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Canadian border officials go to Red Alert over chocolate trafficking drama

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By Simon Davies

Canadian customs officials interrogated and strip searched a young visitor from Britain earlier this week after he admitted bringing chocolates across the border.

The 21 year old Oxford University student (who we’ll call Edward Smith, for the sake of anonymity) was traveling with the author of this blog from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Tuesday when he made the mistake of failing to declare on his customs form that he was carrying seven Maltesers across the border.

This was despite precise government advice that dairy products mean “cheese, milk, yoghurt and butter”, and thus by logical inference, chocolate.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, Maltesers are a confectionery product manufactured by Mars Incorporated. They consist of a roughly spherical malt honey flavoured centre, surrounded by milk chocolate.

The young Oxonian was unaware that these items might constitute dairy products, and are thus a controlled substance. This was despite precise government advice that dairy products mean “cheese, milk, yoghurt and butter”, and thus by logical inference, chocolate.

It’s not that chocolate – if indeed chocolate is included in the definition of “dairy products” – is banned. Far from it. You can bring in 20 kg of the stuff. You could argue – maybe irrationally – that Edward was a borderline case, given that seven Maltesers weigh a combined 14.679 grams or 0.073395 percent of the allowable amount, though you could equally argue that black is white, but I digress.

Having confessed this oversight to the border official, Edward was sternly lectured. Then, rather than taking the sensible route of asking him to simply throw the offending material into the nearest bin, the official told Edward to report to Canadian Customs on the way out of the airport. She wrote “CHOCOLATE” loudly on his form, as if to signal impending danger to Canada.

All this got me to thinking that if airlines coming into Canada are permitted to peddle chocolates, then surely one way around this drama would be to label all packaging with a customs declaration warning.

All this got me to musing that if airlines coming into Canada are permitted to peddle chocolates, then surely they should label all packaging with a customs declaration warning.

Then unfurled the second bizarre episode in this litany of oddities. There seemed to be no communication between border control and customs. Edward could have simply walked past Customs – they would have been none the wiser – but he dutifully reported to them. Big mistake.

Customs asked Edward whether I – as his traveling companion – had also been told to report to them. They didn’t ask me, they asked him – the suspect. When he said no, that was good enough for them and I was told to leave.

Hang on… they just let Mr Big go free! I had supplied Edward with the Maltesers and in fact had two small bags of them on my person. Now I was free to roam the streets trafficking my Maltesers to innocent Canadians.

I was not permitted to stay to support my friend in the impending grilling – Canadian Federal Privacy Act and all that. Canadian government officials always want you to know they are aware of the Federal Privacy Act. They usually tell you very loudly and repeatedly. The Federal Privacy Act – like the Data Protection Act in the UK – has become a device to deny information or assistance to the public.

To the casual observer, Customs in Halifax might give out every sign of being an indolent, overstaffed, underworked bunch of time-servers, but don’t you believe it. When confronted with the menace of chocolate trafficking they spring theatrically into action. Within minutes the officers were all over Edward, doubtless convinced that a person who would carry confectionary might also be an arms dealer. Or, more accurately, an arms dealer without a state licence under the Export and Import Permits Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. E-19) to deal arms.

The Federal Privacy Act – like the Data Protection act in the UK – has become a device to deny information or assistance to the public

By way of background, the Canadian border does not enjoy a reputation for human kindness. In 2007 – in what was one of the most shameful incidents in RCMP and border security history – Robert Dziekanski was tasered to death for a crime no greater than being confused and agitated. Mindful of this, and frightened as he was, Edward kept his cool.

Nor does the border agency enjoy a reputation for common sense. In a decision earlier this year, the Canadian International Trade Tribunal gave a severe slapping to the Canada Border Services Agency for indulging in a Kafkaesque farce over many years over a simple administrative error in the labelling of boxes of imported Cheetos. The signs were not good.

Still, all the border agencies have beautifully crafted Charters. The Canadian Border Services Agency proclaims its commitment to ensuring “respect and courtesy” and “Fair application of the law”

Oh, and privacy. Let’s not forget privacy.

I left the customs area and waited for Edward.

Half an hour… an hour… ninety minutes. By this time I was freaking out.

By way of background, the Canadian border does not enjoy a reputation for human kindness.

I asked a border cop for an assurance that Edward was OK, only to be loudly told “Federal Privacy Act – I cannot talk to you”. Then he added “But I can tell you the flight is not cleared”.

Well, I mean, talk about stating the obvious.

I informed the cop that I was merely asking for non-personal information and that he surely could at least give an assurance that Edward was alright, but he repeated “Federal Privacy Act” so the entire terminal could hear and then added even more loudly “SIR“. Saying “sir” so assertively is a prelude to trouble. In Canadian “SIR” means “back off”.

I then finally managed after nearly two hours to speak to the Superintendent of Customs – a fearsome lady with more insignias that a Formula One racing car – who told me in marvellously crafted tones of sarcasm that she couldn’t say anything to me because of the Federal Privacy Act.

It is a little known fact that although a course in the Federal Privacy Act is mandatory for all federal public servants, there are two possible related merit badges that officials can earn

It is a little known fact that although a course in the Federal Privacy Act is mandatory for all federal public servants, there are two possible related merit badges that officials can earn. One is in “FPA assertiveness” (you have to learn to say “Federal Privacy Act very loudly at anyone who dares ask for assistance) and a more prized “FPA condescension” badge, which qualifies you to make the enquirer feel humiliated and intimidated. The Superintendent of Customs clearly had a Level Three merit badge in FPA condescension. I think that might have been one of the insignias on her shoulder. It’s the one that resembles a big mouth with absolutely nothing of value emitting from it.

I told her I wanted to be with my friend because he would be scared and I perhaps could provide support and advice. She said no. I then asked that she tell Edward that I would be here for him when he was released. She gruffly replied “He can phone you when (if) he gets out”.

“He does have a phone doesn’t he… YOU have a phone don’t you?”

The Federal Privacy Act apparently prohibited any further attention to the matter, and no amount of insistence that I actually knew the Act made the slightest difference to the situation. Level Three merit badges are used against troublemakers like me.

How the system followed the Federal Privacy Act’s principles of purpose specification and proportionality by elevating a chocolate admission to a drugs swab is beyond me. It stretches “just cause” and “reasonable suspicion” to a level I could not have contemplated.

She did however crack at one point and admit Edward was in “secondary examination”. Secondary examination is one of those brilliantly meaningless terms that implies “special treatment”. Was he having a heart attack? Had he been turned away at the border? It was such inhumane disinterest that had laid the foundations for the killing of Robert Dziekanski. I waited in utter ignorance of the proceedings, but at least she did assure me that he would be informed of my presence.

Meanwhile, here was what was going on behind the scenes.

Having secured the chocolate admission, the officers did a full search of Edward’s possessions. Irritated at their continuing failure to find anything of interest they decided to do a swab procedure on his baggage. Edward’s profile and demeanour of a wholly innocent traveler was clearly evidence of his guilt – over something.

How the system followed the Federal Privacy Act’s principles of purpose specification and proportionality by elevating a chocolate admission to a drugs swab is beyond me. It stretches “just cause” and “reasonable suspicion” to a level I could not have contemplated.

In any event, they discovered traces of cocaine. Then the system went into hyperdrive.

“Traces of cocaine” might sound terrifying, but it is worth remembering that cocaine traces are found in ninety percent of US banknotes  and even in the air across several Italian cities As I write this blog I can be reasonably certain I have cocaine traces all over me. And I don’t even get invited to the sort of parties Edward gets invited to.

The officials microscopically inspected Edward’s belongings, then they told him to strip – piece by piece like some macabre pole dance – and minutely inspected all his clothes. Then they went through the contents of his computer. That in itself should set alarm bells ringing in the ears of anyone who cares about proportionality and just cause.

Still having discovered absolutely nothing of interest apart from the traces, they went medical.

Ordering him to part his buttock cheeks he was required to do a sort of weird Cossack dance in front of them, before having to perform various acts like lifting up his scrotum. You get the picture I’m sure.

In the end, there was nothing to be found. And in return they did not even offer an apology or an utterance of regret over what had happened.

The Superintendent did however tell Edward on his way out that I was waiting. What on earth would the Federal Privacy Act have to say about that!