Monday, November 24, 2008

Et Tu, Canada?

Greetings from the Porter lounge at the Island airport in Toronto. I'm grabbing the first flight out to Ottawa in order to make my class today. (So if any of my students are reading this, you'd better show up!)

When I was living in the USA in the aftermath of 911, one of the unique perspectives granted me was the blatant discriminatory treatment given to travelers of my skin colour. It was a relief to return to Canada where such practices are rarer, or at least not as obvious.

Indeed, it's a mantra among many of we hued folk never to take a flight through the USA if we can avoid it, in fear of the humiliating disrespect shown by customs and immigration troglodytes.

Yesterday's return to Toronto, via Trinidad, from Guyana was a bit eye-opening and disappointing. During our 20 minute layover in Trinidad, I and my 5 White compatriots had to walk from one section of the airport to another. Within a span of less than 5 minutes of this walk, I (and only I) was singled out for a "random" security search TWICE.

Once at the gate, there was a youngish Black woman screaming at the top of her lungs, complaining about her multiple "random" searches, as well.

Well, that was Trinidad, right? Maybe some dude matched my description. Or maybe someone was having a little fun. Who knows. Surely, a more serious and advanced nation like Canada would be fairer.

Hmmm. During our departure from Toronto 2 weeks ago, I (and only I) was singled out for another "random" search. At that time, I actually complained, and miraculously the security dude (another abashed brown guy) apologized to me and, in a moment of fascinating brown solidarity, decided to take the next man in line instead. He happened to be a member of our
party, a white dude. But had I not voiced my displeasure, it would have been me... again.

Upon arrival to Toronto last night, we were met by an extra barrage of passport control officers right off the plane. (I think the Trinidad flight is known as a drug gateway). My White compatriots were waved through without incident. But I, holding up my Canadian passport, was stopped and was asked, "Are you Canadian? What are you doing here?"

Because, as we all know, only White people can be Canadian, and only Canadians are White. Maybe she assumed my passport was a forgery.

After we passed customs, we went to wait for our bags. There was another line of thugs in uniform there. Again, my White friends walked right through, but I was taken aside and interrogated.

"Where do you live?"
"What do you do?"
"What are you doing here?"

You would think the Canadian passport and the answer, "I'm a professor at the University of Ottawa. I teach global health and epidemiology and I'm returning from a huminatarian medical mission in Guyana with my colleagues, those fine looking young doctors and nurses over there", would warrant a pass. But no, more menial and frankly irrelevant questions like, "Where were you born? " arose.

Miraculously, I was not selected for a deeper search of my possessions. But I had already identified and set aside my bags from the group possesions, in full preparation for that eventuality.

Sadly, this is not my first enounter with what appears to be racial profiling at Canadian airports. The practice appears to be accelerating.

I have lived in this country since I was 2 years old and have been a citizen for 3 decades. I have paid a shitload of tax dollars to this country. I speak idiomatic, accent-free Canadian English, demonstrably better than many native-born Canadians, and am functional in our other official language. I am a 41 year old University professor who does not dress outlandishly. I have no criminal record. I sit on several corporate Boards of Directors and am a visible, active member of Canadian democratic society. Through my business activities, I have employed fellow Canadians and have contributed to the growth and health of our economy. I have proudly worn the maple leaf as a representative of my country abroad, as a participant in official Canadian projects and as an honoured guest of foreign nations. In the media of Guyana, the nation of my birth, I am referred to as "Canadian", not "Guyanese". I have given much to this country, arguably more than others of my generation, and I have been vocally grateful for the bounty that this country has given me.

Moreover, yesterday I was returning from a humanitarian mission in the name of Canada, an activity that brings further distinction and honour to this nation.

What more must I do to be recognized as Canadian? And what of those non-White Canadians less publicly active than me? What must they do?

Yes, customs agents are universally dickish, and I suspect they are selected for their dour personas. But I suspect more that they are indoctrinated into their paranoia by an official training programme. I would really love to observe that programme sometime.

I think it's about time they started selecting their targets based on behaviour, rather than skin colour.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

A Shimmy In Trini

Damn! This is my second attempt at this post. The previous version was deleted when the power went out. Trust me, it was much better written ;-)

About 2 hours ago, I was unceremoniously thrown from my chair in my hotel room, as an earthquake registering 6 on the Richter scale struck Trinidad. Items fell from my shelves, and power and phone lines went down, as the world shook for 15-20 seconds. I quickly gathered my phone, wallet, water and a bag of bananas and began the hour long hike into downtown Port of Spain. I neglected to bring my passport, though, which might be buried under the rubble of the hotel by now!

As I left, I noticed that the hotel was indeed still intact, but all the staff were huddled outside pointing to stress areas on the building and shouting unintelligibly. Thanks for checking on your guests, fellas.

Despite the earthquake, Trinidad has been great. Sadly, I've not had time to call all the people I'd intended to. A full schedule and a nasty head cold will do that to you.

Last night I met a cab driver who, I swear, was my age. Seems he's actually SIXTY years old! Either he is remarkably well preserved, or I am ageing much faster than I intended. No comment on which option is the more likely.

Also, this week I met up with my old friend, dramatist extraordinaire Paloma Mohamed (pictured here). I first met Paloma 6 years ago when we were both winners of the Guyana Prize, along with David Dabydeen. Today, a collage of photos of "famous" Guyanese artists hangs in the showroom below me, remarkably featuring the images of, among many others, Paloma, myself and the great Eddy Grant. (They are missing Shakira Caine and Dave Baksh, of course.)

When I tapped Paloma on the shoulder, she spun around and exclaimed, "Ray?! Oh my God, we've both put on weight!"

At least Paloma has an excuse: she just had a baby. What's my excuse?

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