Today’s post was written by someone who – other than being an American citizen — has nothing to do with homeland security. She lives in the northwest US.
My 12 year old wanted to visit a foreign country this summer. We figured the easiest way to do it would be to visit Canada for the weekend. We would just dip our toes into the country by visiting Victoria for two days. A mere two-hour ferry ride from Anacortes, Washington to Sydney, British Columbia would put us in an entirely different country! But not that different really. After all it’s only Canada. It’s just up the road. You just get in the car and go. Right?
We knew things had changed since 9/11. We could no longer cross the border to Canada by answering questions only slightly more rigorous than “do you have any fresh fruit or vegetables?” like they ask at the California border. We knew a passport was involved.
I had a passport, but my 12 year old did not. His expired when he was 5 and we had not renewed it.
We almost didn’t get to go because getting a passport for our 12 year old would take most of the rest of the summer. But then, joy! We read that children under the age of 16 could travel to Canada with only a birth certificate and it didn’t even have to be the original. A copy would do. My son and I could take our trip after all.
We made reservations, battled our way through the Seattle traffic and arrived in Anacortes well before the ferry to Sydney was to depart. We got in line and inched along.
At last the ticket booth came into view. A man in a day-glo green vest asked us where we were headed. We told him.
“Do you have a letter for the boy?” he asked.
“A letter? I have his birth certificate,” I replied.
“You need a letter from his dad saying it’s okay for you take your son to Canada,” he said. “If you don’t have it you might have trouble on the Canadian side.”
“What does the letter need to say? Is there a form? Are there guidelines that tell me what I must include in the letter?” I asked.
We were three cars away from the ticket agent who would be asking for the letter we didn’t have.
“You just need a note from your husband saying it’s okay.”
This letter – the one that would determine if we could visit Canada or not was sounding less official than the permission slips I sign for my son’s school field trips and more like an excuse I write to the teacher when he’s tardy. Apparently any old slip of paper would do.
Over in the passenger seat my 12 year old was freaking out.
“They aren’t going to let me into Canada!” “What will they do with me?” “Am I breaking the law?”
I suggested writing a letter on behalf of my husband and signing his name. I picked up a pen and piece of paper to begin.
“But that’s forgery!” my son yelled as he grabbed the pen from my hand. “You can’t do that! I won’t let you! It’s against the law! I respect my country and my government!”
He was really worked up.
“Even if Dad says it’s okay?” I asked.
“No! It’s breaking government laws and I won’t let you do that!” he replied.
Then he accused me: “Are you some sort of hippie? Are you going to paint the van all flowery and sit there and be like, ‘hey man, we don’t have to respect the system?’”
By now it was our turn to face the person who was going to demand the letter.
With great trepidation, but trying to maintain a cheerful attitude while my son was by now afraid to speak, we approached the agent. I gave her my passport and my son’s birth certificate.
“Do you have a letter from his dad saying it’s okay for you to take him to Canada?”
“Well, I’ll let you go, but you might have trouble when you get to Canada. I really shouldn’t do this,” she said as she waved us on. I thanked her and drove on to the ferry.
Did we just get away with something? Were we breaking the law? Was she saying it was okay for us to do that? It was all very confusing to my law-abiding, bureaucratically naive son.
But we were on the ferry, on our way to Canada and we couldn’t turn back. Would the Canadians let us in the country without the letter? If they didn’t would they send us back to the US? Would they put us in some sort of holding cell? Would they put us in jail? Canadian jail? Border patrol jail? Were we doomed to ride back and forth on the ferry forever? We did not know. Our border crossing had taken a dark turn.
We arrived in Sydney and drove off the ferry to join the line of cars waiting to be granted entry into Canada. Ours was the last car off the boat.
We worried our way through the line of cars. By now my husband had texted me a letter. Would that do? We had no idea, but it was our turn. My son and I both tried to be cool.
The Canadian was extremely friendly. She was downright sunny as she asked us for our documents. She asked for the letter and I gave her the phone. It had a picture of the letter from my husband.
“Will this do?” I asked.
She smiled and said she knew how it was when you realized you needed something at the last minute. She asked me my address and how long we’d be in Canada. Then she turned to my son.
“Why are you traveling without your dad?” she asked him.
“He’s in California looking at colleges with my older brother,” was my son’s reply.
Polite talk about older brothers going off to college ensued.
“Enjoy your visit,” she said. She waved us on. We were in!
She was nice, my son and I commented to each other as our worries faded and we turned our attention to being in Canada.
Driving along at 90 km/h wondering how much a $1.41 liter of gas really cost we started taking pictures and texting them to the other half of our family. Then it dawned on me. Just what did that text about international data and roaming charges I got from AT&T while we were on the ferry mean?
After the ordeal the letter caused, you can bet upon returning to the United States we made sure we a paper copy in our hand.
But when it came time to cross the border, none of the 3 border patrol people we faced were in the least bit interested in seeing our letter. I handed it to the first US border patrol person and she literally gave it back to me saying, “I don’t need this.”
REALLY? But I worked so hard to make sure I had it! By now I was pretty darned proud of my letter. But no matter, she looked at our other documents and waved us on telling us to get in lane 8 to wait for the ferry.
Lane 8 was a holding pen.
We were surrounded by fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the fence people were freely going about their business boating and otherwise enjoying the sunny weather. Granted there was a gift shop in the holding pen, but it was clear if we wanted out, we’d have to talk to yet another authority and show our documents. It was starting to feel un-American.
We boarded the ferry, made one stop in Friday Harbor where passengers disembarked but did not board, then sailed on the Anacortes, Washington looking forward to being back in the United States of America. We drove off the boat and found ourselves in line once again. Are we going to have to talk to yet another official?
The border official asked us for our “papers.” That sounded un-American as well. But he was dead serious and appeared to be wearing a bulletproof vest, so we were not about to quibble.
I gave him my passport, my son’s birth certificate and the letter.
You will not be surprised to learn that he did not want to see the letter either. He glanced at our other documents, and asked, “What were you doin’ in Canada?”
“Visiting Victoria,” I answered.
“How long were you there?” he asked.
“Three days,” I replied.
“Did you buy anything?” he asked.
I responded with the truth. “Some cereal and a purse. Do you want to see them?”
“No,” he said and waved us on.
My son and I thought my response was hilarious. Cereal and a purse! We giggled ourselves silly as we drove toward home.
But it wasn’t really that funny.
Crossing the border had made us nervous. And tense. Uneasy. And yes, even a little afraid.
But it was over now, so we felt free.
Free enough to laugh.