“Allowed to Leave Canada”

On July 2, 2005 I took a flight from Chicago to western Canada where I was scheduled to give a lecture to a group of teachers at the University of Calgary.  Clearing customs, I was directed to Immigration where a growing line of anxious or impatient arrivals — mostly dark-skinned, mostly young, I the glaring exception — awaited further examination. 

This has become a common-place for me whenever I travel to Canada — I’m always diverted and delayed, always questioned about my anticipated length of stay and the nature of my business, always double-checked.  Whenever I’ve asked why I’m being subjected to this special treatment, the reply has always been the same: “Just a routine check.”

It’s struck me as odd, though, since I’ve never warranted even a second look entering Beijing or Frankfurt, Cape Town or Santiago.  Why Canada?  Why me?  I was never able to get beyond the bureaucratic stonewall.  Until now.

I stood before Immigration Officer 1767 — a man in his mid-thirties with a stubble of beard, slumping shoulders and intense eyes — as he peered at his computer screen.  Shortly, he rose and excused himself in order to “look some things up” in a separate back room.  When he returned he had several pages of what looked like computer print-out in his hands.  He took his seat in the booth, looked up at me, and added, “What’s Students for a Democratic Society?”

I explained that SDS was a student group devoted to peace and participatory democracy.  “Are you still a member?” he asked, and, having never technically resigned, I replied that I was.

“You have quite an arrest record,” he went on, and I explained that, yes, I did, but every arrest was linked to a political demonstration, and that all of my encounters resulted merely in misdemeanors like “disturbing the peace” or “mob action,” vague charges designed to cover a multitude of affirmative acts or sins as the case may be.  “Almost all,” he corrected.  “There’s a conviction here in 1969 for assault with a deadly weapon — a felony.”

It couldn’t be true, I said.  I don’t have any felony convictions whatsoever, in 1969 or any other time.  “My records say otherwise,” he said.  It’s a mistake, I replied.  He consulted a large book of regulations and said, “That conviction would bring a ten-year prison term in Canada.  I can’t admit you.”

I began to beg and lobby, pointing out the Canadian stamps in my passport granting me entry as recently as March, showing him the publicity for my lecture, appealing to what I hoped might be his sense of pity for a sixty-year-old professor stranded at Immigration.  “Well. . . ,” he began tentatively and I sensed a chink.  Yes?  Yes?  “I could call my supervisor at home, and if he agrees I could grant you temporary residence. . . .” Terrific!  “And that would cost you a couple hundred dollars.”  What?

This sounded a lot like extortion to me.  I wasn’t going to pay a bribe or a gift to get into Canada.  “Alright,” he said.  “You won’t be allowed into Canada today.”  He handed me a form called “Allowed to Leave Canada” and asked me to sign under, “I hereby voluntarily withdraw my application to enter Canada. . . .”  I, of course, refused.

After an hour in a holding area, he fetched me and escorted me back through security and US customs, where agents from both sides of the border shared a collegial laugh.  As we made our way to the next plane to the US, officer 1767 assured me: “I’m not denying entry into Canada on the basis of your membership in Students for a Democratic Society.” I thought of the chorus from Leonard Cohen’s “The Patriot”: “Ah the wind, the wind is blowing.”

I was first on the plane, seen to my seat by my escort, and my passport returned.  The times they are a’changing

William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom (Beacon) and Teaching the Personal and the Political (Teachers College Press).