A guide to the weird things seized by Canadian border guards in 2016
Canada’s border guards could throw a weird and elaborate Christmas party with all the things they confiscated at the border in 2016. Booze, shatter, bacon, guns, porn, a horse, a small plane, and $100,000 of gold jewelry were just some of the items people tried to smuggle across the Canada-US border this year.
VICE News combed through public reports, documents obtained through freedom of information requests and news articles to come up with this strange breakdown of the Canada Border Services Agency’s treasure trove.
Tusks, both wooly mammoth and narwhal
On September 20, two Canadians returned home with a bunch of “antiquities,” including a woolly mammoth tusk worth more than $6,000.
But the pair told border guards that their stash was worth a mere $760 — as a result, they were hit with more than $3,000 in fines.
Those on-the-spot fines, slapped on border-crossers who aren’t forthcoming with the guards, are often much more than if the person had simply declared the item. If the importer doesn’t pay the fine, the agency seizes the item until they pay up.
The Indiana Jones wanna-bes would have paid just $98 up-front, if they had declared the true value of the long-extinct mammoth.
It’s been a bad year for exotic animal tusk smugglers, as a cross-border investigation finally broke up an elaborate narwhal tusk ring. In March, VICE News published a deep dive into how Canadian and American police managed to break up that tusk trade.
A small plane, and some stolen cars
On Oct. 12, a Canadian landed his brand new plane at an airport in Sarnia after buying it for $110,000 in the U.S.
He neglected to tell Canadian border authorities that he planned on bringing the fixed-wing aircraft back, so the authorities seized the blue-and-yellow plane and slapped nearly $60,000 in fines on it.
Halifax border officials had a more lucrative time screening for cars, finding 32 stolen vehicles over the summer that were destined for foreign countries, with a total value of about $1 million.
Drugs and alcohol
Fentanyl, cocaine, steroids, weed, booze, and tobacco — Canada’s border guards have seen it all this year. When the CBSA seizes drugs, it hands them over to local police or the RCMP.
Border officials have seized fentanyl 32 times across the country between May and September, VICE News reported this fall. The total amount of fentanyl seized during that time was 8.46 kg, which is enough to make 8.4 million pills, and most of it was shipped from China or Hong Kong through the Vancouver International Mail Centre.
In one case on Sept. 18, border agents searched two Americans who were driving into Canada over the Rainbow Bridge and found 1.5 grams of suspected cocaine, and one gram of suspected fentanyl. They weren’t charged, but they were fined $800 and weren’t allowed into Canada.
On August 3 at Alberta’s southern border, officials also seized three grams of a substance suspected to be shatter, which is a highly concentrated form of THC. The Colorado man who was carrying the shatter had hidden it in lip gloss containers. He was blocked from entering Canada.
Baby lizards and other animals
In October, a Gregory Anderson became a cautionary tale after trying to smuggle six infant Uromastyx Ornate — a small, colourful lizard endemic to the Middle East, and on a list of endangered species in Israel — in the pocket of his hoodie.
Anderson was fined $6,000 and pleaded guilty to making false statements after he failed to declare the baby lizards.
According to Reptiles Magazine, the Ornate Uromastyx Lizards that Anderson smuggled in are also known as “uros.” They have colourful skin, spiky tails, round bellies and are small enough to hold in your hand.
In August, a woman found herself in a similar spot after trying to import a horse into Canada, saying she received it as a gift and it was worth only $500. In fact, she paid a cool $5,500 for the stallion, so they fined her $2,600.
But the story has a happy ending: she paid the money and was allowed into Canada with her horse.
The CBSA told VICE News that 586 animals and birds, including the lizards, were seized by the agency in 2016 because they were in violation of the Customs Act. The CBSA detains the animals until other government departments can deal with them. The lizards were handed over to Environment and Climate Change Canada. We don’t know where the creatures ended up after that.
Cheese and various meats
Canada’s border officials charge a 246 percent tariff on any cheese and dairy that enters Canada. If the importer doesn’t pay it, officials seize the cheese.
Along with seized cheese, the CBSA also confiscates food items and turns them over to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The agency’s 2016 April to June list of non-compliant and disposed imported food items mostly consisted of meat and fish, including halibut, smoked mackerel, fishcakes, bacon, cured ham, and chicken wings. But the agency also lists dried plums, melon soda, noodles, cookies, crackers, chips and candy.
Guns and other weapons
In 2016, the CBSA seized a total of 619 guns, and another 7,728 prohibited weapons including knives. When border agents find serious items like illegal guns, drugs, and child porn, they seize them and keep them in an array of different storage facilities.
In one case, on Sept. 24, a New York resident who was previously turned away at the border tried to drive into Canada across the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, telling officials he was planning to go bear hunting. He had hidden a semi-automatic handgun into his seat cushion. He was arrested and charged with making false statements, evading compliance and smuggling.
The agency has seen a marked increase in the number of guns smuggled into British Columbia and Alberta this year. Mostly, they’re personal guns that belong to Americans travelling into Canada. The Pacific Highway District saw a 116 percent increase in seized firearms from Jan. 1 to July 31 this year compared to last year. And in southern Alberta there was a 10 percent increase in the same time frame this year versus last year.
It got so bad that the border agency had to launch a public relations campaign to remind Americans that Canada has gun control laws.
A journalist’s phone
Citing an attack on press freedom, a journalist went public in November after U.S. customs officials temporarily confiscated his phones.
Photographer Ed Ou was heading from Canada to North Dakota to cover the Standing Rock protests when he was sent to secondary screening, and border officials asked him to unlock his phones, saying, “We just need to look into your cellphone to be sure there’s no photos of you posing next to some dead body somewhere,” Ou recalled in a Facebook post. When he refused, he said they took his phones, interrogated him for six hours and denied him entry to the U.S. When his phones were returned, the SIM cards had been removed.
Thanks to Canada’s antiquated laws on obscenity, hate propaganda, and ‘crime comics’ — a prohibition that dates back to a 1940s-era moral panic over violent comic books — border guards have the authority to confiscate any book, comic, movie, or magazine they suspect of being too obscene for Canadian eyes.
The government publishes a quarterly list of all of the titles that are, and aren’t, allowed across the border.
This year, the border guards seized the DVDs “Black Rituals of Satanic Sex Cults,” “Dungeons of Degradation,” “Love of Man and Beast Flirting, Try a Variety of Positions for Sexual Intercourse” and several volumes of the comic book anthology “Comic AG Super Erotic Manga.”
And, not to be caught unaware, this year Canada also banned the title “Smuggling Books across the Border: An Illustrated Diary” by Leila Abdelrazaq.
Those titles were, ostensibly, destroyed.
But not all of the seized material was deemed obscene. “Horny Lesbian Sisters 2,” was seized, but later deemed “admissible” and returned to its rightful owner.
Beyond just seizing some less-than-mainstream but otherwise harmless movies, border agents have also seized child porn. In October, border officials confiscated viagra and a USB stick full of porn of teenage boys and children from a man with a Michigan license plate.
$100,000 worth of gold jewelry
A woman who allegedly smuggled valuable jewelry into Canada on Sept. 9 has completely disappeared. When she drove into Canada across the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge, border agents searched her car and found several empty jewelry boxes. They looked through her purse and found a treasure trove of gold jewelry — including earrings, bracelets and necklaces — she said was from Dubai. She was allowed back into Canada, but the border agents kept the jewelry. It was appraised and found to be worth $99,000.
She was later charged with not reporting the jewelry, making false statements and attempting to evade taxes, and a warrant was issued for her arrest, but as of the end of October, she was long gone.
Cover: Illustration by Ethan Tennier-Stuart