as an organizer for the ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I've travelled on many occasions to speaking engagements in the U.S. without bother. But a lot has changed since September 11, as I found out recently on my way to an engagement organized by students at Michigan State University.
The customs officer I roll up to in my car at the Sarnia-Port Huron border crossing is concerned.
The fact that I'll be receiving an honorarium must mean I'm coming to the U.S. to work.
Perhaps the matter could have been cleared up more rapidly if I'd been on my way to address a business seminar.
Instead, I'm instructed to park my car and make my way into the U.S. Immigration offices for further probing.
As soon as my ID is run through the computer, a marked change occurs.
The officer asks what anti-globalization protests I've participated in and whether I oppose the "ideology of the United States."
I tell him I don't understand what he means. He must not have approved of my answer, since at this point I'm taken into a room and thoroughly frisked while my vehicle gets the once-over outside.
Then I'm told I'm being denied entry to the U.S. But wait, there's more: the State Department want to speak to me and are on their way from Detroit.
After I've been left to cool my heels in the "controlled reception" area for about an hour and a half, a man carrying a 3-inch-thick folder walks past into an adjoining room.
He spends some time in discussion with the local officers before I'm escorted into an interrogation room to be dealt with. He hands me his card and introduces himself: special agent Edward J. Seitz, State Department of the United States, diplomatic security service. He's an impressive, fascinating character, a right-out-of-the-book stereotype with his fedora and trench coat.
Seitz, backed up by another officer, interrogates me for some time. Silence, I ascertain very quickly, is not the best option here. I get a clear sense that if I refuse to talk I'll be spending some time locked up waiting for the Canadian consular authorities to come to my aid -- if they come at all.
It's immediately obvious that I'm dealing with a specialist in interrogation methods. Seitz, in fact, mentions at one point that he'd been stationed in Yemen. I avoid speculating, in my own mind, on how his "talents" may have been employed there.
His basic strategy with me, apart from general intelligence-gathering, is to try to set me up to tell him something false, which will mean I'm violating U.S. law.
Then there's his body language. Extremely affable in his manner, Seitz has a habit of striking a pose of mild confusion that I assume is designed to make me underestimate him.
He asks about OCAP. He tells me we sound like good people, but he's heard something about an incident a year or so before that involved a confrontation with police at the Ontario legislature. That wasn't us, was it? I tell him indeed it was.
Seitz's affable manner vanishes, and his difficulties in focusing his thoughts end abruptly. He moves his chair over so we're right up against each other.
He wants to know about charges police have laid against me. He wants to know how OCAP is structured and the names of its executive members. I refuse to tell.
From here, the questions come rapid-fire. Are we involved in anti-globalization work? Isn't this a cover for anarchism? Am I personally an anarchist or a socialist? In the interests of anti-capitalist unity, I won't say.
Seitz is playing dumb, for in front of him is that 3-inch-thick file on OCAP that includes leaflets from public speaking events I had been to in the U.S. He knows the name of the individual I stayed with the last time I was in Chicago.
But he's particularly fixated on my contact with the Chicago Direct Action Network. He claims that my association with the group proves I'm an advocate of violence, even though he can find nothing in the group's literature in front of him to support that claim.
It becomes clear, too, given his enormous interest in well-known activist Jaggi Singh, who was jailed at the Quebec Summit for tossing teddy bears at police, that Seitz has been in contact with the Canadian authorities.
He shows me a picture of Singh and wants to know where he is at this moment. I tell him I don't know. The mask of affability is suddenly back on.
I'm a "gentleman," Seitz tells me. He doesn't want to lock me up. But he can't understand how I can work with a "violent man like Mr. Singh."
He'll have to ban me from entering the U.S. I'm told to take a seat in the waiting room while the requisite paper work is prepared, and then I can be on my way.
Before long, Seitz comes out to tell me about the OCAP cheque book he's discovered in my bag -- proof positive, he asserts, of my intention to live illegally in the U.S. I'm going to jail.
Then, the most astounding part of the whole interrogation. Out of the blue, Seitz demands to know where Osama bin Laden is hiding. I know where he is, he insists. In a beard, I would look just like bin Laden.
If I don't want to go to jail, it's time to tell him the real reason why I'm going to Michigan State University. My reply is that I've been quite open with him and that sending me to jail is now up to him. He laughs and tells me there are no problems. I can go home after all.
Will I have a coffee with him next time he's in Toronto? I tell him I will. It's the only lie I've told all day.