23 March 2008

A day at the Vancouver International Airport

I was disappointed, but not surprised to hear that my sister, planning to meet a 10 am flight, arrived at the Vancouver International Airport yesterday at 9:30 am, yet left well after 2 pm.

Lost luggage? No, that's understandable. A long customs line? Also not the source of the delay.

She was there to meet her boyfriend's flight from Seoul (after a layover in Japan as I understand) only to spend hours wringing her hands before herself being interrogated by our own customs officers.

Her boyfriend is a South Korean citizen she dated for the better part of a year while she taught English to kindergarten students. Both were interested in continuing the relationship, so he planned to come to Canada for an extended visit.

On his arrival in Vancouver, to his great misfortune, his English was not strong enough to communicate to the customs officers' satisfaction and he had lost my sister's cell phone number. Frustratingly, he was able to see her through one-way glass, yet not allowed to collect his bags and cross over with everyone else meeting friends and family. Instead, he was treated to 4 hours of detention and interrogation at the hands of cruel, arrogant, power-tripping customs officials.

Does this sound familiar? My disappointment is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that this happened just months after the infamous taser incident which senselessly ended the life of Robert Dziekanski at the very same spot in the same Vancouver airport. His encounter with the RCMP happened approximately 10 hours after he landed in Canada - after 15 hours of travel.
Ironically, I remember seeing the memorial of candles and flowers to Mr. Dziekanski a little over a month after his death when I met my sister's flight back from South Korea in late November of last year.

In Mr. Dziekanski's case, it sounds like basic indifference to his needs and vulnerable state was the primary problem. While my sister's boyfriend was treated like a criminal suspect, questioned repeatedly until he began preparing himself for the prospect of heading directly back to Korea.

The resulting state of mind is very similar though: trapped - hopeless - lost. It begs the question, what will it take to convince the Vancouver Airport Authority and Canada Border Services that visitors to Canada deserve better treatment?

I understand having to detain someone if there are unanswered questions, but what would the worst case scenario be if the officers were just a bit more polite? A would-be smuggler doesn't get intimidated fast enough?

It's not often that I feel ashamed to be Canadian, but yesterday was one of those rare moments and I worry that it won't be the last.