitler). Another was a picture of a young girl on a street corner, making a Nazi salute in tandem with the adults that surrounded her. Had my own family been displaced into Germany, I have little doubt that my own grandmother or grandfather would have been the girl in that position...going with the flow, obligingly supporting the ruling party without giving critical thought as to her neighbors disappear.

What else was poignant? Take some policy points, for one: Disenfranchisement and the withdrawal of political power...union textbooks being rewritten to reflect a racist, Christianist point of view? That's the Deutsches Reich in the 1930s...and it's also the United States of America in the year 2015.

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