David Rovics Banished! Too Dangerous for Canada

Share this post...

Submit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn
Banned from Canada
by David Rovics
Dear folks in Canada; I have been banned from entering Canada for the next year by Canadian authorities, as of April 25th.  I thought I'd shoot off some initial thoughts on the subject since many people are curious, and since I think it's pretty outrageous behavior on the part of the Canadian government.
 
I made many trips to Canada throughout the 1990's and was waved through every time, as far as I recall.  Having a US passport generally makes international travel embarrassingly easy (as with other passports of First World countries).  And still up to this day, at border after border around the world, the agent will usually ask me how long I'm staying, I respond, and my passport is stamped and I'm through.  I walk past the room where other people are being taken aside for questioning, and it's always full of darker- skinned people from somewhere in the world where crossing borders is usually difficult or impossible.  But with my US passport it's generally a breeze.


Going into Occupied Palestine in 2005, the Israeli intelligence officer asked me why I had just been in Lebanon and a few other questions, and after five minutes or so of that I was let through.  My Palestinian travel companions were detained for five hours and eventually let in, even though they were both US citizens, so obviously having a US passport isn't magic for everyone in every situation...  But aside from my experiences entering Canada, that five minutes at the Jordan River terminal was the biggest hassle I ever had crossing an international border (including coming into the US, which for me has always been a matter of a stamp on the passport and a "hope you had a good trip, welcome home" from the "Homeland Security" agent).
 
After the WTO protests in Seattle, at which thousands of Canadians joined tens of thousands of US citizens and others from around the world to protest and partially shut down these meetings of the global corporate elite, everything changed for me.  As I understand it, the US and Canada signed some kind of law that has them sharing intelligence and using the same kinds of rules for people crossing their borders.  As I recall, the US was pressuring Canada to make their rules like the US rules, and as usual, the Canadian government rolled over and barked as instructed by their southern neighbor.  I'm not a legal researcher here, but as I recall, that law was passed in early 2001 in time for the FTAA protests in Quebec City.
 
That was my first negative experience with Canadian immigration authorities.  I was traveling with a friend from Germany.  We had heard that everybody who said they were going to the protests were being turned away at the border.  I'm not sure if those rumors were exactly true, but what was abundantly clear at the border was that the Canadian authorities were acting different than usual.
 
My friend and I were interrogated separately for two hours and our vehicle thoroughly searched.  For some reason after two hours we were let through.  I had the feeling that one of the border agents was a progressive sympathizer.  Other agents seemed to be expressing quiet disgust with him that he was letting us through, but he let us through.  During the time we were being questioned, everybody else nearby was being turned back to the US.  The border agents were using the technique of asking the same questions repeatedly, hoping to get more information by doing so I suppose.  One group of four young men from upstate New York eventually got flustered and tired of answering the same questions over and over, and were ostensibly turned away for refusing to answer questions.  From experiences since then, it seems they usually like to turn people away for something other than the real reason they're turning people away.  (They were turning people away because they were going to attend the FTAA protests, clearly.)
 
After that experience it became a hit or miss kind of thing, crossing the Canadian border.  My Canadian friends and fellow activists have had similar problems crossing the other way since that time period especially.  With the rise of the global justice movement in Europe, too, border security became much more intense, too, but only during times of major international protests.  Within the EU there are usually essentially no borders, once you're in, you just drive across national borders as you'd drive from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia.  During big protests since the rise of the global justice movement, there are suddenly border crossings to go through, and often, to be turned back from.
 
But at the same time, my impression is that the European authorities do not share the same intelligence database as the US authorities.  My impression (and my understanding of international agreements between the US and Canada) is that the US and Canada share everything.  Either way, I got on the radar of the Canadian authorities in 2001 and I have been on it ever since.  Crossing the Canadian border used to be almost as easy as it usually still is within Europe, but since 2001 I get waved through occasionally, but more often, if they look up my name in their computers, I get trouble.  Usually they ask me questions for an hour or two, search my bags and my vehicle if I'm driving across, using dogs to search for drugs.  They ask me about all the other troubles I've had crossing the border, and treat me with obvious, though polite, suspicion (except for the occasional progressive sympathizer working for immigration).
 
After being questioned and searched I'm usually let through.  Other times I haven't been quite so lucky.  In some years I've crossed into Canada maybe 8 or 10 times in one year.  Most of my life I've lived within a day's drive of the border, and for many years I've had good friends in Canada and visited them fairly often, so I've got a pretty large sample of border-crossing experiences to draw from.
 
In 2002, in the days leading up to the G8 protests in Alberta, I was turned away at the border with Montana.  Everybody at the crossing was being stopped and searched during that week -- grandma and grandpa in their RV, Blackfeet people who live on both sides of the border and normally cross easily, everybody.  Most of the time I was in a room with a nice man who worked for immigration, so I didn't notice how many other people were turned away, but it was clear going in that everybody was being stopped and searched.  The nice man working for immigration was a musician, and we talked about music and bonded.  He said they'd have to search my vehicle for drugs and weapons and such and then I'd be on my way if they didn't find anything.  They didn't find anything, other than some literature that the searchers found suspicious because of the words "direct action."
 
But what really seemed to be the thing was the piece of paper that came out of their computer system -- the "direct action" literature (some random piece of paper from some anarchists in Wisconsin I had inadvertently picked up and brought with me) was the excuse.
 
The nice man was nervous, evidently freaked out by the inconsistencies between his view of what Canada was supposed to be about, and what it actually is about.  He said emphatically a few times, "Canada is not a police state."  (His tone of voice said, "Canada is not supposed to be a police state.")  I don't think he was supposed to show me the paper.  Hands shaking, he did.  It was specifically about me.  There were no particular allegations of prior wrongdoing, but the paper said specifically that David Rovics was an activist from the US who would probably be trying to cross the border to go to the G8 protests and that he was up to no good and should be run through the ringer.  It didn't specifically say I should be turned away, but that seemed to be the indicated policy decision.  The man told me he could lose his job if he let me across.  Reluctantly, he told me to go back to the US, and further informed me that there would be an all-points warning put out about me, so that if I tried to cross the border anywhere else in the next eight days I would be arrested and detained until the G8 protests were over.
 
In the following few years I was once given 48 hours to leave Canada -- I was on my way from the US to Europe, switching planes in Toronto, but also spending a couple days with friends there on the way.  (It was a simple case of Air Canada having the cheapest tickets, and I figured I'd stop and visit friends if I was going to go through Toronto anyway.)  Another time I was turned away from the border, but told that I could enter if I came without my guitar.  I left my vehicle and guitar behind in Blaine, Washington and a friend from Vancouver picked me up.
 
That time, and apparently last week, the concern was that I was going to Canada to play a gig without a work permit.  Last week they started by thoroughly searching my car and my bag.  They threatened to strip-search me but deciding against it.  They had a nice doggie sniff me and my bag.  Like millions of amiable people on both sides of the border, I'm a regular user of marijuana, so the dog got very excited about the aroma of my bag and my car.  Canadian law is pretty lax about pot, so the customs folks didn't seem to care much about it either way, apparently more interested in larger quantities of harder drugs (which were not to be found) than the trace elements the dog found.
 
For the first time in my experience, the immigration folks actually looked on the web and found out that I was supposed to be playing at the Railway Club that night.  As always, I told then I was going to visit friends.  This, obviously, was a half-truth or lie, depending.  Like the vast majority of musicians who travel between countries in North America and Europe to play gigs, I have never had a work permit.  This was the first time I was really caught red-handed at the border with a gig they found on the web, and this was the ostensible excuse for being banned from Canada for one year.
 
On the Exclusion Order I was given, however, it doesn't seem to say anything about that.  It says I was turned away due to a section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and Regulations of 2001.  Specifically "paragraph 20(1)(B) of the act that every foreign national ... who seeks to enter or remain in Canada must establish to become a temporary resident, that they hold the visa or other document required under the regulations and will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for their stay."
 
I'm not a lawyer, but this seems weird, given that I could easily prove that I had plans to fly to Europe a few days later, and they never asked me to prove that I intended to leave Canada soon.  (In the past they have often asked when I'm leaving and asked me to prove it.)  I was kept waiting for close to three hours, and during the time I was sitting there lots of people were brought in for questioning and searching, and almost all of them were people of color, mostly from east or south Asia.  One legal US resident originally from Mexico was turned away from the border, everybody else was eventually let through.
 
In any case, I think it's worth saying a little more about going to other countries to play gigs, and what's involved.  Perhaps it's partly because I'm existing below the radar in other countries, but it's been my experience that most countries have an institutionalized disinterest in people going to their country from the US to play a few gigs.  They ask how long you're staying and they don't care that you have a guitar on your back, and then they stamp your passport with no further questions asked.
 
I don't know how long it's been this way or what the reasoning is, but my impression is most countries don't really care about minor transgressions like playing a gig without a work permit.  They presumably are aware that most musicians are living economically marginal existences and that the financial and logistical realities of getting a work permit just to play a couple of gigs makes it unlikely that musicians are generally traveling with work permits, aside from the big stars and such.  Or maybe they just don't think it's worth their time and resources to go after such small fry.  In any case, they generally don't bother.
 
I know of other musicians who have been turned away from borders over the years, turned away from the UK, from Ireland, from Canada, and certainly from the US.  Most of the musicians from First World countries that I know, though, including most of the openly leftwing musicians I know from Europe and North America, have no problem crossing borders.  I would venture to say that whether my problems with the Canadian border are related to my bad luck, or the sharing of intelligence data with US authorities, or me being political, or me being a musician without a work permit, it's political.
 
When musicians are being turned away from the border because they don't have a work permit to play a couple of gigs, while multinational corporations operate more freely across borders than ever before in the disastrous age of NAFTA, this is political.  When activists with no record of violent crime are being turned away from the border because they have activist literature in their vehicle, this is political.  And if excuses are being made up in order to turn someone away from the border because agents have received a directive from the CIA or CSIS or whoever to do so, this is political.  And if someone is being turned away from the border for some unknown and unknowable combination of these reasons, this is political.
 
I don't believe in borders and I think they should all be abolished, especially the borders of large, rich countries that are underpopulated and where the government has a policy of economically and militarily screwing the Third World, as Canada most definitely does.  But if the Canadian authorities want to turn people away from their border because they have a violent criminal history, there are lots of war criminals in the US who should definitely be turned away.  But instead, they are invited to speak to the parliament and help them make their laws and foreign policies.  If the Canadian government wants to turn people away for taking away the jobs of Canadian workers, there are plenty of US-based multinationals who are directly responsible for the sorry state of much of the Canadian economy -- just go visit the ex-factory towns in Ontario or Nova Scotia if you don't know what I'm talking about, and then go visit the squalid Maquiladoras in Tijuana where much of that industry has moved to.
 
When the great musician and activist Paul Robeson had his US passport taken away so thart he couldn't perform and agitate in other countries, Canadian activists organized a concert on the border in Blaine, Washington.  Robeson stood in Blaine and sang for people on the Canadian side in Douglas.  I thought about that concert as I drove to the border, through the park that separates these two countries.  These two countries with so much in common.  These two nations both built upon the slaughter of the native populations and the systematic theft of their lives, lands and livelihoods.  These two illegitimate nations so full of settlers and thieves.  Up to this so-called border.
 
Some folks in Vancouver have written me about organizing a concert like that one, on the border, sometime this summer.  I've recently moved to Portland, Oregon, and I'll be in the area from mid-June to mid-July and again for the month of September.  I'm looking forward to the event if it comes together.  In the scheme of things, being banned from Canada for a year is not a crippling blow for me, and in terms of me personally it's definitely not worth spending your time trying to do anything about this, unless you see it as a useful thing in the course of a campaign against Canadian policies, against borders in general, or whatever, in which case feel free.  I do, however, look forward to the prospect of a concert on the border, and I hope to see some of you there.
 
To add one more thought, there have been suggestions that this one-year ban may be related to my support for the Palestinian struggle.  I have no idea whether this is or isn't the case.  I was heading towards Vancouver to do a show at the the Railway Club and for a reception at the Palestinian Cultural Centre.  The immigration people only mentioned the gig at the Railway Club.  Of course, there could very well be legitimacy to this speculation, I just don't know.  (Hard to know these things when the government doesn't tell you...)
 
Yours,
David Rovics

Share this post...

Submit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn