Canadian border guards demand inbound journalist's mobile phone contacts, prohibit writing while in-country

Henry sez, "Jacobin editor and In These Times correspondent Bhaskar Sunkara got a going over from Canadian border cops who accused him of being 'political' for knowing about health insurance, and of being a 'bigtime journalist embedded in the student movement,' then demanded his phone and details of his contacts."

The other agent, now done examining my roll of dental floss, flipped through the copy of In These Times, and saw my name on the masthead. So you’re a big time journalist? You must be embedded in the student movement, right?

This was the surprise and, to be honest, it was kind of refreshing. For the first few years of my adult life, I’ve dealt with extra screenings at airports and crossings, mostly outside the United States, particularly in the European countries I’ve visited. It was due to my race. My first hour in Canada was like that. Now I was being harassed because I was a leftist going to possibly talk to people in a country terrified of a militant left-wing movement. And I was a “known journalist.” I couldn’t wait to brag to my friends.

They asked me if I had two identities. No, of course not. How come you have all these medical cards that say “Swamy Sunkara” on them? I tried to explain the United States’ employer-based health care system and how young people under a certain age were under their parent’s coverage. You know a lot about this, are you political?

The irony was striking. The system I was explaining was a stark reminder of America’s weak social safety net. It was foreign to the Canadian border officials, who were admittedly not too bright, but it was one of the reasons why so many were marching in the streets of Montreal – to halt the neoliberal offensive. The border officials didn’t want me to join the protesters, but they also didn’t want my health care.

Reading Lolita in Montreal: Canada Doesn’t Want More Journalists (Thanks, Henry!)


  1. So did he write that while in Canada? I kind of hope so, because I *seriously* doubt the authority of the border guards to tell him not to.

    I thought Canada was doing better than that…

    1. We’ve elected a majority government headed by a neoconservative who considers Canada a second-rate socialist nation and is attempting to remake us into a third-rate low-tax resource extraction zone. I’m not at all surprised our internal police forces are adopting the same attitudes as our elected officials who publicly equate environmentalism and socialism with terrorism and communism. 

      I’m hoping for a pushback – recent census data shows Canadians are growing older en masse, and therefore more conservative, but I think the media reports glossed over the fact that that also means all those old conservatives will soon be dead. Ha ha.

    2.  Nope. During the Olympics our guards hassled journalists about potentially reporting negatively on the games. They also have a long history of going after certain kinds of adult entertainment.

  2. what a clusterfuck!
    There’s irony in here somewhere but I haven’t seen it properly attributed yet.

  3. Wack-job said: “I have that government is an institution of violence because its only tool is force.   Can you disprove this or not?   What fallacies have i used?”

    Since you asked, the fallacies committed in this thread so far are as follows:

    1) Begging the Question
    2) Shifting the burden of proof
    3) False dilemma
    4) Guilt by association
    5) Generalization
    6) False choices
    7) Red herring
    8) Slippery Slope
    9) Special pleading
    10) Straw Man

    There may be more…I lost track.

    1. I would like to see some papal fallacy. Is it the pope fallible these days? I forget.

  4.  My problem with this argument is that libertarians and republicans seem to think that their freedom has nothing to do with that of their fellows. In their perfect world, no one would pay taxes, but it would be “every man for himself.”

    They don’t seem to understand the benefit of us, as a community, looking out for each other. When we band together to pay for education, our community becomes better able to support high paying jobs and children have a way to rise out of poverty. (Which lead to a more prosperous, more free life.) When we work together to pay for public transportation, we have less congestion on our streets. (Which gives us more freedom because  we aren’t stuck in traffic as long.) When we each chip in to pay for our elderly and our sick, it makes us more free because we don’t have to worry as much about our future and the future of those we love.

    Sure, the system is far from perfect. Sure, we lose some income to support that system. But I say the price is worth it.

    BT Wintersebb, you sound as is you have thought a lot about the problems of government, but have you REALLY thought about what would happen if you dismantled the system? Have you thought about the repercussions of abandoning the poor, the sick and the elderly? You think crime is bad now. What happens when people need to resort to theft to feed their families? What happens to the children of families too poor to pay for education? We have government because together we are stronger. The calls to dismantle government will only make us poorer and weaker.

    1. Libitarians do not understand how perfectly they functions as cogs in the rich man’s machine.  It must be some variant of Stockholm Syndrome. 

    2.  The Guardian’s George Monbiot made an excellent article about the skewed notion of libertarianism and freedom.

    3.  The big problem with libertarians IMHO is that they focus all of their attention on the power that the government has on individuals while ignoring the power other peoples and organizations have. They seem to believe that if the government didn’t restrict anybody’s freedoms, then nobody else would either.

      That’s very naive, there are plenty of peoplethat can cause you trouble, with or without the use of direct force. For example, an employee’s relationship with his employer isn’t equal at all. If the employer has 1000 employees, he can tell one of them “If you don’t like your work conditions, then quit.” If the employee quit, he loses 100% of his income, while the employer loses 0.1% of his productivity. Of course the employer has a LOT more leverage in this situation. Especially if you rip the social net to shreds in the name of lower taxes.

      Sadly, the world we live in tends to accumulate power and wealth in the hands of the already powerful and wealthy. The role of the government should be to make the situation fairer (although it has failed doing so lately). Removing power from the government means that the powerful are free to use their power to rule over the weak. At least  we vote for the government.

  5. Almost every day, I hear another news story about the abuse of power by some level of Canadian police services (municipal, provincial, RCMP, border). Way more than I ever did when I live in the US, although that might just be because I’ve become more attuned to this issue as I’ve gotten older. The most prominent recent examples include RCMP sexual harassment cases, Taser deaths, and overstepping of already dubious rules at the G20 summit in Toronto and the student protests in Quebec. 

  6. [Quit feeding the troll, people.]

    The conclusion to this little interrogation was also interesting – they denied him a visa, but gave him a  3-day visitor’s pass. WTF?

    Some things that might have alarmed them: 
    He is toward the top of the masthead of a major left-wing magazine, a staff writer listed just below the real editors and above the “contributing editors”.

    His profile on the magazine’s website says:  ” He blogs at Uprising, the magazine’s blog covering movements for social and economic justice.”

    His last article before he went to Canada was a repost of Nate Lavey’s video  “Red Square Revolt: Quebec Students on Strike”.  Because this video has much more in-depth reporting than is published elsewhere, and  none of the fake balance in usual news stories, it would probably seem like a promotional video to the border guards.

    His last real article was titled: “Can Labor Strike Back? / America’s unions must find a way to circumvent restrictive federal laws”, and it concludes: “…the return of mass demonstrations offers a new climate for labor. Now is the perfect time to remember how to fight.”

    The only thing I can figure that would make sense of the  border guards’ decision to let him through for a limited time would be that they passed on his phone number and perhaps other information from his phone such as call lists and contacts to a law-enforcement or intelligence agency so that that agency could monitor his contacts in Canada. They may also be hoping he commits an immigration violation which would give them clear cover for denying him entry in the future.

  7. It may surprise you to learn but this is pretty much the same treatment you can expect going from Canada to the United States, the same sorts of questions, the whisking to be interviewed, etc. Sometimes the “dumb act” is a way to see if you could explain yourself or if your story unravels. But younger agents are occasionally a bit clueless on subjects they aren’t familiar with so just be polite and patient until their supervisor helps them out.

    Also, there’s usually restrictions if you’re planning on working in another country. I think that’s the issue the border guards were concerned about when they asked this journalist not to write: He wasn’t entering on a work visa. Canada’s border guards are a subsidiary of the equivalent of America’s IRS. They were probably concerned with taxes more than anything.

  8. Welp, all of Spammytroll’s comments were removed while I was in mid-reply. It seems a shame to waste it, so:

    [re: “… I am an anarchy-capitalist…”]

    You mean ‘anarcho-capitalist’, but what you really mean is ‘pretentious tit’.

    You are completely ideologically fixated and unable to think outside or about the narrow perception you’ve fallen in love with. You deride others for not falling in line with your arguments, and assume we lack your clarity. Alas, it is not clarity that you suffer an over-abundance of. It is obsession, arrogance, pride and zeal.

    Ever wonder what goes on in the heads of conspiracy theorists, that keeps them spiraling around crazy loci of fruit-loopery? How they can be so clearly intelligent and foolish at the same time? Wonder harder.

    The people on this thread arguing with you, and mocking you? Perhaps you should consider the possibility that they have a point. Perhaps you should consider that being constantly in attack mode renders you weak and inflexible. 

    I hope that you’re young, because that means you have a chance to grow out of this phase and feel embarrassed about it later.

  9. Such type of security officials can be found in any country and in any part of the world but it is strange to me to read that such type of incidents can happen  in developed countries.

  10. That’s the typical oversimplification right wing lonesome cowboy “libertarians” from the US try to frame the political Left in. From where I stand, the role of the State is to use our tax payer money in order to safeguard our interests. Universal healthcare, free education at all levels, public transportation and sustainable management of natural resources. These commitments do not entitle the State to spy on or restrain its citizens’ elemental freedoms, which is pretty much the only job the neo-liberal mantra (aka “libertarianism” in the US) wants the government apparatus to undertake.

  11. “A right comes at no cost” Then you have no rights worth talking about. All rights come at a cost: financial, moral, and occasionally a cost in life to defend them.

  12. * Negroes* in the South?  Oh brother, I’m off this one.
    Severe case of “Michigan militia” syndrome, bordering on sociopathy.
    Seek professional help.

  13. Finding it funny that you’re using the direct proceeds of socialism to write your screeds.  If you don’t want to be a part of the system, please feel free to retire to your private island while we keep using the roads, bridges, schools and intarwebz that only exist because of properly applied taxes.

    Sigh.  Successful troll is successful, I guess.

  14. Semantic bollocks.  Tax is giving back for the opportunities given to you.  Don’t like it?  Move somewhere else and see how far you get without the infrastructure you feel so entitled to.

    More semantics.  What’s a right?  There are no objective rights.  You have no right to speak or breath or even think.  You pay for those with the food you eat to provide you with the energy you expend doing those tasks.  The physical law of energy conservation breaks your childish definition of “right.”

    There is the freedom to and the freedom from.  They are interconnected and codependent.  I can’t be free to start a business so long as others are free to attack it and loot my spoils.  While I am free from their attacks, I am free to do as I wish.  The balance is to allow man to do as they wish so long as they do not cause undue duress on others without just cause.  Again, note the balance, and I’d hope you recognize the source, although I somehow doubt you will without google.

    Life is an instrument of violence who’s only tool to do as it will is to force action on the environment it inhabits.  Welcome to the universe.

  15. A right comes at no cost?  Do you know what it costs to protect freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure?  Not just from the government, but from other citizens?!

    No cost my ass!  As for “freedoms and prosperity of the individual” – double BS.  Bill gates didn’t get rich on his own chops, he got rich in a country that financed the university he borrowed computer time on in high school and the teachers that almost certainly got financial aid in college and almost certainly had reasonable job prospects because of government mandated primary and secondary education.

    The researchers that developed the computer, the phone lines and the protocol stack he used to communicate with it were all funded by government research dollars.  

    Microsoft succeeded because of the government and judicial system that that enforced the laws and contracts that made it possible for his innovations to make him a fortune and turn into a defacto monopoly in the 90’s.  Without those things, he would have been ( with apologies to Malcolm Gladwell ) a lone genius, working in obscurity.

    Government is not an instrument of violence until the electorate allows it to become such.  We have allowed our governments to become unaccountable nests of vipers and we are paying the price BUT thrice ignorant statements like yours – and the world they would lead to – would be every inch as bad… the thieves would just wear different suits, and their right to manipulate, abuse and steal would be enshrined as “economic freedom”

  16.  Education is never free but studies show it it pays for itself, and more. When the US emphasised education and innovation it was at the front of the world in science and industry, because of that emphasis. Less emphasis now and not the front of science and industry.

    public transportation has been a trainw reck in the US mainly because once upon a time much of the country decided that cars were the best possible method of transport and everything should be designed around them.

    The safety of the state only required aggressive border patrols if your foraign policy means acting like the biggest asshole around to everybody. Belgium is safe as anywhere. I assume they must have an army, but getting detained at the border is usually no worse than getting detained at a toll booth.

    I’d rather have heavy taxes and know that if I want education, I have it, if I need surgery I have it, and so forth. The US is the only first world country where that’s not the case.

  17. On the topic of Norway, i ran into a Norwegian article about a guy with a interesting take on the notion of freedom found in certain classic documents.

    His interpretation seems to lean more towards freedom from coercion, not the neo-liberal interpretation of non-interference. Thing is that coercion can take many forms, including being coerced via lack of economic means. This allows someone to coerce the person lacking the means by dangling the promise of those means ahead of the person, as long as the coerced behave as the coercer wants him to.

    He claims tho that to remove coercion one need a strong state. I am unsure how to balance that with a non-coercive state tho.

  18. @facebook-100003723214069:disqus  “Only if you lack the ability to disprove what I am saying without resorting to fallacies or personal attacks”You haven’t said anything substantial to disprove. Your statements so far have been unsupported assertions which you may consider axiomatic but must be defended: you have indulged in the fallacies that you accuse others of resorting to. At risk of resorting to a personal attack I suggest you read this glorious poster and understand what a fallacy actually is (hint: it’s not something you disagree with) start you off, I’ll throw another, equivalent, axiom which you must shoot down before being taken seriously: “Property = Theft”. All property is defended only by the government, violence, intent to kill, oppression, no rice pudding blah blah blah

  19. @facebook-100003723214069:disqus  I demonstrated an assertion with equal weight to your “Tax = Theft” claim and you have ignored it.

    When your property rights are infringed by a marauding gang, are you going to duke it out yourself and die valiantly defending your land or are you going to do the sensible thing like everyone else and call the Police?Your right to bear arms is not at no cost to others it brings risk to everyone around you which is why the first step of civilisation is always to control weapons. When everyone has the right to bear arms and I have the ability to obtain better arms than you (my tank beats your shotgun and dogs), you lose. Worse, you die; your “property” is taken and your family raped and forced into slavery. This is what the Romans did to most of Europe and this cycle of violence only slowly petered out recently. Without the strength of civilisation to defend everyone equally and persue disputes through courts and law you will simply return to the last ten thousand years of barbarism when might makes right and the strongest is the rightest.

  20. @facebook-100003723214069:disqus Please read this
    Fallacies are not what you think they are.

    You proposed how you would  defend property. I refuted it with 10000years of historical precedent that whoever is the strongest wins. Everyone else loses (unless you are king). You really really can’t beat an army. The Police may turn up late (I’ll choose to ignore pre-emptive action on their part including walking the beat, criminal intelligence etc which mitigates even that) but they will get the perpetrators and their continued presence and action over the last 100-200 years has acted as an enormous deterrent to such marauders with the result that such things are now incredibly rare. Historically we’ve never been safer than now (at least in most western civilised societies).

  21.  It’s pretty impossible to argue with some one who assumes their correctness is based on your inability to disprove their statements without resorting to what they deem as fallacious reasoning that they alone have chosen to be arbitrator for.

  22. You may have noticed that wealth gets passed on. And the means to generate it. Based on your statement society has been going through a cycle of complete economic collapse and rebuild every 20- 30 years since it began. This is obviously not the case and therefore your statement is false.

  23. (This is in reply to BT Wintersebb)

    Hm, dunno… the European country I’m from originally has much less than half the unemployment rate of the US. And that’s official figures, which are distorted since the US sends unemployed people out of the unemployment statistics right into poverty after a while. What is the situation in the US right now, 1 in 6 people are on food stamps? (I guess for you food stamps are signs of eeevil socialism, too.)

    (Also, no, currency devaluation isn’t a problem for the Euro, it started out much, much lower vs. the US dollar than it is right now. Quite the opposite, in fact: the clusterfuck a few countries are in right now is due to the fact that they _can’t_ devalue easily — which would be the usual response to a crisis like the one we’re seeing right now — because they don’t have a currency of their own.)

  24. BT Wintersebb  said “a right comes at no cost” and then explained “I speak without needing permission from anyone, ergo speech is a right and since no one else involved, it comes at no cost to others.”  
    1) You are confusing the exercise of a right with the right itself.
    2) The cost of protecting rights is extremely high due to so many organizations that would limit them.
    3) Even *exercising* a right as in your example has associated costs, both to the person exorcising the right and to society.  .  Using your speech example, when Wesboro Baptist Church protests near the funerals of fallen dead soldiers, there is a very real toll on the mental state of everyone exposed to to their speech.  
    Other examples of exercises of rights that have costs include: exercising your right to bear arms (you must make or buy the arms before you can bear them),   right to a speedy trial (we all must pay for a judicial branch that has the capacity to grant speedy trials), right to rial by jury (Have to interrupt the jury members’ live and at least feed them), presumption of innocence (it would be a LOT more efficient to assume everyone charged were guilty and force them to prove their innocence), etc.

    Don’t be so naive as to think that rights are free.  They are free neither in their acquisition nor in their exercise.

  25. This is just getting surreal. Without government to back it, money would have no meaning. Otherwise I could just declare I’ve got $10000000 and there is nothing to protect you when you find my bills are just cheap forgeries. I’m sure you’re thinking of caveat emptor by now and that you wouldn’t be fooled but again history proves otherwise which is why we got stuck with gold for so long which was ever a lousy means of exchange since the only way to create wealth was to be the person digging up gold.

  26. Try thinking of the government as just another corporation and tax as the rent for you to be allowed to use their property: money.

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