The worst day of our trip so far – entering Canada

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.

Until now.

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.

Brief background:

  • 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.

55 thoughts on “The worst day of our trip so far – entering Canada

  1. Just came across this account of your experience while I was searching for current information on bringing bear spray into Canada as I prepare to travel (July 2022). The nasty border guard with whom you had to deal reminds me of a very similar experience when I departed Alaska after retiring from my career in the summer of 2008. Same exact attitude in that case… in fact it was almost as though I was reading about the same person. I was traveling alone, and the agent asked if I had anything to declare besides camping gear, like weapons or alcohol. At that moment it seemed like a routine question, and I was a little distracted, so I simply started to tick off a list of things that were in the van, including ‘camping gear’. The agent instantly went into hot headed mode and barked at me “I said BESIDES camping gear!!!” I kept my cool, not wanting to be denied entry, but was thinking, ‘what a power tripper and a moron.’ And she continued speaking to me in this way for the rest of the encounter. I had done absolutely nothing wrong, nor had I failed to declare anything. I drove into Canada feeling both angry and mortified at the treatment. It seems that these kind of people are everywhere – certainly here in the U.S. – and fortunately nearly all border agents I’ve dealt with before or since have been pleasant and professional. I’m sorry to read that your Canada Day experience went so awry.


    1. Thank you, Michael, for your note. I agree that it’s so disappointing to run across people like this, but, as you said, fortunately, most all the border agents we’ve encountered before and since have been pleasant and professional. I hope our blogging about this will help others avoid such a distressing experience. Happy trails to you!


  2. Smallrvlifestyle December 4, 2019 — 8:26 am

    Earlier this year I was going to Mexico with a bunch of other full-timers. We were told we need to get rid of our sprays, tasors and guns before the border crossing. This can be a pain because we full-time RVers generally don’t have a secure place to leave these possessions behind. We need to find a solution.


    1. So agree! Maybe border stations could contract with a third party to provide a bank of lockers nearby for a small fee?


  3. When I went to Mexico earlier this year I was told that we have to get rid of pepper sprays, tasers and guns before border crossing. It can be a pain because we full-time RVers have to find a secure place where we can leave these possessions before our trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is. And if you forget to remove one, here’s hoping you don’t get fined $500!


  4. “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?”

    The answer to that question is easy, Il Douche…erp, sry, Trump. What goes around, comes around.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Qu’est-qui se passe avec le Canada??!?
    We had a major hassle at the border north of Canton, NY a few years ago. We drove into Canada, mostly for the opportunity to flash our passports (I mean, we wanted to justify bringing them along on our trip!) Then, no more than five yards into Canada, we turned around to drive back into the U.S. Big mistake!
    Our car and luggage were searched, we were questioned repeatedly by stone-faced (humorless) border agents who couldn’t understand why we would drive over the border just to turn around. We felt like criminals.
    In the end, no fine and we drove back south, ruing the turn-around trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very weird. We figured it was some sort of sorry retaliation for Trump’s treatment of Canada, an anti-Texas thing, or a young border agent on a power trip – or all three. What a pain!


  6. Oh my. Last trip to Italy I failed to write the date of our travel IN INK on the Eurail Pass
    Diary and the conductor on the train charged us 100 Euros. Then I got robbed on the metro
    in Rome, a couple of hours later. And then a lovely man guided us to a wonderful restaurant
    and sent us a bottle of prosecco. Travel. We lay ourselves open to any damn thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true. One must learn to roll with the punches! There is the bad, cancelled out by the good.


  7. Duncan MacEachern July 8, 2018 — 9:17 pm

    Sounds like she was the “Barney Fife” of Canadian border agents in Calais/Saint Stephen R.F.D.
    I’ve traveled through that crossing and recall it being a “not much action” border crossing so you can rest assured you and G will be the talk in the “Border Agent bar” for weeks to come.
    Glad to hear you enjoyed Cape Breton and our family Inn, safe travels!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Duncan. She was probably more Col. Klink from Hogan’s Heroes barking orders (but not so lovable). 😖 With her as the exception, we loved this part of the world. Thank you for the hospitality!


  8. Outrageous. So glad you are appealing despite the hassle. The worst experience we ever had with immigration anywhere in the world was in Canada. But it was nothing like your experience. Hope it does not spoil your time in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Madeleine! We had a delightful three-hour bike ride along the western shore of Cape Breton and are heading off this morning to see the Alexander Graham Bell museum. So we’re back in track….


  9. Cecilia Boone July 4, 2018 — 5:08 pm

    Proof positive that there are jerks everywhere. It’s hard to imagine anyone being totally immune to the natural charm that both of you bring any situation. It’s karmic justice that you were “reimbursed” for your trouble.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cecilia, for the kind words. They’ve lifted our spirits. And today we had a lovely three-hour bike ride along the western shore of Cape Breton. Beautiful views. Life is good again….


  10. Not exactly a silver lining, but am thinking you’ll never again forget to look in the door compartment. Now wondering if there’s $627 somewhere in my car?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If I find $627, I will split it with you – promise!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ll hold you to that! But I won’t be holding my breath…. 🤷‍♀️


  11. Keven and Georges,

    So sorry to hear about your experience in St. Stephen; I still get nervous crossing the Canadian/US border even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong–at least not that I am aware of. Reminds me of a time I was stopped on a reservation in Arizona with my brother-in-law and fined for not having a permit for being on the reservation, despite being told we only needed one for all the occupants of the vehicle by the clerk where we bought our one permit. Luckily, after purchasing an additional one the reservation judge heard my later appeal and revoked the $200 fine. May your appeal succeed as well. I certainly hope your experience doesn’t sour you on Canada as it is truly a great place to visit with some wonderful scenery and friendly people.

    It was great meeting you both on Campobello; I’ll be following your journal with great interest as you progress.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, David. Great to hear from you! We so enjoyed meeting you, too, and wished we had more time together. Please do let us know whenever you’re in Dallas next year: We’d be delighted to host you for dinner in our home. G would be cooking, so I can promise a good culinary experience. 🙋‍♀️


  12. I recommend that you really search your vehicle and trailer high and low before re-entering Les États Désunis and ensure they are free of any of your usual contraband, like poutine leftovers, you miscreants…nevermind the amateurs up North, they have nothing on DHS’s finest, especially with that accented Hercule Poirot driver of yours!
    BTW need a good bilingual lawyer?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can bet we’ll re-search both vehicles! It’s a little scary tho because we’d done that – literally – many times prior to this experience and never found the packet of cards/money we tucked away so far under the seat before we left home. (Or the pepper spray.) So even if we search we might miss something. But surely all has been found now – I can’t imagine anything these two could have missed. But who knows. Yes, here’s hoping you’ll take our call if we need help. 🙋‍♀️


  13. That’s outrageous. I wonder if there’s heightened indignities at the border because of our new trade war with Canada. Florida orange juice is one of the new weapons in this war. I also think of all the Canadians who winter here, though we had a chill in the air this year around their desire to visit. I can’t imagine we would put them through anything like that over a can of pepper spray. Outrageous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. Hard to tell how much of it was political. Felt like somebody following “procedure” to the extreme and abandoning all common sense. Somebody who’d lost perspective with regard to the impact of their actions.


  14. This is what happens when we let criminals cross our borders freely.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Should have told her you were seeking asylum.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great story we read it at dinner to friends. I have confidence that you will get your $ back. Glad you’re both back on the road and not sitting in a cell. Drive safe. H&M

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, guys! Yes, we’re thankful not to be in a cell. You’re more confident of the appeal than I, but here’s hoping you’re right. Will keep you posted….. Hope all is well with you! Such fond memories of our time together….


  17. Evelyn Miller July 3, 2018 — 5:59 pm

    Ugh! Wow!! It’s hard to more eloquently respond. Please let us know how the appeal goes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Evelyn! Yes, we will update this post with the outcome of the appeal – which I filed by email this morning.


  18. You never want to be the low-hanging fruit. It was just your time for bad luck. And at least it was countered-balanced with the handbag full of cash. You will have to let us know how the appeal turns out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there was indeed a silver lining. Thanks for the note. And yes, I’ll be sure to update this post with the outcome of our appeal….


  19. I am so happy there was at least a bit of a silver lining. We have a family member who got a DUI in the states and cannot even visit Canada with other family members for 10 years. She knew an unsuspecting prospective Canada visitor who was turned back at the border so at least she did not find out the hard way. This sort of thing happens to people all the time who have to interface with governments and those who do not have the resources have a hard time climbing out of the hole it puts them in. The rule is supposed to be a deterrent. But if you don’t know about it, that purpose is not really met.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m so thankful we have the means to pay the fine and recoup our car. This is an example of government run amok, of the dangers of allowing emotion-driven rules to trump common sense. Are we, with our second canister of pepper spray, really such a threat to national security as to justify the hour’s time of THREE border agents – not to mention those asked to review our case on appeal? I hardly think so. Meanwhile, real dangers lurk…..

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Sounds like the same she-bear agent our daughter ran into. Obviously enjoys that part of her job. Authority, not for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She did her job. But she clearly woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning!


  21. David Jackson (Bridge Buddy) July 3, 2018 — 2:25 pm

    So sorry to hear about your misfortune. We had a similar experience going to the Falls last year. They went through everything…fortunately, no pepper spray. When we arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night, I dropped Connie off at the door, went and found a parking spot, pulled out the luggage only to discover everything was still unzipped……clothes all over the parking lot, dark, no light, feeling around for socks, shoes, everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to hear…. Yes, we had a bit of that too. The border agent searching the Casita apparently forced the burner cover that G had specially rigged to fold out as an add-on countertop. The straight metal arm he’d added was bent in a 90-degree angle. That took some force! (And the release latch was pretty obvious on top.)


  22. We went on a bus tour last fall to Niagara Falls. We were in line for customs for what seemed like forever. In the end they did not make all of the luggage come off of the bus but most people were saying that it does not normally take that long to clear customs to see our northern neighbors.
    Consciously or not it probably has something to do with you coming from the U.S. and our current
    leader. I didn’t get the impression that our northern neighbors are too impressed with him. I am glad you ended up finding the misplaced bag of goods and hopefully the appeal will not be a hassle.
    Hoping the rest of your Canadian adventure goes well. Thank heavens none of G’s chef knives are considered weapons!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeegads! We never thought of that!


  23. A terrible ordeal but it sure makes good reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Interesting situation. Makes me think again about all those stories of people who bring guns through the TSA checkpoint in the airport.
    Weapons are weapons, and I suppose they all need to be treated equally by those tasked to protect us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, but $500 and a seven-year notation on our immigration file, given our clear lack of intent to deceive, history of frequent travel and spotless record? Seems like taking a sledgehammer to a gnat, no?


      1. Very heavy handed. Good luck on appeal.

        Liked by 1 person

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