Meet Ting Ting Tam, a 72-year-old retired hairdresser, who was born in China, and currently lives in Ottawa. On November 7, 2012, Tam was fined $800 at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa upon her return from China, where she was visiting family. Twice, the customs officer asked her whether she had brought in any food or plants into the country. Both times, she said she had nothing of the kind. The officer didn’t buy it. Picking up on her apparent nervousness, the officer moved her to a secondary inspection and had his suspicions confirmed. Tam’s luggage contained “assorted pork products,” which marks another case in what I can only assume is a pandemic of Chinese pork-based-snack-food smuggling rings.
“It has been my experience working in the air mode stream that it is more than common that individuals of Chinese origin returning from China to bring agricultural products with them,” explained the officer, a veteran of illegal pork busts (illegal pork bust: the next great dance move). In this instance, the offence was minor–only $5 worth of pork rolls–but I can sleep easy knowing there are brave men and women protecting our borders and keeping Canadian bacon safe from foreign pork-stuffs.
Since the incident, Tony Fan, who took up the appeal on behalf of Tam who speaks little English, has said that Tam was wrongfully fined. In an interview, Fan said that Tam had bought the pork rolls in the Hong Kong airport, but had failed to eat them before landing in Canada. He added that Tam was without her blood pressure medication and was feeling a bit confused and sick when she went through customs, but I’m sure that’s what every old lady who “accidentally” tries to run contraband across the border says. Fan appealed the fine to the Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal, and their conclusion was that Tam was racially profiled. The presiding member of the Tribunal, Bruce La Rochelle, said, “There is no evidence that he conducted himself otherwise than in what he genuinely believed to be an appropriate manner, however, as superior courts have noted … racial profiling is not necessarily conscious behaviour.”
Last Tuesday, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected the tribunal’s decision. Justice Nadon, writing for the panel, said, “The officer simply asserted in his statement that in his experience it was not uncommon for Chinese persons to bring agricultural products with them upon returning from China. The officer’s hunch, based on his experience and his observance of the respondent’s demeanour, was confirmed by the secondary examination.”
While we may never know the true motives of the customs officer, the court’s ruling does leave us with a most daunting question: is making a decision about someone based on broad generalizations about their race considered racial profiling?
Yes, yes it is. Well, I guess that question is less daunting than I thought.