As the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games open, critics say an increasing number of protesters and alternative media journalists are being turned back at the Canadian border.
For some members of Vancouver’s queer and civil liberties communities, it’s bringing back memories of Little Sister’s fight against arbitrary book seizures by Canada Customs.
It’s about using the border as a political tool, says David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association.
Those seizures of gay books destined for a gay bookstore were shown to be a political screening at the border rather than a public safety screening, he says, especially since the same books often made it safely across the border to straight importers.
The same holds true, Eby says, for what’s going on at the border now with journalists and protesters heading for the 2010 Olympics.
“The issue is allowing the use of the border as a political screen rather than a legal screen,” Eby says. “Government is not allowed to use the border as a political screen.”
Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller agrees with Eby. She calls the situation shocking.
“It’s pretty appalling when a government isn’t allowing free speech and access to Canada,” Fuller says. “It makes us look very unintelligent. Last time I checked, we were a democracy.”
The protesters say the detentions and expulsions are aimed at silencing dissent around the Olympics.
And they’re alarmed that most of the mainstream media flocking around the Games are all but ignoring a situation that strikes at the root of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Since November, when independent US journalist Amy Goodman was detained at the border and given two days to get out, at least two other reporters have been denied entry, protesters say.
Goodman was on her way to speak about her new book but was questioned by Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials about what she might say about the Games.
Martin Macias Jr, an independent media reporter from Chicago, was travelling Feb 6 to cover the Olympics when he too was blocked at the border, according to the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN).
Macias was held for at least seven hours then put on a plane to Seattle.
According to ORN, another independent journalist, John Weston Osburn, of Salt Lake City, Utah, which hosted the 2006 Winter Games, was detained by US Homeland Security Feb 9 after being twice denied entry by Canadian Border Officials on his way to cover the 2010 Olympic protests.
Waiting at Vancouver International for Macias was Vancouver anti-Olympic activist Chris Shaw.
He says the Canadian lack of concern about the situation is part of Canadians’ general lack of questioning authority.
And that, he says, allows for a weak Charter of Rights and Freedoms to be violated.
“The police and other agencies walk through it any time they want to,” Shaw says. “The police treat it like toilet paper. They wipe their butts with it.”
He thinks any order to keep people out of Canada should come from the highest levels of power in Canada.
“It’s political,” he argues. “They’re terrified of the protesters. They’re going to stop anybody who will criticize the happy version of events.”
Goodman has no criminal record, a reason officials can use to deny entry to Canada. Eby doesn’t know about Osburn and Macias.
But, he says, with the upswing in other Olympic stories, border rejections seem to have slid off the media radar.
He muses that media may just think it’s only one or two people and not a problem.
But, Eby counters, “the issue is not the numbers, it’s the principle.”
“It’s a huge issue,” he says. “I would hope the media would be interested in it, but it’s been pretty quiet. Usually, the media is pretty interested in stories about the media.”CBSA spokesperson Patrizia Giolti says she cannot comment on specific cases.
But a person may be checked and indeed denied entry if they have a record of non-compliance at the border, a criminal record or are behaving suspiciously, she says.
“Canada’s admissibility requirements will not change during the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. The same policies and procedures that apply today will be in effect before, during and after the Games,” Giolti says.
Shaw says you’d probably learn more from a parrot than from a CBSA official.
ORN is advising people hoping to cross the border into Canada to “be forthcoming and truthful that you are coming to protest the social and environmental impacts of the Games.”
They also suggest leaving the cell phone at home. “Cell phones can be searched, your address book recorded, and in some cases, police and intelligence agencies have been known to implant tracking or listening devices in phones,” the group warns.
Border agencies also have the power to seize, search and hold laptops if people refuse to provide passwords or access to encrypted documents, ORN notes.