Travel

GETTING A COLD SHOULDER

The Canadian passport no longer carries the weight it once did

ADNAN R. KHAN March 22 2004
Travel

GETTING A COLD SHOULDER

The Canadian passport no longer carries the weight it once did

ADNAN R. KHAN March 22 2004

GETTING A COLD SHOULDER

Travel

The Canadian passport no longer carries the weight it once did

ADNAN R. KHAN

BORDER CROSSINGS never used to scare me. My first venture out into the world was to Europe, the classic journey for many a North American youth who was restless and looking for a bit of adventure. I recall those days fondly, getting to border crossings and pulling my Canadian passport out of my money belt proudly, smugly even, as if to say: “Go ahead, take a look at this. Can’t touch me, ’cause I’m Canadian.”

Enough reminiscing. The past is the past and the present not so rosy. Live with it, I tell myself, more often these days since my livelihood hinges on getting to distant places. American readers will know what I’m talking about: the passport you carry can mean the difference between welcoming arms and the cold shoulder. And, well, my world’s been a bit chilly of late.

March 6,2003. The winds of war are gathering. I’m at Bangkok’s airport, on my way to Turkey’s southeastern border with Iraq to cover what could prove to be a defining moment in the history of the Middle East. The young woman at the Gulf Air check-in counter eyes my Canadian passport warily. “Just one moment, sir,” she says, then scuttles off to huddle briefly with another airline employee. The second one, more senior by the looks of him, casually points to a line of chairs anchored to a wall and asks me to take a seat.

“Is there a problem?” I ask, fumbling with my ticket but otherwise trying to remain calm.

“Not at all,” he assures me. “We just need to verify a few things with your passport.”

Verify. It’s become a dreaded term in my traveller’s lexicon. A word that, in this instance, swells from a simple question (where were you born?) to a two-hour interrogation by members of the U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force before I’m allowed to go on my way.

Verification is quickly becoming the norm, and the Canadian passport is no exception. Its coveted value worldwide has made it the target of passport forgers for years. An Iranian asylum-seeker once told me that he chose to escape to Canada for no other reason than the ease with which he could obtain a forged Canadian passport. (“It wasn’t my first choice, but it was the easiest,” he said.) The net result: Canada’s passport doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

WILL new procedures, along with enhanced security features, be enough to restore our passport’s prestige?

Recent changes, including digital and holographic imaging and optically variable inks, have been the Canadian government’s response to the problem. Suzanne Meunier, a spokesperson for the Canadian Passport Office, insists that the refitted passport is “one of the most respected documents in the world.” Perhaps, after $7 million worth of upgrades. But Meunier admits there were problems. During the highly publicized trial in the spring of2001 of millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam, testimony revealed glaring holes in the Canadian passport application procedure. When Ressam was snagged by U.S. border officials, on his way to Los Angeles with a trunk full of explosives, he held a fake passport that had been obtained using a forged Quebec baptismal record.

The application process has since been tightened up. But will new procedures, along with the added security features, be enough to restore the Canadian passport’s prestige? “It was a wake-up call,” Meunier says of the Ressam trial revelations, “and we’re trying to do better.” No doubt. But millions of Canadians still have the older version of the passport (Canadian passports have a five-year lifespan).

In Bangkok, I watched as my passport was put through the wringer, probed and poked with a variety of high-tech gadgetry. Months later, in Pakistan, Emirates Airlines refused to issue me a ticket to Turkey because they “could not verify the validity of my Canadian passport,” in the words of one of its employees.

With passport fraud increasingly becoming a field dominated by so-called “support terrorists”—shady characters slicing and dicing travel documents—I expect these sorts of incidents to increase. And more so for people such as myself, a Pakistani-Canadian saddled with the added weight of my ethnic heritage. I used to think the “Canadian” suffix would dispel any suspicions. Instead, I find myself worrying over the possibility of being deported, if I enter the U.S., to another country: a fate similar to that of Maher Arar, a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen whose Canadian passport meant little when American officials shipped him back to his native Syria to wallow in prison for nearly a year.

PASSPORT fraud is increasingly becoming afield dominated by ‘support terrorists’ slicing and dicing documents

Despite Paul Martin’s recent tête-à-tête with George W. Bush at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, where the President made avague promise to “consult” Canada before deporting any of its citizens to a third country, very little stands in the way of that sort of injustice recurring.

Will the improved Canadian passport make much of a difference? After all, a Canadian citizen, regardless of ethnicity, who holds a secure passport has already cleared Canada’s more stringent screening. But will others accept that the process has been tightened up? Unfortunately, the latest changes still fall short of American demands for biometric technology—the Orwellian plan to imbed our identities into passports using face-recognition and other methods. The technology is ready, according to the Canadian Passport Office; the government, though, is still debating whether or not to implement the initiative.

But protecting our passports—which are essentially a symbolic reflection of the Canadian image abroad—from fraud is a step in the right direction. Canada’s reputation as a country that welcomes immigrants doesn’t need a mud-splattering by forgers who take advantage of our compassion. The new passport will go a long way in insuring the Canadian image against the misdeeds of a small minority. But will it mean more respect for ethnically suspect travellers like myself? That, I’m afraid, will take more than any passport can give.

Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adrian R. Khan is currently based in Istanbul.