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Scribner’s Error: May I see your papers? The humiliation of a border crossing

By GREGORY FROOM, Managing Editor



Strike “international contraband smuggler” off my list of alternative careers. I’d never get the first kilo over the border.

I’ve known for a while that I have an innate distaste for authority, which I attribute to some residual ornery genes inherited from the West Virginia branch of my family tree.

But I wasn’t aware that I had such an irrational fear of authority until last month’s episode at a Canadian border crossing.

Let me state up front that I had nothing to hide. All I wanted to do was go spend some of my hard-earned American dollars (which are now worth no more than their Canadian counterparts) at some north-of-the-border attractions.

But as soon as the immigration and customs official started asking me questions, I got all nervous and jiggly-headed.

How often are we called upon to explain ourselves in the course of our daily business? Fortunately, not very often for most of us. The unfamiliarity of the inquisition brought into focus how stupid, petty and unconvincing my explanations sounded.

“Taking a vacation to Canada in November, eh, when it’s too late for pleasant weather and too early for winter sports?”

A little odd, yes, but accurate.

“Where do you have reservations for the night?”

Sweat started to bead on my forehead as I muttered, “The Hilton Garden Inn,” and then I added the red-flag phrase, “near the Ottawa airport.”

“Oh, why are you staying near the airport?” the agent inquired, her terrorist-spotting senses on high alert.

“Because I’ve got enough loyalty points for a free night there,” I said a little too defensively, instead of giving her the answer she wanted – “Because I’ve got to get up early to hijack the 7:15 to Winnipeg, unless my demand for a 1,000 gallons – oops, litres – of maple syrup is met.”

That was enough to divert me to secondary inspection, which consisted of a dreary office reminiscent of the DMV, except the agents packed heat. (There’s a nightmare scenario: DMV agents with weapons.)

As I waited for Jean-Luc (or whatever his hockey player-sounding name was) to clear me through the Interpol database, I sat uncomfortably under the gaze of Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait on the wall. The monarch seemed to be surveying this wayward colonist to see if he should be allowed back into her majesty’s realm.

Jean-Luc asked whether I’d ever been in trouble with the law, either in Canada or “back home.” My mind started racing. Had I? Well, certainly a few speeding tickets and other moving violations in Virginia and North Carolina. Oh, and that parking ticket I got in 1999 in Albany, N.Y., and never paid. Does that count?

Assured that I wasn’t fleeing a grisly murder scene in the States or plotting to topple Canada’s semi-monarchical government, I was turned loose.

Unable to fall asleep that night at the Ottawa airport Hilton, I reflected on the ordeal and my Fourth Amendment rights back home.

Firstly, I felt grateful that, in our day-to-day lives, we normally are not forced to show our papers and answer questions about where we are going, what we are doing and why we are doing it. We’re lucky to more or less have the freedom to move about the country unhindered by checkpoints.

But that might not always be so, particularly if our fear of foreigners and terrorists increases. We’ve already surrendered our right not to get felt up by strangers at the airport, and it’s probably not a bad idea to tote some American ID when ambling about the Grand Canyon State.

When faced with an authority figure’s interrogation, I also realized how easy it would be for law-abiding individuals to give the impression of malfeasance – or even erroneously admit to it.

A happy postscript to this story: A week later the border agent at the Quebec/Vermont line welcomed me back to the U.S. with a couple of perfunctory questions and a quick peek in the trunk.

He didn’t see the boxes of Cuban cigars tucked in the spare tire well (kidding).

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