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 Mon­tréal-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 Mon­tréal – 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 Mon­tréal. 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 Mon­tréal? 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 Mon­tréal 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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