Reading Lolita in Montreal: Canada Doesn’t Want More Journalists

Bhaskar Sunkara

A night protest in Montreal, scene of weeks of pitched student demonstrations.

There weren’t any bright lights or stress positions, but it was definitely an interrogation. Crossing over to Canada yesterday, I had the unusual experience of being detained for a few hours.

It started off innocently enough. I filed off a Montreal-bound Greyhound bus at the border with a few dozen others to go through customs. As usual, I was paid extra attention. Security officials may notice me, because I look suspiciously Muslim, but it’s a small price to pay for having enough melanin to pull-off a salmon-colored blazer.

Reasonably, a border official asked me why I was visiting Canada. Mostly sightseeing, I said. Did I know anyone in the city? Sure, I had a few friends who went to McGill. That struck the agent as bizarre. How could someone from New York know people in Quebec? Did I use the internet? Umm, what? Was I carrying more than $10,000 in cash? I wish. Does that mean I should search your things for that money? Next time, I’ll save my charm for a more receptive audience.

It was all going well enough, though, until I was asked what I did for a living. I said that I just graduated from university on Sunday. Oh, so you’re unemployed? That’s where they got me. My precarious employment is a point of personal pride. Of course, I wasn’t unemployed. I do administrative work and write on occasion. Probably should’ve left out that last part. I was whisked away from my lovely new bus friends.

I had assumed that Canada’s law enforcement would be like Vermont’s. Only, I’ve never been to Vermont, so I suppose I had assumed Canada’s cops would be like the cast and crew of Super Troopers. I was mistaken. Two different officers greeted me in the next room and went through my baggage. Clothes and personal effects, one book— Reading Lolita in Tehran—and two magazines, a copy of In These Times and Jacobin.

The guard flipped through Jacobin easily enough, admired our art, and took it to be some type of smarmy cultural publication. All good there. Reading Lolita in Tehran did, however, raise eyebrows. A burly cop asked me why I had that book. I said I was re-reading it and mentioned what the book was about. He didn’t really get it. Why so much interest in Tehran? How many times have you been to Iraq? What? Never. I held back a smile, mostly because this guy was armed and terrifying.

The other agent, now done examining my roll of dental floss, flipped through the copy of In These Times, and saw my name on the masthead. So you’re a big time journalist? You must be embedded in the student movement, right?

This was the surprise and, to be honest, it was kind of refreshing. For the first few years of my adult life, I’ve dealt with extra screenings at airports and crossings, mostly outside the United States, particularly in the European countries I’ve visited. It was due to my race. My first hour in Canada was like that. Now I was being harassed because I was a leftist going to possibly talk to people in a country terrified of a militant left-wing movement. And I was a known journalist.” I couldn’t wait to brag to my friends.

They asked me if I had two identities. No, of course not. How come you have all these medical cards that say Swamy Sunkara” on them? I tried to explain the United States’ employer-based health care system and how young people under a certain age were under their parent’s coverage. You know a lot about this, are you political?

The irony was striking. The system I was explaining was a stark reminder of America’s weak social safety net. It was foreign to the Canadian border officials, who were admittedly not too bright, but it was one of the reasons why so many were marching in the streets of Montreal – to halt the neoliberal offensive. The border officials didn’t want me to join the protesters, but they also didn’t want my health care.

I was taken to another room, where I was met with an agent of higher rank. Hour two approaches. He questions me about my being a writer and asks me who I’m going to interview in Montreal. I’m not sure, I tell him. I’ll probably just take the easy route and write about getting detained at the border instead.

Where was I staying in Montreal? A hostel? Come now, I’m classier than that – a hotel. Where? I had to pull up the information on my phone. He seemed satisfied. Then: We’re not going to let you through unless I can take a look through your phone and see who you have been contacting.

I don’t keep texts from activists. I also delete any sensitive emails, so I agreed. They looked through my phone for an hour and spent lots of time on Google. They were cautious, but maybe they have a reason to be afraid. Downtown Montreal is the scene of a continuous class struggle, with constant demonstrations that show no sign of slowing down. The government has its hands full with the activists, journalists, and intellectuals they already have. Why would they want more radicals in the country?

Finally, the verdict: You can enter the country, but you have to leave on Thursday. I wasn’t granted a visa, but rather a visitor’s pass. Avoid the bad protest elements, stick to the girls at McGill instead, kid.

And don’t write while you’re in Canada. 

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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