1. Citizenship. 2. Identification 3. Place of birth – Answering these three questions, in that exact order, became my script for crossing the border three times a week. The border crossing was always Queenston Lewiston and the reason for crossing was always for school. The class (including the faculty and other students) became used to me entering late and almost always with an accompanying story of questions that would lead to me questioning my Canadian, English, Sikh identity.
One early morning, I arrived at the border crossing and was asked to pull aside and explain my identity, my car, my clothes and even my lunch. During this experience I was instructed to open the trunk. I pulled the latch and without hesitation I proceeded to the rear of my vehicle. The next thing I saw was four firearms pointed at me and a number of border officers running towards my car, Don’t move was the thought in my mind, which was accompanied by words being screamed at me from the border patrol running towards me dressed in cargo pants and dark sun glasses – I froze.
“Do you speak English?”, “Is this your car?” ,”Don’t you have trunks in Canada?” and the showstopper was “Extra turbans in the trunk”? The humiliation and self-doubt was unreal. This surreal experience became all too familiar to me when crossing three times a week. I became hardened and often angry before crossing. No matter what I did, nothing changed. I never once had an experience where I pulled up, showed my identification, submitted my student pass and proceeded to class. This experience seemed reserved for my fellow white Canadian classmates only.
With the help of good professors and great friends, convocation morning arrived. My entire family was ready to see me walk across the stage and claim the first master’s degree in the Dhaliwal family. I was so proud that day; proud to be Canadian, proud to tie my turban, proud of my English and Sikh roots. However, this ended abruptly as we pulled up to the familiar border crossing that morning and were detained for a “random” screening process. We were kept at the border for 6 hours. We were fingerprinted and even retina scanned. We were corralled into a room full of “random” screening candidates that all had a similar or darker skin tones than ours I remember feeling like I just wanted to go home and go to bed.
“Crossing is a privilege and not a right, you are not being extended this privilege today”, was the official statement before we were all turned away and the reality of missing convocation set in. This was the last time I showed up to a border crossing into the United States. More than 10 years have past and I still cannot bring myself to even show up to a border. I make up all manner of excuses not to cross. If I have it my way, I may never cross again.
Today, as a college professor, I never second guess a late arriving student. Border or no border, we all have experiences to cross on our journey in life.
Lakhdeep Singh Dhaliwal