Sunday, June 20, 2010

Guilty until Proven Innocent

Two years ago when we went to Alaska, we crossed the Canadian border many times. The border crossings were a yawn. No one looked in the refrigerator to see what contraband fruit or meat we might have. A cursory glance at the passport, a question about guns, liquor and currency, and we were waved on our way. I remember crossing the border three times in a day in Hyder, Alaska, going from our Canadian camp to the river in Alaska to see bears fishing for salmon. The agent at the border didn't raise an eyebrow.
This time, even though we were only going to the island of Campobello, a tiny Canadian island with an international peace park commemorating Roosevelt’s summer home, a border crossing agent came on board and opened every cupboard. She remarked about my labeling system. On our return we got a shorter onboard inspection on the US side.

That night Carl and I laughed about labeling one of our storage cabinets “Contraband”, even though we were sure the agents might not see the humor. We joked as I cleaned the RV. We were crossing into Canada again, and I was cleaning to be ready for unexpected guests.

We approached the New Brunswick border with trepidation, hoping that we’d slide through this time. But once again we were asked to pull to the inspection station. We thought we knew the drill. The agent would come on board and open the cupboards and we would be off again.

An hour later, we were still detained. Carl and I were separated to answer questions about our criminal backgrounds. I was rattled. I felt guilty even though I have never been arrested. What was going on?

They kept our passports. Two Canadian agents wearing gloves and bullet proof vests combed through every compartment inside and outside the RV while we waited on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, other RV's were waved through without inspection. We began to wonder if we were on a terrorist no fly list.

Finally, the search was complete and our passports returned. We quizzed the agents. Why were two geezers in an RV searched two days in a row? We got the party line. They inspect a lot of vehicles for contraband every day at random. I guess I didn’t really expect more of an answer than that, but I wanted one.

Tonight I feel vulnerable. This was different than finding an inspection tag in my checked luggage after an airplane flight. This time, a non-American looked into my eyes and then came into my home to see if I was breaking a law, a law whose rules and consequences I wasn't familiar with. A stranger rustled through my underwear and looked in every drawer while I watched from outside my home.

I wanted to cry out “I have my rights” even though I know there are valid reasons that Customs has the right to inspect whatever they want. I had to prove my innocence.  

Post Script:  We've been chatting with the tourist information centers about our experience since arriving in New Brunswick.  As it turns out, random commando searches are common and frustrating on both sides of the border here in the Northeast.  In addition to well known contraband, they are looking for potatoes.  Spud missiles, anyone?

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