Sunday, March 04, 2007

My parents allowed me to go to the mall by myself the year I turned 13. One friend and I were able to spend 3 hours every other Saturday exploring the shops of our local mall. We got to know every shop in intimate detail - we spent a lot of time pretending to be rich and trying on things we could never afford. However, the new found freedom did not go to my head. If I did want to make any purchases, I had to call my Mom to discuss cost, practicality and durability.

One Saturday, my friend and I were exploring the makeup at the Shopper's Drug Mart. I looked through all the bins of mascara and eyeliner - finally settling on a tube of lip gloss. I made my purchase and my friend and I attempted to carry on.

I was stopped by security when I walked out of the store. A younger girl from the school (daughter of the doctor my mother loathingly referred to as "Dr. Itchy-Scratchy") reported to a staff member that she had seen me steal a pencil of eyeliner. Security stopped me there - in the hallway by Safeway - and searched me. I stood there defeated and (having been taught obedience) followed the instructions of the guard. Tears silently rolled down my cheek as I stood arms and legs apart. I cried throughout the search of my over-sized T-shirt, tapered jeans, slouch socks and white LA Gear runners.

When I was finally released, I broke down. Sobbing, I stood in the corridor encased in embarrassment and shame and guilt. I had done nothing wrong, but felt powerless and oddly convinced that I had offended. A friend of my mother's found me there sometime later and took me home. It was many weeks before I went back to the mall.

Tonight, that Saturday afternoon came back to haunt me. Tonight, when Mel and I came through customs, I was searched and humiliated and threatened. And once again, I was 13. Slightly better dressed and with more items to look through, but the same hopelessness and guilt flooded me.

I had gone through screening without problems, but Mel had been called to the security room for further investigation. I had gone ahead (taking larger steps than Mel, I travel a little quicker) and stopped when she called me. I turned after her and followed fearing they would take her to some hidden room and I would lose her. I stood at the entrance way and watched as a kind man helped her and finished her screening. Then, another guard appeared.

She was a stern-looking woman in her mid 40s. Her blond hair pulled back in a pony tail and her glasses set squarely on her face, she motioned me to come to her with a sharp, military-like movement of her hand. I smiled and explained my presence, that I was waiting for Mel. She dismissed me then and went to inspect the other officer talking to Mel. He showed her the ticket and returned to his job. She motioned for me again - sharp, commanding and hostile.

I walked to her because that was expected. I advised I had been cleared, thus there was no reason for her to do so again. She told me that by my being in the room, it gave her permission to search my luggage and my person if she so chose. And she did.

Going through all my luggage, she tore things apart and made piles of my purchases. She demanded receipts and I advised that since I do my banking online, I hadn't kept them. She began talking to me like a criminal - stating that she had the right to charge 40% tax on all items I had bought - not the sale price, but the original. She insinuated I had lied on my customs form and repeatedly asked if I wanted to change my statement of purchase total. I did not. She threatened me with "putting me on the system" which would prevent my movement into any other country for a minimum 7 years. She claimed I had drugs and weapons in my luggage and berated me for carrying a bag for Mel whose arm had been sore from the weight.

She was an angry woman who was looking to berate and belittle someone. She harped and scolded and challenged me the whole while she went through every intimate detail of my luggage. And she used my name in a condescending way that sounded as though she felt I was lying about that as well. When Mel was finished with her screening, the other officer said she could wait with me. My guard refused that and demanded Mel and the other guard carry on.

She got what she wanted. She wanted to break me and (after three nights of 4 hours sleep and too much stimuli) she did. I turned from her so she would not see my tears, but the crack in my voice gave it away. She finished what she had started and let me pack up my things with just a "warning". In silence, I gathered my things and made a hasty retreat. Four other male guards stood and watched in horror and regret, but did nothing to intervene.

It was not until I got outside that the dam burst. I leaned against the stone pillar and sobbed. Panic came in waves - followed with guilt and fear and washed away in hopelessness and grief. Mel wanted to console me, but I could not allow it. I knew if I did, I couldn't carry on - I would not have been able to hail a cab, get my car and drive another 2 hours back to Red Deer. I knew it would be hard on Mel, but I could not let that change anything. The first time people see me fall apart, they don't know how to handle it. How do you support someone who never admits she needs it - and in truth, rarely ever does?

My mind is still swimming with the hostility and aggression of the customs officer. I am resigned to the fact that I did nothing wrong but will do it differently the next time. I hope the woman finds something to change her heart and her anger, but I have to admit, if I see her again, the hostility and aggression will be mine. She marred an otherwise fantastic trip. By making me 13 again.


  1. I never understand how people can behave like that. I know that security has been increased between our two countries, but harrassing citizens in such a manner is inexcusable, and that was harrassment. I'm sorry that happened to you.

  2. awww! that totally blows, I had to take off my pants in one of those rooms once because I still had a security tag on the seam of the I feel for you, truly.

  3. I used to do a lot of travel back and forth across the border for work. Even post 9/11 the Canadian Customs people are far bigger pricks than the American ones. I never got more than a quick check of my carry-on and a "Have a nice day" from American Customs, but the Canadians always seem to like to completly take apart a suitcase or 2 and play 20 questions about everything in it.

    Sorry she messed up an otherwise great trip for you.

  4. I read this out loud to Chris and he voiced what I'd been thinking: "So, has she filed a formal complaint?" Because that clearly crosses the line into harassment, especially since you'd been already cleared. Would it be Canada Customs?

  5. Oh, and Chris has a co-worker who used to be a customs officer. He's going to ask him what kinds of regulations they have, and stuff like that.

    Because that's awful and makes us both angry for you.

  6. That sounds awful. A little power can go to people's heads. Luckily for you, the truth is on your side.

  7. God Bron, I remember this like it was yesterday. She was an absolutely horrible woman. I went over the incident so many times in my mind. I was shaking with anger waiting for you.

    I know you were trying to not break down futher. If you had let me hug you I would've definitely made it much worse.

    If you remember the reason you were carrying that one bag for me was because my arthritis in my wrist was excruciating that day. You were being so kind to me.

    I'm still sorry I called you back to let you know I was going to be searched. I'm still shocked that the other officers just stood there and watched. She obviously took it out on you for some reason. Never do I wish horrible things to happen to people, but I hope her boyfriend/girlfriend beats her up occasionally.


  8. How horrible that someone should force you to feel guilty when you have done absolutely nothing wrong. Terrible bitch. She will come back in her next life as a dung beetle.

  9. I'm a bit late here, but let me just say:

    May all her teeth fall out but one - and may that one need a root canal.

  10. Man that story sucks. Twice in a life is two times to many.


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