Chilliwack seniors aboard a chartered bus returning from a four-hour daytrip to a U.S. casino last Thursday are furious about the way they were treated by Canada Customs agents.
“We’re not the Taliban, we’re not smuggling drugs … yet we were treated like dogs,” passenger Rodney J. Philippson said.
The bus with about 53 seniors aboard was detained at the Sumas crossing for nearly two hours, and tempers rose with the temperature as seniors were ordered to surrender their passports and remain on the bus, which had no air conditioning after its engines were ordered shut off.
One 85-year-old lady collapsed and was taken to hospital, after a passenger called 911 and asked police to intervene.
“We felt we were being held hostage,” Philippson said.
Another passenger, who asked not to be named because of her job with a security company, said border agents never came on board to explain what was going on.
Passengers were asked to deposit their passports in a “plastic bag” which the tour operator would then give to a border agent for inspection inside the customs office, she said.
“I put mine in the bag, much against my better judgment,” she said.
The seniors were told that anyone who refused could be arrested.
Tour operator Hilda Walker said seniors are unused to the new passport policy, and reluctant to surrender the document, especially since the Canadian government makes a point of telling them to “never release your passport.”
She said seniors feared what could happen, if their passports were copied, stolen or lost while out of sight in the customs office.
Walker believes she has lost business because of the incident, as some passengers have already told her they wouldn’t be coming back.
“I felt very betrayed,” she said, about the incident. “I travel around the world, and I’ve never been treated this way.”
A spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency said an internal investigation of the incident has been launched.
“It is unfortunate that the travelers on the bus experienced a delay yesterday,” Faith St. John said in a Friday email to The Progress.
“We are aware of the situation, and are looking into what factors may have contributed.”
However, she said according to CBSA records, the bus arrived during peak hours Thursday, and the border crossing was “extremely busy” with other traffic.
She also said the shift superintendent boarded the bus to speak with the passengers, and apologized for the delay.
St. John was not available Monday to clarify if the officer spoke to the passengers before they were asked to surrender their passports.
Abbotsford Const. Ian MacDonald said he reviewed the 911 tape and the request at that time seemed more for medical than police assistance, so an ambulance was dispatched.
In hindsight, he said perhaps a police unit should have been dispatched as well, but there would be little an officer could do to “mitigate” the plight of the seniors since the border is under federal jurisdiction.
The bus arrived at the border crossing at about 5:30 p.m., according to one passenger, and did not leave until about 7 p.m.