A Canadian guide to dealing with border agents

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Please, God, don’t let them find the dog lingerie.

I made this silent prayer a while back as an official of the Canada Border Services Agency looked through the contents of my suitcase at Vancouver International Airport. I could already hear his bemused comment: “Dog lingerie, eh? Well, whatever floats your boat, buddy.”

I should explain that I am not in the habit of travelling with a supply of canine nightwear. Hearing that I live in Tokyo, a friend of a friend had asked me that I purchase some nighties for her pedigree poodles from a Japanese company that is famed for such products. The firm doesn’t ship overseas.

The CBSA guy was examining the contents of my suitcase because I had refused to answer some questions one of his colleagues had asked me when I presented my passport and customs declaration.

Now, the folks at the CBSA process thousands of people who arrive at Canada’s borders, ports and airports every day. It can’t be fun trying to deal with cranky, often jet-lagged travellers who may not be able to function in either of Canada’s two official languages and whose documentation may consist only of a fax from the A-OK No. 1 Best English Academy and Car Rental Service.

So why does the CBSA add to the workload of its staff by having them ask expat Canadian citizens (there are some 2.8 million of us, by the way) nosy and sometimes silly questions?

These interrogations usually begin with, “What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?” I reply by noting that I am a Canadian citizen and that Vancouver is my hometown. What “reason” do I need to visit my place of birth? If I’m in a sarcastic mood (not recommended, but it feels good at the time), I answer: “To interact with some of the fine people who work at the CBSA.”

When the question is phrased, “What brings you to Vancouver,” I try ever so hard not to answer: “A big airplane.” I admit that I once succumbed to that temptation, to the acute embarrassment of my teenage son.

Then there is, “What do you do in Tokyo?” If I am in a co-operative mood, I say that I work as a journalist and broadcaster. If I’m not, I reply with something just within the realm of plausibility, such as “I appraise stamp collections.”

I know that CBSA staff are less interested in the content of people’s replies than their body language and tone of voice. Beads of sweat forming on a nervous brow or a sudden catch in the throat could be a clue that someone who looks like an innocent student is in fact a renegade philatelist trying to avoid paying customs duties on a collection of rare first-day covers from the Pitcairn Islands.

When I was transporting dog lingerie across the Pacific, I foolishly let my inner anarchist off the leash. The CBSA official began asking me the standard list of silly questions. I asked him whether I was legally obligated to answer them. He said I wasn’t.

So my answer to all his questions was the same: “None of your business.” What a brave, resounding blow for freedom, I thought smugly. My inquisitor had a different take on it. And so I found myself taken to a room where I watched a man wearing black plastic gloves rifle through the contents of my suitcase.

The deity smiled on me that day: The canine haute couture was not found. I don’t think it was dutiable, but I wasn’t looking forward to explaining why I was in possession of bedroom fashions for Fido.

I would like to suggest some alternate questions that the folks at the Vancouver CBSA office can ask expatriate Canadian citizens attempting to enter the country:

1. “How about them Canucks, eh?” (To be used only during the hockey season, obviously.)

2. “Guess you’ve heard about our hot real estate market, eh?” (“Eh” can be used as an interrogative particle to create a sense of Canuckian camaraderie – but take care not to lay it on too thickly.)

3. “We just can’t keep you away, can we?”

4. “Bet you can hardly wait for your first brewskie, eh?”

5. “What do you miss most about your home and native land? Poutine? B.C. bud?”

6. “What’s your favourite Neil Young/Joni Mitchell/Loverboy/Justin Bieber song?”

7. “Is it true that no one outside Canada knows what a tuque is?”

8. “Have you ever made love in a canoe?”

9. “Have you smelled a Canadian $100 bill lately?”

10. “Do you think it’s un-Canadian of me to ask all these silly questions when you’re dead-tired from your flight and barely aware of where and who you are?”

As a postscript, I should note that overinquisitive CBSA officials are a minor irritant compared with the issue of expat Canadians being denied the ability to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed right to vote in federal elections. That rant will have to wait for another day.

Steve McClure lives in Tokyo.