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Canada Customs Inquistions

The Globe and Mail

August 23, 2010


When Marie-Claude Lortie, a food critic for La Presse, returned home from a family trip to France and Italy, she told the customs officer she was carrying more bottles of wine than the limit of two per adult. She was expecting to be asked for the receipts and charged for the taxes. But instead of being treated like a law-abiding citizen, she and her whole family – her husband and three young exhausted children – were subjected to an aggressive search. Looking for the few bottles of Merlot and Sangiovese, the gloved officer rampaged through panties, stuffed animals and dirty jeans as if the family were guilty of illicit trafficking.

When Ms. Lortie wrote about this in La Presse, her inbox was flooded with e-mails from readers who’d suffered the same experience. Each time they declared something over the limit, their baggage would automatically go through what’s called “a secondary search.” Many readers confessed that, at some point, they stopped declaring anything and just tried their luck.

The same thing happened to me some years ago. When the customs officer asked whether I had any meat, I told him I was carrying a few tins of foie gras – in sealed metal cans, I specified. My card was instantly marked for the search, but I was luckier than Ms. Lortie. Since the waiting line was extremely long, a supervisor asked everyone what they were there for and, when I told him what I was carrying, he laughed and let me go.

Canada’s inquisitorial customs system – run by agents who have more power over peaceful citizens than police officers – takes the breath away. The police can’t search you without a warrant and can’t force you to answer questions without the presence of your lawyer. Customs officers can subject you to arbitrary physical searches and ask you all sorts of invasive questions. “What was the purpose of your trip?” “Were you visiting friends or staying in a hotel?” As a friend once quipped, “Going through customs is the only moment when a Canadian can imagine he lives in a police state.”

One of the e-mails Ms. Lortie received came from a customs officer. After defending the system, she asked Ms. Lortie: “Anyway, why did you have to buy so many bottles of wine?”

In countries run by authoritarian regimes, it’s no surprise when travellers are subjected to such intensive scrutiny; gouging visitors, after all, is a common practice. All countries have rules regarding what you bring in, but searches are selective and usually involve people suspected of carrying drugs or arms. I have travelled to countless foreign countries and have never been asked what I was carrying in my luggage.

North America is a free-trade zone. Our customs system is a relic from an era when Canada wanted to protect local industries from foreign competition. Nowadays, it has no other purpose than to generate extra revenue. It’s nothing but an arm of the Canadian tax collector.

Common sense calls for the abolition of limits to innocuous goods that ordinary citizens buy abroad. In 2005, a Senate committee suggested – to no avail – a limit of $2,000, including tobacco and alcohol, notwithstanding the duration of the trip. Such a measure would eliminate bureaucratic hassle and wouldn’t force honest citizens to lie for fear of being searched like potential criminals.

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to limit his government’s intrusion into Canadians’ lives, he should take a hard look at our customs system. It would certainly be better than tinkering with the census.

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