Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Chonicles of Sarnia

The phone in my condo started ringing a few days ago. This is an event that always, without fail, catches us by surprise.

So much of my life is spent on the road, hopping between U.S. cities and their airports and hotels, that I've never had the need for a land line here in Toronto. My wife and I -- both Americans -- still have cell phone numbers with numbers from the States. We spend most of our time in 416, but in our house, I'm from 517 and she's from 708.

When the phone that hangs on the wall in our kitchen begins to ring, it can only mean one thing: our doorman is calling about something. I picked up the receiver and said hello. Through the static, it was hard to understand him. His thick Middle Eastern accent didn't help matters. It wasn't hard to figure out his message, though.

"Mr. Bastian... (inaudible) ... crackle ... there is... pop... (inaudible) ... package."

"I'll be right down."

I returned with a beige envelope -- one we'd been anxiously waiting to receive. Inside were our Canadian documents. One piece of government-issued paperwork for me, explaining that I work for a U.S. company and my job requires me to be in Toronto and, no, I'm not stealing an occupation from a Canadian, everyone calm down. Then, there was one for my wife, allowing her to work here, too.

And, then, one for my 5-month-old?

That cracked us up. We weren't aware he was going to have his very own piece of documentation for crossing the border. Beyond his birth certificate, of course. We scanned his paperwork and learned that A) Yes, Hayden is allowed to be in Canada with us, and B) No, he is not allowed to seek employment. Those child-labor laws are killer!

We have to go through this application process every year. It can be stressful -- hoping that our paperwork comes in before I head to Spring Training -- but in the end it's great, because one flash of my documents at the border and I'm waved on through.

Well, sometimes.

There was the time my flight arrived at Toronto Pearson roughly 40 minutes before the clubhouse doors opened for pregame on a day I was scheduled to cover the Jays. What did the immigration officer do? She made me sit and wait in a little room, because "something doesn't seem right." Turns out, everything was right after all. And I was a few minutes late to work.

Fortunately, I've learned what to say and what not to say when coming into Canada.

Where do I stay in Toronto? My company set me up with a condo here. Saying you have your own place here only creates more questions. What's my purpose? It's ALWAYS business. Even if I'm not working on this particular trip, I'm in for business. Saying I work in Canada is also a big no-no. I work for a U.S. company and I am stationed in Canada from time to time -- nevermind that I live north of the border for most of the year. Wife? Kid? Dog? Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. Unless asked.

Did I mention I have to go through customs and immigration every time I fly into Toronto? Yeah, funny story. I'm flagged in Canada's system for life and there is nothing I can do about it.

Back when I was a good-for-nothing intern, paid by the hour with no benefits, I headed up to Toronto with my new bride and our Chevy Cavalier (The Blue Bomber) packed to the gills. Awaiting us was the luxurious studio-apartment life on Toronto's far north side. We had an air mattress, no air conditioning and a TV that stopped working before the end of the hottest summer we've experienced since living here.

Before we could even begin living that lifestyle of the poor and anonymous, though, we had to cross the border.

After driving into Sarnia, Ontario, we were asked to head into Immigration to explain our predicament. I told them all about the internship, how I was subletting an apartment from an old Albanian woman for the summer and how my lovely wife and I were just wed and excited about living in Toronto.

They -- well, the kid in the officer's suit that looked like he was fresh out of high school, complete with the cauliflower ear leftover from his days on the wrestling team -- asked for proof of the exact amount of money we had in our bank accounts. He also wanted information about our health coverage. I was an intern. I didn't have any.

After he disappeared into a back room for about 10 minutes, he came back, printed out some paperwork and then emphatically slammed a stamp down. There, in bright red letters, surrounded by a red box, was the heart-stopping word: REJECTED. He admired his work for a couple seconds and then brought his eyes up to meet my own.

"I'm sorry, sir," he began, doing his best to restrain his maniacal laughter. Maybe not. That's how I remember it anyway. "It is in my opinion that you will become a burden to Canada. An officer will escort you back into the United States."

My wife began to cry. She was already dreading a summer spent in that crappy apartment I found. She was already wondering if her husband's decision to pursue journalism would really put food on the table or money in the bank. She was putting her career on hold so I could follow my dream, and they wouldn't even let us in the stinking country.

We were branded for life as burdens.

We crossed back into the United States, stopped in the immigration department on the American side and told them what happened.

"They did what?" said the American officer, not even trying to hold back his laughter. "Whatever. Never heard of that before."

Since I attended college at Michigan State University, I still had some friends who lived in the East Lansing area. We crashed on a buddy's futon for the night, got some temporary health coverage from my old car insurance place in the morning, printed out some bank information and drove back to the border. This time, prepared.

A funny thing happened, though. We drove up to the customs booth, told the woman our reason for coming to Canada and she waved us right on through after glancing over our passports. No questions about insurance. Nothing about how much money I was going to make, or how much I had in savings, or where we planned on living.

Nothing. It was Canadian roulette. And the only bullet in the gun had been fired the day before.

These days, I step off the plane with my passport and paperwork in hand. I scan the lines in customs and now recognize some of the officers. If I head all the way to the right, the lines are always shorter. I tell them I need to head into immigration to speed the process. When I get in there, I know all the key words and phrases to get through swiftly.

They'll often ask, "Ever have any trouble at the border?"

I smile and say, "Yeah, years ago. Sarnia. I was rejected because nobody likes interns."

Other times, the officer will flip through my passport and see stamp after stamp after stamp from my countless trips into the country.

"Gee, come here often?"

I've heard that one a few times.

"Yes. Yes I do."


  1. You are an inspiration, Mr. Bastian. And your wife even more so for sticking it out :P

  2. "stinking country."

    let's not spark any international incidents, ok?

    and canada smells better than the usa, for your information. haha.

  3. haha... just relaying my feelings from that day. It smells quite nice where I live now. Not so much where I spent that summer, though!


  4. GCM1979 here.

    LOL. I got nailed at Sarnia in October coming back from Detroit when we flew out of there to go to Vegas.

    and I'm Canadian! I've had my butt flagged by my own countrymen! LOL. They're evil in Sarnia, they'll even lie to get you.

    I should blog my story, lol.

  5. June 9th 2005 was it?

    FYI Jordan
    Some of us "kids" are fans...and I guess we will know what questions to ask now.

  6. Haha. Uh-oh. I'm going to be flagged AGAIN! Honestly, outside of our first time coming across the border, it's been pretty much smooth sailing. And I know you guys are just doing your jobs -- no worries Mr. Anonymous. I've got horror stories from going back into the U.S., too.


  7. We love you!
    I'll look into what, if anything, you can do to make it disappear.
    I have a ID online, just not stupid enough to incriminate myself.

  8. I knew why you kept it anonymous -- just thought I'd give ya a hard time since you were calling me out on here :) I had a good laugh when I saw your comment. If you want to contact me ever, you can e-mail me at Take care and thanks for reading.


  9. It's in your inbox now.
    Take care.

  10. Keep up the good Bastian. I love that every scribe has a nightmare internship story. A rite of passage.

  11. I had a real hard time coming back into the U.S. a couple of months ago on the Bluewater Bridge. I think that I'm flagged for life just like you are, though I don't quite understand why. Every single time I go into Canada I get stopped. I'd never had trouble coming back to the U.S. until November though. I guess going Christmas shopping in Toronto when the economy is bad receives the "Hassle you to death, keep you in the office for an hour, and make you fill out forms you've never seen before in your life" treatment! lol

  12. I'm happy to hear our immigration people are doing such a good job.

    You should try getting into the U.S. if you're Canadian.

    Just recently the U.S. passed a law that even prevents planes from Canada flying over their air space without all kinds of rigamarole . I thought we were allies.

    Of course, Canadian or American, we're a hell of a lot better off than most of the world so these little annoyances aren't anything to lose sleep over. Just gotta learn how to play the game eh? (had to get the "eh" in there.)