One of the issues that any international traveller on a Nigerian passport has to deal with is immigration and customs- obtaining visas, gaining entrance into a new country, clearing customs- these are almost invariably processes fraught with complications. Up until now I have regarded the Canadians as fairly exemplary- when I went to obtain my visa two years ago at their High Commission in London, I was struck by the courtesy and humanity that imbued the interaction of the staff with the applicants that they dealt with. I was particularly impressed by an incident where one of the senior officials moved among the applicants trying to get change for an elderly man of Asian heritage who did not have the correct change for his visa fees. In my experience, in other Western embassies, if you were unfortunate enough not to have the correct change, then you had to leave to go and find change, even if it meant losing your place in the queue or having to come back the next day. When it got to my turn, the officer who attended to me was pleasant and courteous and offered to give me a multiple entry visa for longer than I had requested, for as she put it, “I see that your current contract in the UK is for five years and I’m sure in that time, you’ll want to visit Canada again”.
She was indeed right, for yesterday, nearly two years after my first visit to Canada, I again found myself walking through immigrations at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. This time, I was in Canada for several reasons- I was to present a session on basic epidemiology at the pre-AIDS conference workshop for journalists organized by the US based National Press Foundation; I was then to attend the 16th International AIDS Conference which I would be covering for the Nigerians In America website, to which I have for some years been a contributor to. Finally I hoped to spend a few days of holiday catching up with family friends in Canada.
As I walked off the plane after the eight-hour flight from London, there were many things on my mind, foremost of which was my forthcoming presentation, which I still had to put finishing touches to. The prospect of attempting to run through the basics of epidemiology in roughly an hour to a diverse group of international journalists was a fairly daunting one and as I mused on whether my presentation would fit the bill, I found myself at the row of glass boxes that housed the immigration officers- the first gauntlet that one had to run to gain entry into Canada. Thankfully, the queues were mercifully short and there were officials guiding passengers to the next available booth, and so I heaved a sigh of relief- so far, so good. I was soon ushered to a fresh-faced gentleman who inspected my customs form, asked why I was in Canada, and on hearing that I was attending the AIDS conference waved me through with an amiable “Enjoy your stay, sir!”
I put my documents back into my hand luggage, relaxed, and began to make my way to the luggage carousel to pick up my checked in suitcase, only to find my way blocked by a grim-faced bearded uniformed gentleman in blue. He asked to see my customs form and asked what had brought me to Canada. I again explained that I was here for the AIDS conference, not wanting to give a long-winded answer. He proceeded to ask what my occupation was, where I had flown from and where I lived. I explained that I was a public health physician, that I lived in the UK and that I had flown from London. He asked to see my passport and asked where the conference was holding. I replied that I was unsure of the exact venue but that the relevant documentation was in my hand luggage, and proceeded to extract it and hand over to him. On seeing the media accreditation pass for the conference, he asked why, I a doctor was in possession of a media pass. I explained that I was covering the conference for a website and he then asked where I was going to stay. I again explained that I was staying with a Canadian family friend who was coming to pick me up at the airport and showed him the e-mail confirming this. Apparently satisfied, he took my form from me and with a fluorescent blue marker pen wrote A2 on it and circled it.
Relieved, I walked down the escalator to the baggage hall and after a few minutes, picked up my suitcase from the carousel and headed for the exit. Just before the exit, there was another official at a desk, whose task was apparently to collect the customs forms from exiting passengers. Mimicking the passengers in the queue ahead of me, I handed her the form, only to be told “Oh no, sir, you need to go into the room on the left”. Heart sinking, at the prospect of having my luggage hand searched, I made my way into the room. Inside the fairly spacious room, were several customs officials standing at stations, hand searching the luggage of several other unfortunates like me. I moved confidently to the next available officer, only to be told that I needed to wait because an officer was coming to ask me more questions. I was directed to a row of seats where I sat meekly for nearly thirty minutes. As I noticed other passengers coming through, having their luggage searched, and moving on, I became increasingly despondent, and then angry. Had they forgotten about me, I wondered. Not wanting to raise a fuss, I sat quietly, trying to catch the eye of the officials, but to no avail. Finally, I stood up and walked to the desk and asked “Excuse me, is there a problem?”
“Oh no”, was the reply, “the officer you spoke to upstairs just wants to ask you a few questions.”
“Then why is it taking so long?” I retorted. “I’ve been sitting there watching other passengers come in, get searched and go, is there anything special in my case? I’m not a criminal, I have nothing to hide, or is it perhaps because I’m African?”
It was as if I’d dropped a bomb. “This is Canada”, I was told, “this does not work here, and besides do you know how I am treated when I go to other countries?” I bit back the retort that had sprung to my lips- what business of mine was it, how she, a Canadian customs official was treated in other countries?
“Ok, can you tell me how long it will be before I’m asked these few questions?”
No, was the answer and I was admonished not to repeat my inference of differential treatment on the basis of my origin. Never mind that in the thirty odd minutes that I’d been in the room, not a single Caucasian had come through this “special” room.
I went back to my seat, seething, and was soon rewarded by the appearance of my grim bearded friend from upstairs. Menacingly he asked “I hear you have been making certain comments to my colleagues?”
My response was simple- I had asked why I was being kept for so long and had wondered why.
“I hear you said it was because you’re black-this is Canada. We don’t do things like that here. Now I’m going to show you how we do things in Canada”
I sighed wearily, not wanting to be drawn into another futile conversation and placed my suitcase on the stand for searching, but my friend was not done yet,
“What did you say you were coming to do in Canada”, he fired?
I repeated that I was here to attend the AIDS conference and handed over all the documentation to him. Spotting the invitation from the National Press Foundation, he barked
“This talks about teaching…you didn’t say anything about teaching- did you tell the High Commission in London that you were going to be teaching in Canada?”
was about to reply that I was only teaching at a pre-conference workshop, which I considered to be part of normal activities at any conference, when he cut me off again..