Carrying A Story Over The Canadian Border

Photo Credit: Amanda Ocasio

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the legality of searching people's cell phones at US border crossings.

This isn't just happening on the US side of the border though.

How do I know?

It happened to me as I was trying to cross into Canada from Buffalo, NY on Thursday, March 22.

I took a Greyhound Bus up from New York City early that morning to get some pictures for a multi-part article series I'm working on. My series, the first part of which will be out next month here at Queens Free Press, is a three-country comparative study weighing the pros and cons of the decriminalization of sex work. My plan was to visit assorted adult entertainment venues in Toronto to show the sorts of environments that are possible in a country where sex work is decriminalized. I was also going to have coffee with a source I interviewed for my series.

Did I explain all of this at the border?

Of course not.

Yes, sex work is decriminalized in Canada, and I was traveling on a valid American passport, but several people told me that saying I was going over to photograph adult entertainment venues still wouldn't sit well with Customs.

"Why are you coming to Canada?"

"To do some shopping, walk around a bit, and clear my head."

"You've taken a 14 hour bus ride...to walk around?"

"Yes."

It was a situation I couldn't win.

Had I answered honestly, it would have created problems for me, and possibly for the person I was meeting for coffee.

This answer just created problems for me.

Before I left for Toronto, I drafted three tweets for use at the border.

Photo Credit: Amanda Ocasio

 

I hadn't thought I'd end up having to use this one:

I spoke to a total of three Customs officials on the Canadian side of the border that day, and spent an hour or so sitting in a waiting room. Some people I know in New York had warned me that my phone and laptop might be searched when I was trying to cross back into the US.

I hadn't expected the third agent I spoke to in Canada to ask to search at my phone.

"Amanda, can I see your phone?"

Shit!

I obliged.

They didn't take my phone too far. I know because I was still able to voice dictate texts into my Apple Watch and let my partner know what was going on.

"I don't need an Apple Watch, dear. They're so flashy," I remember saying when my partner first said they were going to get me an Apple Watch.

That day, I was happy my partner hadn't listened to me and got me an Apple Watch for my 31st birthday.

I had created coded entries in my phone book for sources that I had interviewed, so I wasn't worried about that. The Customs officials made some comments which led me to believe they had also gone through my Twitter account, but I'm still not entirely sure.

I honestly couldn't tell you how much time passed before they returned my phone to me.

When they returned it, they left open an email I had sent someone regarding my article series on sex work.

They knew why I was really there.

Photo Credit: Amanda Ocasio

 

I was told that I would not be allowed to enter Canada that day, and that the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably at that moment might have been indicative of "other issues."

The person at the desk called a taxi to bring me back to the New York side of the border. When we reached the New York side, the US Customs agent asked me why I was detained then denied entry.

"I wasn't entirely truthful about why I was going to be in Canada," I replied.

"Great! I'm a US citizen, with a valid US passport and I might have problems here too!" I remember thinking.

Eventually I was allowed back into the US.

 

I still plan to finish my article series. If nothing else, this experience makes me more determined to tell the story.

In addition to being an editor at Queens Free Press, I'm also in my final semester of a Masters degree in journalism. Early in my course,someone once told me that sometimes the story of how you got the story is as important as the story itself.

I think I finally understand what that means.

This taught me that we are living in a different time, and a different world, where your right to privacy isn't an absolute. New York has a Shield Law to protect journalists, but that doesn't help when you're in another country.

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