It’s been more than three years since Royland Boothe was detained by border agents upon returning from a funeral in Jamaica, and he says he’s haunted by the sound of the metal gate shutting behind him that day.
It triggers the humiliation and anger the Newmarket man felt at being accused of smuggling narcotics, held in a cell the size of a three-piece bathroom, searched with his pants down and forced to defecate in an open space to provide a stool sample.
“It’s a traumatic experience. It’s torture,” paused the 37-year-old father of two, sobbing. “I do try to forget the sound of the metal gate closing, but the clink still echoes in my ears.”
Boothe, a telecom field technician, has filed a human rights complaint against the Canada Border Services Agency, claiming he was unfairly subjected to discriminatory searches and detention because of his race, ethnic origin, skin colour and religion.
The allegations are based on the events over an 18-hour span from his arrival at Pearson airport at 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2019, to his release from the Etobicoke General Hospital, without charges, before 2:30 p.m. the next day.
“I just feel like one of those wrongfully accused,” Boothe, a Rastafarian, told the Star in an interview. “I’m tired. There’s a flaw in the system.”
Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Boothe followed his mother and two sisters to Canada in 2003 and was the first to graduate from college in the family.
Boothe said he returns to his home country to visit his father, a retired teacher, almost yearly. The 2019 trip was prompted by a request from a cousin in New York to represent all the “farin” (meaning overseas) relatives in North America at the funeral of an uncle he never met.
Being the most available in the extended family, he said he gladly accepted the offer of a free ticket and treated it as a five-day mini vacation during the frigid winter here.
That free ride ended up being one of the many red flags that officials said formed “reasonable grounds” to believe that contraband had been “secreted on or about” Booth and that warranted a secondary inspection, according to the border agency’s response to the Canadian Human Rights Commission investigator.
During the luggage examination, officials found multiple undeclared milk powder bags, cakes and small bags of apples. They also observed texts on the complainant’s cellphone to a friend stating he was “safe” four different times.
The other indicators the border agency relied on for further examination included:
- Travel to and from a drug-source country;
- Third-party-paid ticket four days prior to trip;
- Travelling for a funeral for a person he didn’t know well or speak to;
- Financially unstable with negative bank balance; and
- Receiving luggage that wasn’t his and packed with assistance of another person.
Officials also cited numerous physical indicators they say Boothe showed: not able to stand still, continuous stretching, swinging of shoulders and crossing of arms.
Boothe was under custody by 11:24 p.m. and subjected to a personal search, including “monitored bowel movements.” The border agency said the complainant was twice escorted to an authorized specimen isolation unit, a.k.a. the “toilet loo,” but “was unable to produce sufficient samples to negate the indicators.”
In his rebuttal to the agency’s justification for his search and detention, Boothe said it’s “customary” in Jamaican culture for expats to send a family representative to attend funerals back home.
“CBSA describes text messages to one person about the apples being safe. They mention the (peeled and frozen) ‘apples’ as if it was something more, and the first line in this section states they found the apples. So what was the confusion? CBSA thought I was smuggling drugs in apples, but found the apples to be just that, apples,” Boothe replied in his submission.
“That same text was shared amongst 4 other family members advising I was back safe and the fruits/veggies brought made it safe. Again, in our culture, it’s customary and respectful to update family while travelling.”
As for his demeanour at primary inspection at the airport, Boothe said he suffered chronic back issues from a 2011 car accident and needed to stretch and move around to address the tightness of his body after a four-hour flight.
He said he spent the night in detention “cooped up” on the metal bench and suffered intense back pain the next morning and was offered to be taken to hospital. In handcuffs, Boothe arrived at Etobicoke General at 11:30 a.m. and was released after he had an X-ray.
“Clearly no one spoke to me about my back, the only thing that is discussed … is that there is nothing found in the X-ray. I have yet to discuss with the doctor the outcome of my back, my pain, anything of that nature. They go on to say that ‘consequently’ I am released as there is nothing on, in or about my persons (sic),” Boothe wrote.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission recently completed an investigation into Boothe’s complaint but has recommended against referring it to the tribunal. The commissioner can accept the investigator’s recommendation or overrule it. If it decides to dismiss the complaint, Boothe can appeal that decision at the Federal Court.
The investigator said the border agency has a mandate under the Customs Act to ensure that travellers entering Canada are not smuggling drugs and that it has developed a series of indicators that it has found useful in choosing which travellers to examine.
“The indicators on their face are non-discriminatory. The question is whether respondent employees added a layer of bias to their determination of who to examine as well as to the interpretation of the subject’s responses,” she concluded.
“In this case, the evidence suggests that the respondent was acting with due diligence in detaining the complainant, because a number of his actions and responses lined up with the respondent’s indicators. The respondent did not show any overt signs of basing its actions on a prohibited ground.”
While the treatment he experienced would feel demeaning, the report said it appeared the actions he took issue with would be applicable to any detainees regardless of their personal characteristics.
However, Boothe’s lawyer, Glen Chochla, disagreed with the investigator’s conclusion, saying that the border agency’s own indicators confirm his client’s country of origin prompted the secondary inspection. “Unconscious discrimination” should’ve been part of the examination, he said.
“This is a real problem. This is the challenge of the experience of many Black people and any racial minority is, things happen that you know don’t make sense that appear to be discriminatory but you don’t have any overt evidence of that,” said Chochla.
“The country that you’re coming from and have just visited plays a big part because it is an important part of the reason for secondary inspections, for detentions and searches. Our point is that race and national origin and the country you’re coming from should not be part of that justification.”
A current bill before the Parliament, he said, is intended, in part, to hold officials accountable to these kinds of practices by allowing travellers, immigration detainees and others who feel they have been mistreated to complain to an independent oversight body of the border agency.
In an interview with the Star, Boothe said he has been a law-abiding Canadian and never had run-ins with authorities, but felt compelled to stand his ground.
He said he had to take weeks off from work to be treated by his chiropractor for his back pain afterwards and to attend multiple sessions with a psychotherapist for the trauma he went through.
“The difference between Canada and Jamaica is safety and opportunity. The poverty that I grew up in. I would be stupid to smuggle any form of drugs and narcotics,” said Boothe. “Why would I disgrace my mother’s hard work?”
The CBSA declined to comment on Boothe’s case, but said the agency is mandated to facilitate the entry of legitimate travel and trade while protecting the safe and security of Canadians.
“Decisions to detain and conduct body searches are based on reasonable grounds of suspicion, and do not include race or religion. The CBSA is committed to upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and condemns all forms of racism and discrimination,” said a spokesperson.
“All CBSA employees are required to complete mandatory diversity and inclusion and race relations training. The Agency has no tolerance for any type of racist or discriminatory behaviour from its employees.”
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Detained at Pearson airport. Searched for drugs. X-rayed. All he had were apples and milk. ‘I’m tired. There’s a flaw in the system’