An Ottawa woman returned home from her grandmother’s funeral to be handcuffed, strip-searched and accused of drug-smuggling by Canadian customs agents at the Ottawa airport this week.
Charmaine Archer, 42 and a nurse’s assistant at an Ottawa longtime care facility, was on a flight Tuesday from Philadelphia, the last leg of her trip home from Jamaica. She and her 4-year-old son were pulled aside for inspection by border services agents at the airport as they left the plane around 11 p.m. “I noticed I was the only one in that area,” she said.
Agents told Archer, who is a Canadian citizen, she was flagged because she paid for part of her ticket with a credit card, because she booked last minute and because she only stayed for four days. Agents took what she described as gauze swabs and ran them over her wallet, the lining of her suitcase and even her toothbrush. This took over an hour, Archer said.
Her toothbrush, agents said, tested positive for heroin and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. “I said ‘you’re a liar.’ I don’t do drugs, I don’t know anybody that does drugs and I wasn’t around drugs when I was in Jamaica. . . . I come from an upstanding family and nobody touched that toothbrush but me.”
Agents told her she would have to submit to a strip search.
“I said to her, ‘No way that’s going to happen! My husband don’t know what’s inside my rectum and neither will you.” She was threatened with arrest and told her child would be sent to Children’s Aid, Archer said.
The boy was eventually allowed to join his father, who was waiting in the airport to pick up his family. Archer was handcuffed and she eventually agreed to be searched. “I got undressed. There were three women in the room–quite humiliating, quite degrading. I’m a big person, very conscious of my body. . . . You can imagine how I felt.”
“They made me stand up and hold my arm up and they made me lift up my breast. Then she told me to turn around and bend all the way over with my feet wide apart. And then she told me to use my hand and open my rectum. They told me to put one foot forward then squat and cough . . . they told me to lift up my belly and they told me open my feet apart and to pry my legs apart and they looked underneath my crotch.”
When it was over “they asked if I wanted to take a minute to sit down,” since she was shaking and crying. They offered to help repack her bag and two male officers put her bags on a trolley to bring them down to her waiting husband. It was 2 a.m., and they had found no drugs. “They never apologized, never said anything,” she said. “They thought they had a big fish.”
“This is by no means isolated,” said Ewart Walters, editor of the Spectrum, a monthly newspaper aimed at Ottawa’s black community. “There have been enough incidents over the years of people being picked on.”
He pointed to Leon Stewart, who was held for three hours at the airport in March, 2000. Like Archer, he was strip-searched, only Stewart was asked to produce a bowel movement to satisfy customs agents he wasn’t concealing drugs.
“There is an overwhelming number of black people coming from Jamaica who get stopped and asked questions.” Walters said.
Canadian Border Services Agency representatives were not immediately available to comment.