Going to Canada? You may be detained at the border and interrogated. I was, last week. I was heading from Seattle to give a talk at the Vancouver Public Library. My detention provoked outrage across Canada, making national news. It has serious implications for the freedom of the press in North America.
I drove to the border with two colleagues. We showed our passports to the Canadian guard and answered standard questions about our purpose for entering Canada. No visas are necessary for U.S. citizens to enter.
The guard promptly told us to pull over, leave the car and enter the border crossing building.
What followed was a flagrant violation of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. A guard first demanded the notes for my talk. I was shocked. I explained that I speak extemporaneously. He would not back off. He demanded notes. I went out to the car and brought in a copy of my new book, a collection of my weekly columns called “Breaking the Sound Barrier.” I handed him a copy and said I start with the last column in it.
“I begin each talk with the story of Tommy Douglas,” I explained, “the late premier of Saskatchewan, father of Canada’s universal health care system.” Considered the greatest Canadian, Douglas happens to be actor Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather, but I didn’t get that far.
“What else?” the armed guard demanded as we stood in the Douglas border facility.
“I’ll be talking about global warming and the Copenhagen climate summit.”
“I’ll address the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“What else?” The interrogator was hand-writing notes, while another guard was typing at a computer terminal.
“Well, that’s about it.”
He looked at me skeptically. “Are you going to talk about the Olympics?” he asked.
I was puzzled. “Do you mean how President Obama recently traveled to Copenhagen to lobby for the Olympic Games to be held in Chicago?”
He shot back, “You didn’t get those. I am talking about the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.” Again, stunned, I said I wasn’t planning to.
The guard looked incredulous. “Are you telling me you aren’t going to be talking about the Olympics?” I repeatedly asserted that I was not.
Clearly not believing me, the guard and others combed through our car.
When I went out to check, he was on my colleague’s computer, poring through it.
Afterward, they pulled me in a back room and took my photo, then called in the others, one by one. Then they handed us back our passports with “control documents” stapled inside. The forms said we had to leave Canada within two days and had to check in with their border agency upon leaving. We went to the car—and discovered that they had rifled through our belongings and our papers and had gone into at least two of our three laptops. We raced to the event, where people had been told about our detention. We were 90 minutes late, but the room remained packed, the crowd incensed at their government.
It was then that I started learning about what was going on. The crackdown is widespread, it turns out. David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told me, “We have a billion dollars being spent on security here; protesters and activists have been identified as the No. 1 security threat to the Olympic Games ... we have new city bylaws that restrict the content of people’s signs.” According to critics, the police can raid your home if you place an anti-Olympic sign in your window. There are concerns that homeless people may be swept from Vancouver, about how much public funding the Games are receiving while vital social services are financially starved. Anti-Olympic activists—and their family and friends—are being followed, detained and questioned.
Our detention and interrogation were not only a violation of freedom of the press but also a violation of the public’s right to know. Because if journalists feel there are things they can’t report on, that they’ll be detained, that they’ll be arrested or interrogated; this is a threat to the free flow of information. And that’s the public’s loss, an Olympic loss for democracy.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.