Saturday, December 19, 2009

Canadian Customs strip search woman back from grandmother's funeral - racial profiling suspected

A Ottawa, ON woman of Carribean decent alleges that she was singled out for a strip search by the Canada Border Services Agency (Canadian Customs) because she was a Jamaican born woman. Charmaine Archer, a 42 year old nurses aide at a nursing home, was pulled over with her cousin and 4 year old son by Canadian customs agents as they were headed home from their grandmother's home in Jamaica. The cousin and son were inspected without further incident, but Archer was forced to undergo a strip search.

Agents told Archer, who is a Canadian citizen, she was flagged because she paid for part of her ticket with a credit card, because she booked last minute and because she only stayed for four days.

Agents took what she described as gauze swabs and ran them over her wallet, the lining of her suitcase and even her toothbrush. This took over an hour, Archer said. Her toothbrush, agents said, tested positive for heroin and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Archer said to the agents that “You’re a liar. I don’t do drugs, I don’t know anybody that does drugs, and I wasn’t around drugs when I was in Jamaica … I come from an upstanding family and nobody touched that toothbrush but me.”

Canadian officers told Archer that she would have to undergo a strip search. “I said to her, ‘No way that’s going to happen! My husband don’t know what’s inside my rectum and neither will you.” After the customs agents handcuffed Archer and threatened to take her son away from her, she submitted. Archer describes what happened next.

 I got undressed. There were three women in the room — quite humiliating, quite degrading. I’m a big person, very conscious of my body … you can imagine how I felt. They made me stand up and hold my arm up and they made me lift up my breast. Then she told me to turn around and bend all the way over with my feet wide apart. And then she told me to use my hand and open my rectum.

 They told me to put one foot forward then squat and cough … they told me to lift up my belly and they told me open my feet apart and to pry my legs apart and they looked underneath my crotch. When it was over they asked if I wanted to take a minute to sit down.

This is by no means isolated,” said Ewart Walters, editor of the Spectrum, a monthly newspaper aimed at Ottawa’s black community. “There have been enough incidents over the years of people being picked on.”

He pointed to Leon Stewart, who was held for three hours at the airport in March, 2000. Like Archer, he was strip searched, only Stewart was asked to produce a bowel movement to satisfy customs agents he wasn’t concealing drugs.

“There is an overwhelming number of black people coming from Jamaica who get stopped and asked questions.” Walters said.

Archer's travel agent, Kermit Dougan of Voyages G Travel in Gatineau, PQ, across the river from Ottawa, said that Jamaica is on a list of destinations with a reputation for drug use. Even so, many of his clients, who are black and “not happy about how they’ve been treated,”  have used Toronto's Pearson International Airport, Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau AIrport, and even Syracuse NY's Hancock International Airport to avoid the racial profiling at Ottawa's airport.

Archer says that she is retaining a lawyer since “I want to know what my rights were. I hope no one will ever have to feel the form of degradation that I felt. And that lack of power.”

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