TORONTO — Desidero Fortunato is a Canadian citizen who regularly visits his second home in Blaine, Wash., crossing the border by car two or three times a week.
Last month, a U.S. border guard — who apparently had no cause for suspicion — ordered him to shut off his engine and get out of the car.
The Canadian penchant for politeness can, admittedly, be irritating. But the 54-year-old competitive dancer got more than he bargained for when he asked the guard to say, "please." First came a blast of pepper spray in the face. Then a handful of guards threw him to the ground, pinned him with their knees and slapped on handcuffs.
Fortunato says the tense interrogation that followed eased only when the guards learned he was born in Portugal.
“Their shields dropped slightly down. It was like you know: ‘OK, he's a westerner, OK, he's not a Muslim, okay, he's a Christian — he's one of us.’ That's what I read,” he told a newspaper.
Fortunato was let go, and the latest reports had U.S. officials investigating the use of force against him.
The thought of U.S. border guards on the lookout for politeness-wielding terrorists sounds like fodder for "Saturday Night Live." But with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as the guards' boss, Canadians are beginning to think anything is possible.
Napolitano, after all, managed to outrage even the most staidly of Canadian diplomats last week by suggesting that every terrorist the U.S. has confronted on its soil — including the perpetrators of 9/11 — entered through Canada.
The kerfuffle began when the CBC’s Washington correspondent, Neil Macdonald, asked her to clarify her position that the Candian and Mexican borders must be treated equally.
“Yes, Canada is not Mexico. It doesn't have a drug war going on; it didn't have 6,000 homicides that were drug-related last year,” Napolitano said. “Nonetheless, to the extent that terrorists have come into our country or suspected or known terrorists have entered our country across a border, it's been across the Canadian border. There are real issues there.”
Macdonald asked if she was referring to the 9/11 attackers and Napolitano replied: “Not just those but others as well.”
The statement is flatly wrong. Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, publicly corrected Napolitano during a Washington speech the next day.
“Unfortunately, misconceptions arise on something as fundamental as where the 9/11 terrorists came from,” he said.
“As the 9/11 commission reported in 2004, all of the 9/11 terrorists arrived in the United States from outside North America. They flew to major U.S. airports. They entered the U.S. with documents issued by the United States government, and no 9/11 terrorists came from Canada,” Wilson added.
Napolitano then issued a double-edged clarification. She acknowledged that the 9/11 terrorists had not entered from Canada, but insisted that others had. The only example she offered was the would-be “millennium bomber,” Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested in 1999 at Port Angeles, Wash., with explosives in his car allegedly intended for the Los Angeles International Airport.
Canada’s major news organizations bashed Napolitano in columns and editorials. No one was more acerbic than Rex Murphy on the CBC’s national television newscast.
“It’s not her ignorance about Canada that should be troubling, it’s her ignorance about the most publicized event in modern American history. How can anyone be head of homeland security and not know the history of the 19 men who killed nearly 3,000 Americans?” Murphy asked.
Just when Canadian diplomats were hoping they had set the record straight, no less a figure than the former Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, insisted on Fox News that Napolitano’s initial statement was correct.
“Well, some of the 9/11 hijackers did come through Canada, as you know,” McCain insisted.
When she was a senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also argued the 9/11 attacks meant that the Canada-U.S. border needed tightening. Indeed, these and other falsehoods tend to be used to justify U.S. plans to “thicken” the common border with more security measures.
When Napolitano’s predecessor, Michael Chertoff, announced the end of the decades-old practice of crossing the Canada-U.S. border with a simple driver’s licence, he noted among the reasons the 1,517 false claims of U.S. citizenship at land crossings in a three-month period. The Washington Post investigated the number and found that 99 percent of the false claims were made at the Mexican border.
As Napolitano pushes for more border security, it's been noted in congressional hearings that, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, travelers arriving from Canada registered 500 “hits” on the government’s terror watch list, compared to only 150 hits on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But Mitch Potter, the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent, has discovered that the vast majority of those 500 individuals were either U.S. citizens or U.S.-landed immigrants.
There’s a sense in Canada that enduring U.S. delusions about the provenance of the 9/11 attackers reflect an inability to accept that the government and its intelligence services failed to protect its own citizens — that Americans, in other words, failed to protect Americans.
Many also suspect politics are at play. Obama’s Democratic administration, already accused by Republicans of making the U.S. less safe, seems intent on indicating it too has a taste for fortress America.
For Canada, the issue goes beyond debunking myths. Fully 80 percent of Canada’s exports go to the U.S. Tightening the border means bottlenecks for goods and delays in climbing out of the recession.
In the end, Canada has little choice but to acquiesce to the thickening border. Its economic future, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, relies on access to the American market. A loss of political sovereignty is the price of admission. Today it’s border security, tomorrow it will likely be changes to our immigration policies, which Napolitano has made clear are too lax.
Even Canada’s traditional politeness is in jeopardy. Don’t you dare ask a U.S. border guard to say please.
More dispatches on the U.S.-Canada relationship: