“And upstairs you said you were a journalist, then a doctor and now you’re teaching?”
As I tried to explain I was again cut off by another barrage of questions, bringing back memories of my encounter with Nigerian policemen a year ago who could not understand how a doctor could also be a writer. Now I had complicated things even further by adding teaching to my string of impossible occupations.
My bearded friend changed tack “Have you ever been to the US?” he asked.
“Yes”, I reply “several times.”
“Whereabouts in the US he snaps, by now having thrown any semblance of courtesy to the winds
“New York, North Carolina, California, Nevada, Texas, I reel off the states I’ve visited, half hoping that by showing him how well travelled I am he will realize that I’m legit and no criminal. I mean if the notoriously fussy US Department of Homeland Security allows me to roam through their country unchecked, I must be legit, no?
Apparently not. Bearded friend snaps his fingers for one of his minions, to whom he throws my passport with a barked “Run that through the computer for criminal checks in California, Texas and New York” Another minion is despatched clutching my other documents to find out what work permits are required for teaching in Canada.
By this time though seething with rage, I maintain a cool and calm façade and ask calmly if this is customary for visitors to Canada. “Oh no is the reply- it’s just that you looked particularly nervous” That’s news to me- veteran of several immigration and customs checks that I am. Me, nervous! Well certainly after the grilling I got, that is going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean if you keep giving me a hard time at immigration, then I will become increasingly nervous and then be subjected to even more stringent checks. Looks like a lose-lose situation for me.
As these conversations are going on, bearded man has pulled on a pair of blue gloves and has proceeded to undo the results of my careful packing, leaving my personal items scattered all over his work top. I’m grateful that I have nothing to be embarrassed about, especially as I hadn’t planned on the contents of my suitcase being put on public display.
Finally bearded man announces, having conferred with his minions- “You do not need a work permit to teach inCanada, as your teaching session only lasts two hours” I refrain from responding “Why, thank you kind sir” and concentrate on stuffing my belongings back into my suitcase as I have now been ordered to do.
Having finally found nothing incriminating in my luggage or my documentation, bearded man in a now more conciliatory tone, tells me that I may now leave and proceeds to walk away.
“Excuse me” I call “I would like to make a formal complaint”
He is taken aback, then visibly angry “A complaint? a complaint? Well, my supervisor is over there”
“May I speak to her”, I ask sweetly
Of course, he swaggers off, returning with a smartly uniformed woman in tow. She approaches me and asks “Sir, can we go into the office?”
No is my answer. I’m tired, I’ve had a long flight and all I would like to do is get the address for the official complaints team and the head home to a bed.
But, sir she says, we might be able to resolve this here.
Perhaps I say but I have no inclination or desire to. I then add that as Canada is expecting nearly thirty thousand people for the AIDS conference over the next few days, it might be useful to re-evaluate their welcome strategy.
She explains that they have a duty to protect Canada’s borders and need to balance that against everything else.
I reply that as a public health doctor, I’m well aware of the need to balance protecting the public and respecting the individual, and that we still manage to do it without being rude or obnoxious. As she continues to ask whether we can resolve this matter here, she promises to speak to the officer, and I insist on getting an address for the complaints team. Finally seeing that I am not to be dissuaded, she hands me the address. As I leave the room, I can feel bearded man’s eyes boring into my back.
I walk out into the arrivals lounge, where my Canadian host is waiting. As he embraces me and welcomes me to Canada, I reflect on the difference between that warm hug and what I’ve just experienced.
Welcome to Toronto 2006!
Ike Anya is a Nigerian public health doctor, writer and occasional teacher currently living in the UK. He is currently in Toronto covering the XVI International AIDS Conference for Nigerians in America.