Updated Dec. 6, 2018 at the end to reflect outcome of our appeal.
The day started out innocently enough. We woke to the light of the early sunrise and distant sound of the fog horn off the Bay of Fundy.
We spent the day before on Campobello Island, just across the bridge from Lubec, Maine, had “Tea with Eleanor,” toured the Roosevelt summer cottage, hiked to Friar’s Head, happened upon a retired Dallasite who used to date the best friend of the wife of my former boss. Before that, we’d visited West Quoddy State Park – the eastern-most point in the United States – and spent a glorious four days cycling, hiking and just generally gawking at the views from Maine’s magnificent Acadia National Park.
It was Canada Day and we were on a high, about to begin a whole new leg of our yearlong journey – several weeks in Canada, home to many of our friends and family members and a country we’ve long admired.
We had no hint of the trouble to come as we pulled up to the immigration booth in St. Stephen, just across the Saint Croix River Reservoir from Calais, Maine and handed the woman with a badge our passports.
Name? Where are you from? Where are you headed? Where will you be staying? Do you have any pets with you?
Pretty standard questions. Pretty standard answers.
Have you any alcohol? Yes.
Any firearms or weapons? No. Oh wait, we do have some bear spray. Does that count?
Yes, she said, it does.Please park over there so we can search your car and trailer.
No problem; it all still felt pretty standard.
We unlocked the trailer and opened the Xterra’s back hatch. I cautioned the woman with the badge, and the man with a badge who joined her for the searches, about the low entry into the trailer, which makes it easy to bump your head, particularly on the way out, if you don’t duck.
We handed her the bear spray.
It actually was a canister of pepper spray we’d purchased in Florida in April. The man at the Walmart sporting goods department sold it to me as bear spray after we’d been warned about bears at several campgrounds across the South.
The searches commenced. Georges and I stood around chatting and people watching for a good half-hour as the two agents opened every compartment and unzipped every bag. We were bemused by the thoroughness, but we weren’t in a hurry so it seemed no big deal. I began to daydream, wondering if border agents groan when trailers like ours come across the bridge because it means all this extra searching work, often, it would seem, as in cases like ours, for nothing.
Suddenly from the other side of the Xterra, the woman with a badge barked: What’s this: You have a second pepper spray. You failed to declare this. Why did you not declare this?
What do you mean a second pepper spray?
She marched around the car and shoved in our direction a small blue canister she’d pulled from deep within the compartment of the driver’s side door. It was the pepper spray we’d packed in Dallas in February – the one we spent most of March looking for across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and couldn’t find. The one we finally replaced by purchasing the spray in Florida in April.
I’m sorry, I said. We didn’t know we had that pepper spray. The only reason we bought the one in Florida – the one we declared – was because we didn’t think we had any other.
It’s your responsibility to know what’s in your possession in your car. This is your car, right? You had a chance to declare your weapons. You didn’t declare that you have two canisters of pepper spray.
You can have them both, I offered, innocent of the full weight of our transgression. We didn’t declare it because we didn’t know we had it.
This is a weapon. It’s illegal in Canada. You didn’t declare it. You have committed a crime. The penalty for failure to declare an illegal weapon is vehicle impoundment.
The fee for release of your vehicle is $500.
Five hundred dollars? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought (but didn’t dare express).
The day suddenly darkened. My heart pounded, it pounded so hard it had to be pulsing outside of my chest. There was loud buzzing in my ears.
G and I sat down in shock, tried to catch our breath.
The man with a badge explained the details of the offense in French, as a courtesy to Georges and without the harsh glare that accompanied the English-language version. He also disclosed that this violation would stay on our record for seven years, subjecting us to extra searches every time we seek to enter Canada during that time, and that there is an appeals process we can exercise later if we choose to.
G caught his breath first. He suggested we turn around and skip the Canada portion of our tour – our friends and family will understand – to avoid the $500 fine and immigration file notation.
This is still happening, the woman with the badge intoned from behind the big counter.
You can turn around if you like; it doesn’t matter to us. But you misled a border-security agent. This is still happening – whether you go or stay.
I was still mostly in shock, feeling like a child who’d been sharply reprimanded by a parent, which is weird considering that we’re both considerably older than either of the border agents. If I’d had a tail it would have been so far between my legs I could have wiped my nose with it.
Finally I caught my breath. Don’t you think that $500 for failing to disclose something we didn’t realize we had is rather steep?
Not my call, said the steely one. You had a chance to declare this weapon and you didn’t. This is the penalty.
We asked to speak with a supervisor. The woman with the badge called somebody on the phone and we explained our predicament. The man on the other end was very polite, but unrelenting. The matter is out of this office’s jurisdiction, he explained. There is an appeals process online.
It took another half hour for the paperwork – forms to be completed, papers to be attached, signatures to be affixed. We paid by credit card.
Finally, we pulled away from the border station. Have a nice day, said the tyrant with the badge.
Yes, she actually said that.
We headed into suddenly-not-so-lovely New Brunswick.
Then the anger set in.
How could failure to declare a $10 canister of pepper spray possibly merit a $500 fine – and a seven-year flag on our immigration file? How can we possibly declare something we didn’t know we had? Clearly, we had no intent to deceive: We’d declared – at the very start of the entry process – the pepper spray we’d purchased in Florida.
In more than 30 years of travel in Canada and Mexico neither G nor I have ever had so much as a traffic ticket. And we’re the people Canada border security goes after? Did Canada suddenly run out of real criminals to pursue?
It took G about an hour on the road to get to the place he always gets to in situations like this: Oh well, it’s better than a broken leg…. (It’s one of the many reasons I love him.)
Yes, I said, but it’s so damn unfair. $500! Really? She seemed to take delight in nailing us for an oversight. Can you believe she told us to have a nice day? It’s the injustice of it all that’s so galling….
So this is Canada Day? Wonderful. Canada can take its Canada Day and shove it. You bet we’ll appeal. As soon as we find a decent WiFi.
Does Canada even have decent WiFi? Probably not; it’s too busy worrying about major threats to national security from people who fail to declare a $10 pepper spray canister they don’t know they have….
Clearly, I wasn’t at the better-than-a-broken-leg stage yet….
We tried to enjoy the scenery. Getting back in the car after stopping at a visitors center in Saint John, I noticed two cosmetic zipper bags poking out from under the passenger seat, bags the ruthless woman with the badge had pulled out to search and failed to replace properly.
I groused about this failure (“I’d like to fine her $500 for this oversight”) and displayed them both for G. One held our laundromat-stash of quarters. The other … well, I couldn’t exactly remember what was in it … so I unzipped it and peered inside….
OMG! This brightly colored hand-sized bag held our second credit card, second national park senior pass, our Good Sam Club card, G’s business cards and $627 in cash that we’d misplaced back in March sometime and been searching for ever since.
G has torn apart the car and the Casita at least once in every state in search of these things. I’ve emptied and re-emptied my purses, backpacks and jacket pockets in similar searches. It was so frustrating – we could remember exactly the elastic tie that looped the packet of cards together but we couldn’t remember where we put the packet. G even spent part of his impromptu business trip to Dallas in May searching our home office for the items, in case we’d left them there – all to no avail.
It took a couple of minutes for the irony to sink in. The stony woman with the badge had actually found our missing $627…. She just charged a $500 finders fee.
So I guess we’re $127 ahead?
We’re still appealing.
Update Dec. 6, 2018: We received notice this week that the Canada Border Services Agency rejected our appeal.
- We filed an appeal online July 3. We acknowledged our error in failing to declare the second pepper spray, but requested that the penalty be reduced. We cited a lack of intent to deceive (given that we’d declared the spray we knew we had), noted that we didn’t realize we had the second spray and cited our 30-year record of traveling in Canada and Mexico without so much as a traffic ticket.
- The border agency accepted the appeal in a hard-copy letter dated July 18, forwarded to us in Ohio from Dallas. That acceptance included a copy of the agents’ reports about our border crossing experience, which contained several inaccurate statements about our demeanor (i.e. “avoiding eye contact,” etc.) and about the location of the pepper spray discovered by the agent. We immediately provided a brief hard-copy reply, correcting four misstatements of fact.
- In September we received a hard-copy notice dated Aug. 22, forwarded to us in Washington State from Dallas, containing a copy of the agent’s written denial of any misstatement of fact. (How I wish there’d been a camera on site!) We replied, again in brief, reiterating the points of inaccuracy.
- This week, forwarded to us in Tucson from Dallas, we received hard-copy notice, dated Nov. 16, of the agency’s rejection of our appeal. The decision upheld the impoundment of our vehicle as penalty for violating the Customs Act and the $500 fee charged for the return of the “seized conveyance.” It reiterated that we will continue to be subject to “routine secondary examinations upon entering Canada” for six years from the date of this offense.
Bottom line: The capricious action by a power-tripping border agent in an unaccountable government agency leaves a bitter taste. We are thankful for our many good and honorable Canadian friends who demonstrate daily that they are better than their government.