Chris Kealey sighs and pauses — audibly frustrated with my line of questioning.
Kealey, media spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), spent 15 minutes on the phone with me on Tuesday, dancing an inelegant dance, as we tried to clarify what had happened to three films CBSA had detained at the border.
Xtra’s initial report included the first details of the story: that the CBSA was withholding copies of three films destined for Inside Out, Ottawa’s queer film festival; that the films had all entered Canada without hassle before; that one of them was rated PG; that Jason St-Laurent and the rest of the Inside Out crew were scrambling to find replacement DVDs to screen. Because I was sitting in the audience the first evening of the festival, I was able to break the story before anyone else.
This caused a stir. There were follow-up stories in the Ottawa Sun and on CBC television; a Globe and Mail blogger pounced on it; film industry websites lit up with the story; gay news aggregators linked back to our post on Xtra.ca.
The first stories were written during the film festival, over the weekend. They didn’t include the point of view of the CBSA because reps don’t work weekends.
When Kealey spoke with the CBC on Monday, it was a slippery bait-and-switch.
His justification goes something like this: The CBSA flagged the films in its computer system, a move that requires the package be diverted from its intended course and instead sent to a CBSA office. The films, flagged earlier in the day, did not arrive at their office by 4pm Friday, so border officials wipe their hands of it. Their offices are closed over the weekend.
“We were not involved in the items being delayed,” he lamely insists, blaming the courier company for failing to pass on the films for review.
But the main problem is not when they arrived at the CBSA office — the problem is that, out of thousands of films sent across the border each day, three perfectly harmless ones destined for Inside Out were flagged. And our government required that its minions watch the flicks before we could be allowed to.
Unbelievably, the mainstream media, especially the conciliatory CBC, was unable to make the distinction and did not insist on posing the pertinent question: why were these films flagged?
When organizers had the films re-sent without the gay film festival’s logo, they crossed the border without incident.
So why were the films flagged? The CBSA says that the border agent was simply unfamiliar with the titles. It is an infuriating answer, an utter head-scratcher — one that no reporter should be satisfied with. But the mainstream outlets never got to it, because they were busy leading their news segments with “Is a clerical error to blame?”, a reference to the courier.
As an aside, much has been made of the fact that one of the films, Patrik, Age 1.5, is rated PG. While it does make the situation all the more bizarre, it’s not the overriding concern. Canadians are allowed to import R-rated and NC17-rated films. And it’s perfectly legal to import erotica as well — thousands of porn titles are sent across our border every year.
Kealey says he doesn’t know how many films cross the border each day and, of them, how many are flagged for review. He wouldn’t even say whether every film coming across the border is flagged for review — which is ridiculous, since they demonstrably are not, even in the context of this story. He also wouldn’t tell me if the officer who flagged the films had any training in gay and lesbian issues.
The conversation hadn’t started well. It began with him issuing a deflated-sounding apology for not getting back to Xtra staff on Monday, even though he had found time to make comments to other media outlets. I usually have a thick skin about these things, but the differential treatment of gay folks and straight folks is central to this story, and so it gives the snub an extra edge.
On the whole, it’s a revealing example of CBSA power abuse. One of the cornerstones of the law is that the application of rules must not be arbitrary. The CBSA’s treatment of Inside Out was arbitrary in the most flagrant sense. The films in question — I Can’t Think Straight, Clapham Junction and Patrik, Age 1.5 — passed through the border without any trouble when they played in Toronto and elsewhere. After the CBSA flagged them, the folks at Inside Out were able to have another set of the same films (with the same paperwork, no less) couriered into the country, presumably with the rubber stamp of a more sympathetic border official.
Almost 10 years have passed since the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on Little Sister’s bookstore. In that decision, the court chastised the CBSA (then Canada Customs) for targeting gay material, but it claimed that the border regulations could be executed fairly. After 10 years, we have yet to see evidence that this is true. It’s time to admit that the project of reviewing expressive material at the border is a mistake and remove our border guards from the censorship business, for once and for all.