Petra Glynt recounts her harrowing 51 hours in immigrant detention in the UK

When Petra Glynt’s Alexandra Mackenzie boarded a flight last Sunday, October 29, for her fall European tour, she had no idea she was about to spend the next two days in detention “purgatory,” as she calls it. 

The Montreal-via-Toronto electronic artist, who recently celebrated the release of her debut full-length This Trip at the Baby G, had planned two weeks in Europe as the drummer for Doldrums and opening with Petra Glynt. 

Instead, she spent 51 hours between the detention room at London’s Gatwick airport and the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre

But the story has a bright side: on Tuesday, October 31, after finally returning to Canada, she set up a GoFundMe campaign to return to her tour. And, though she says she’s uncomfortable asking for handouts, especially given Canada’s granting systems, she met her goal of $1,802.06 within one day. It helped that her community rallied behind her, with shares from Arbutus Records, Exclaim!, Doomsquad and Lido Pimienta, among others. 

Back in Montreal and awaiting her flight to Zurich, newly freed from the financial anxiety of paying for the one-way ticket on credit, Mackenzie warns me over the phone that this will be a long story.

It’s a harrowing one, too. Most touring artists have border anxiety, often travelling alongside gear they can’t afford to replace and on tickets they can’t afford to re-purchase. But this was a nightmare.

Petra Glynt

Mackenzie’s trouble started around 9:30 am Monday when she landed in the UK, where customs raised issues with her PPE (Permitted Paid Engagement) visa. She had letters of invitation for Doldrums, but she was also playing as Petra Glynt. “They found that confusing,” she says. 

Mackenzie’s bags were searched, her phone taken away (apparently because it had a camera), and she was fingerprinted and photographed before being taken to a detention room to wait for an immigrations officer. 

Around 11:15 am, the time she was originally due to be picked up from the airport by Doldrums’ Airick Woodhead, an officer finally met her in a “little room that had the chairs chained to the floor.” She asked questions about the nature of Mackenzie’s visit to the UK and demanded “clear and brief” responses, as everything during the interview had to be written down. 

“I saw [this officer] two more times, and each time she seemed to get more agitated by my story,” Mackenzie remembers, “I had all the proper documents, but the fact I was making money was an issue even though the visa was for paid engagements.”

The tension intensified when Mackenzie explained that while she would be receiving payment for her work, she’d been told it often won’t be coming directly from the European venues, as Woodhead’s fees would be, but rather from Doldrums’ post-tour FACTOR funding. Then to make matters worse, immigration officials were unable to reach Woodhead by phone, and Manchester’s Rebellion venue informed customs they believed they would be paying Mackenzie – contradicting the info she had offered. 

At 7 pm, nearly 10 hours after she’d landed, Mackenzie was told the UK was refusing her entry to the country, and that she was being sent to Colnbrook. 

“They were like, ‘it’s not a prison,’” Mackenzie recalls, “I didn’t ask them [if it was a prison]. Why would you go out of your way to say it’s not a prison? It sounds like a prison.” 

The artist waited until 11 pm before she was escorted into the back of a prisoner transport van and separated from her belongings. It also picked up two girls from Grenada who would end up being Mackenzie’s roommates and friends. “They were really sweet,” she sighs, “they went through a much more terrible experience than me: one of them was strip searched, cuffed and x-rayed.” 

At Colnbrook, after being photographed, fingerprinted and given a detainee ID card, they were taken to the all-female Sahara Unit for short term stays.

“[The next day] we were taken to a courtyard for fresh air, and I don’t know what an actual prison courtyard looks like, but it was what you would imagine: a small area with sad plants guarded by super tall fences with barbed wire, windows with bars on them.” 

After lunch came an hour of lockdown from 1 to 2 pm, at which time she was able to exchange contact info with her roommates. Mackenzie had now been in detention for well over 24 hours.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Mackenzie compares, “because my flight was leaving that day, and the van came early.” Once at the airport however, she learned her flight back to Canada had been cancelled. Terrified of going back to Colnbrook, where she’d heard of one Brazilian woman who’d missed her flight home due to the transport van arriving late, Mackenzie begged to stay at the airport. Eventually she was allowed to stay overnight in the airport detention room, until her morning flight, 51 hours after she landed, when she was “escorted right up to the door the of plane.”

“I was exhausted and I was resentful, mad. I was going through a lot of emotions. I really felt for the people I had met.”

With her eyes open to the realities of facilities like these, Mackenzie did some research.

“When I got home I learned there’s 11 of these immigration ‘removal centres’ – they call it that, but it’s just a nice way of saying prison – in the UK. We have them in Canada and the U.S. as well. A lot of people are kept there indefinitely. They don’t know when they’re going to leave.” 

In fact, Canada’s current long term immigration detention conditions are so bad that the UN has stepped in requesting changes. The Toronto Star recently published an investigative piece on the shocking lengths detainees are held and the legal hoops they are required to navigate.

Mackenzie offers some advice for artists who are trying to tour countries such as the UK, or the U.S. (or Canada – we send our fair share of artists flying or driving back across the border as well): anticipate any trouble you might have at the border and line up not only the necessary paperwork, but also a list of tour contacts who are aware they need to be easily reachable, and who will provide an exactly matching narrative to yours if questioned. She even suggests talking to a legal advisor beforehand.

“I trusted people telling me ‘it’s going to be okay because you’re Canadian, you’re part of the Commonwealth,’” she recalls. “Don’t listen to that.”

With her new ticket fully funded and her flight leaving the afternoon I’m speaking to her, Mackenzie tells me she’s not nervous about her trip to Zurich, as Europe’s mainland is notoriously easygoing on artists entering the continent. 

Another piece of good news: the renowned visual artist tells me she kept a journal during the ordeal. “There was so much boredom, I wrote down a lot of stuff.” She doesn’t rule out the idea of turning it into a zine once she’s back home. 

“That’s a good idea!”

Petra Glynt is now safely in Europe and on tour with Doldrums. She’ll be in Toronto at the Garrison with EMA and The Blow on November 15. See listing. | @kristeljax

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