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.


  1. Totally concur. Utterly ridiculous what you have to go through to come back to your OWN country. When I returned at the NY crossing, it was ridiculous (But not even close to as invasive as yours). Going into Canada - 20 minutes (I had a carnet, so I had to register that). Coming back into the US - 2 hours. My recent trip to Poland - going through Canada, Germany and Poland - maybe 20 minutes in Canada, 10 in Germany and no time in Poland (granted, I was already in the EU). Coming back - 10 minutes in Germany, 10 minutes in Canada and then through US customs - about 2 hours.

    Comment by Paul — 24 October 2015 @ 20:12

  2. Whoa, an actual commenting reader! I wasn't sure that there were any.

    One of my acquaintances in Winnipeg told me that there's very little U.S. tourist activity in the city anymore because the border crossings have become too much of a hassle. Unfortunately I think too many Americans have never stepped outside their own boundaries, and are so myopic that they don't care about the experiences people have to go through when doing so.

    Comment by Andrew T. — 24 October 2015 @ 22:54

  3. My experience going to Toronto last year was the opposite; Canadian patrols rummaged through my car in Windsor because I told them I had a sixer of Schlitz and a bottle of SoCo in the trunk (well within whatever the limit of booze is); hour-long fiasco of answering the same questions to three groups of guards. We re-entered at Buffalo, a few days later, within 3 minutes of pulling up to the booth.

    Comment by jonrev — 26 December 2015 @ 03:40

  4. Whoa, crossing over with alcohol! Limit or not, you're braver than I am.

    Comment by Andrew T. — 1 January 2016 @ 13:10

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

©2015-16 Andrew Turnbull