A mother travelling with her four-year-old son is outraged that she was roughed up and strip searched at the Ottawa International Airport — an experience her travel agent says is all too common among black travellers.
Charmaine Archer, 42, returned home Tuesday night from a four-day trip to her grandmother's funeral in Jamaica. After customs officials pulled her aside and searched her belongings, she was told she would need to be strip searched because traces of drugs had been found on her toothbrush.
"I said to her, 'No way, that's not going to happen.' I said, 'You guys are going to have to arrest me,'" she said.
Her son was taken out of the room and she was told to turn around while she was handcuffed. She began screaming and crying, Archer said, but did not assault anyone or try to flee.
Border officials threw her to the ground, knelt on her shoulder, and then took her into another room and told her to call a lawyer before proceeding with the search, she recalled.
"I had to lift up my breasts, take off all my clothes, squat and cough and turn around and open up my rectum for them to see up inside," Archer told CBC News. "I was humiliated, I felt powerless, I felt violated, and just think it was a total overuse of power because there was absolutely no reason for them to behave that way with me."
After customs agents found nothing, they let Archer leave and rejoin her son and her husband, who had come to the airport to pick them up.
Archer said she has never had any run-ins with the law. When she asked why she was targeted for a search, she was told it was because she booked her tickets at the last minute, travelled only four days, and "obviously couldn't afford it" because she paid for half the tickets using her credit card.
While rifling through her belongings, a customs agent told her that traces of heroin and THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, were detected on her toothbrush.
Border guards also told her she travels too often, she said.
Archer said she goes to Jamaica once a year.
"It was definite racial profiling," Archer said, adding that the customs officials were all white and she didn't see any Caucasians being pulled aside. Officers may also have believed her weight made it easier for her to hide drugs on her body, she said.
The Canada Border Services Agency told CBC News that it does not use racial profiling. It declined to comment on Archer's specific case, citing privacy concerns, even after she gave the agency permission to release information about her to CBC News.
Ottawa airport has reputation: travel agent
Kerwin Dougan of Voyages G Travel, the agency that sold Archer her tickets, said the Ottawa airport has a bad reputation for targeting blacks.
Dougan said he has worked as a travel agent for two decades and heard dozens of cases similar to Archer's, mainly among black clients. That's why he encouraged Archer to go public with her story.
"The majority of Caribbean descent people coming through the Ottawa airport are randomly picked, randomly body searched, randomly harassed," he said, adding that many people he knows would rather drive to airports in Syracuse, Montreal and Toronto to avoid the hassle.
One problem may be that Ottawa is a smaller airport where customs agents are not as busy, he suggested.
"People always say in this world that Canada is not racist," he added. "I'm sorry, I sit behind this desk and I see it."