Lost in Limbo

I stopped by the post office this morning to mail out a small package.  It was a few small collectible items that were being sent out as part of a trade with another person I had only met over the internet.  There was no line to wait in, so that was lucky, yet when I handed over the package I was handed back a form to fill out.

“What's this?” I said.

”The package is going to Canada.  You are required to fill out this form.”

Strange.  I had mailed to this person before without needing  to fill out any paperwork  The only difference was that this time I was sending a small box instead of  padded envelope.  Somehow that made a difference (even though it cost the same.)

I was perplexed by the form.  Oh, it was simple enough, sign here, date there, write in an address, etc. I was confused by the fact that half of it was in French. I guess it made sense, given Canada has two official languages and all, but it still confounded me to the point that the clerk had to keep instructing me on what to do.  My mind was blank, and I even read French.

Anyway, the language hurdle aside, I was stumped at what to do with the final check box.  I was asked whether the package was a gift or a sold item.  It was neither.  It was a trade.  I was terrified.  I did not know what to do. 

Years ago I worked for a company in Seattle that was contracted to build software for Corel out of Canada. We were building a spreadsheet product that pretty much cloned most of Excel 4.0.  I was responsible for the architecture that handled the user interface and rendering.  Rendering was a big deal to Corel, since they had their own specialized graphics libraries, and given the fact that some of their own employees out of Ottawa were building components they intended to blend into the product, my piece of the project was the topic of much discussion.

At one point in the project Corel needed one of us to fly out and meet with the development team on their end, to talk about how the code functioned and how they could interface, etc.  So I packed a bag and hopped a plane headed for Ottawa.  Everything was going fine until the plane neared the Canadian border.  Then the stewardess handed out a form to fill out, so you could declare what you were bringing into the country.  One question asked non-residents whether the trip was for business or pleasure.  Of course, I marked 'business.' 

Boy was I stupid.

When the plane landed and I got to customs I was pulled aside for questioning, anyone that answered 'business' was pulled aside.  It was late, nearly midnight, and that was west-coast time.  A customs agent in his early twenties, scrawny and nervous started to ask me questions. 

”What is the nature of your business arrangement?”  

I was flummoxed.  What was I supposed to say?  I didn't have any idea.  Being an honest person, I blurted out whatever made sense to me.  “My company has a contract with Corel and so I'm going up there to teach them how to use our code.”  All of that was true, but it only made things worse.

He wanted details.  What company? What contract? How much are they paying me to teach? Why was the value of this transaction not disclosed?  Has your company filled out the appropriate forms, disclosing the contractual relationship?

“Uh...”  Of course, I didn't know anything.

This went on for hours.  It seemed every word out of my mouth kept hitting minefields.  We were in pitched battle over semantics. No matter what I said I could not get the point across that no money was changing hands during this visit, that I was sure my company had done all the appropriate paperwork, etc.  He was prepared to only understand one kind of business relationship, one involving direct sales, and so he kept trying to force our conversation to fit that mold.  I kept insisting that was not the case.  We were getting nowhere.  My brain hurt.  I was in Limbo.

Apparently we had used up too much of his time.  If we did not get this resolved soon, he threatened to send me back to the US, at my own expense.  In only a few hours the sun would rise and I needed to be at a meeting.  Somehow this kicked my brain into high gear.  Maybe it was just so late my internal clock was already starting to re-activate and I my mind was coming out of the fog.  Something I said then changed his mind.  Or maybe the threat was only a last ditch attempt to get me to admit the true nature of my stealth sales business, and he caved when I did not bite.

He backed off, and let me pass into Canada.  I was free.  

Later in the week two other co-workers flew up.  Neither had the problem I had.  When I asked what they had done one said, “Oh, I just marked down 'pleasure.'  You never mark down 'business'.“  They other one said,  “just tell them you're here for a meeting.“  I slapped my head and let out a big “doh!” in true Homer Simpson style. 

So you can see why I was puzzled at what to respond on the form at the post office.  It was not a gift or a sold item.  It was a trade.  Technically, I guess that would be a sold item.  There is an exchange, and there is value to the items.  It is just barter and not cash.  The whole point of the question and the ordeal I experienced earlier was just a means by which Canada tries to account for all international transactions so they can be taxed appropriately. 

Of course, I put down 'gift'.  Now, I fully expect them to figure out the lie, and for a Canadian Mountie to come hunt me down for this indiscretion.  I think I should start packing now, so I can flee at a moments notice.

But I digress.


Comments (11)

  1. Matt Hawley says:

    Good story and good to know if I ever venture to Canada.

  2. Canuck says:

    Its only 10 times worse for Canadians traveling to the US for "business".

  3. Jason Millar says:

    Ottawa, not Ottowa. Mountie, not Mounty. I’m sure I’d get called if I failed to spell Washyngton right 😀

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks for the spell check. I always seem to get that wrong. I’ll update the post. No harm intended. I was not attempting to disparage Canada in any way.

  5. Matt says:

    It’s almost as funny of a story on my way back. When I arrived at US Customs I was greeted with "Passport please." I’ve been to Canada many times by car and never needed a passport so I didn’t even think to bring one. Fortunately it only took about 20 minutes to convince them that I was in fact a resident.


  6. Jason Millar says:

    Hey, no problem. I’m not one of the Canucks who went off on Rory last week 🙂 And I’m sure, at some point in my life, I have spelled Washington wrong….

  7. The Younger Brother says:

    I too had a similar experience. I was flying up to Mississagua near Toronto on "business" to meet with some developers at a company called Kaston Chase. I flew up with another member of my team. When we hit customs in Canada they asked me the purpose of my visit. I stated I was asked to attend a meeting at this software company and then planned to do a little sight seeing around Toronto. He waved me through without a second thought. My team mate had a different fate. She stated that she was coming up to Canada for work. Don’t ever use the two words "for work". They instantly flagged her and spent the better portion of 3 hours being interrogated. When she was finally set free she joked about having a full body search, but knowing how utterly ridiculous the whole process was I have my doubts she wasn’t telling the truth.

    The return trip was just the exact opposite and I fell into the same pitfall Matt explained. I too have visited Canada many times by car and have never needed a passport, so I didn’t even think to take one on this trip. However, the flight coming into the US is considered an international flight which goes through customs. They don’t know whether you’re coming from Canada or any other country. I showed him my Washington State driver’s license which he laughed at and remarked that it didn’t prove my citizenship. I chuckled and said that it was good enough to get me beer so it had to amount for something. He just smiled and waved me through.

    The moral of the story; when traveling out of the country, business is always pleasure, and always bring your passport (not the Microsoft kind; but that one would be wise too).

  8. Mike says:

    I worked as a Canada Customs Officer (but not at the Ottawa airport) for a number of years, and I can understand your dilemna. One of my university profs once asked me, "What’s the easiest way to get through the border?" – my answer was "Be honest." His reply: "No, besides that!"

    The unfortunate part in your story is that your company and Corel should have done their homework up front and ensured that you had proper paperwork if necessary and that you had at least been properly briefed. When I travel into the US to do training, I have to bring my university degree (the original, not a copy), my passport, a letter from my employer, a letter from the training centre that my company is under contract, and $50 US (and usually exact change please, cash only). I can apply for a temporary work permit under the terms of the NAFTA agreement at the border and the US Immigration officer has the power to arbitrarily deny my entry regardless of the authenticity of my request and my compliance with NAFTA, to which the US is a signatory. I cannot apply ahead of time for pre-approval.

    In one situation, I flew to Vancouver, rented a car, and drove to Bellevue to teach. There was a risk that I could be denied entry at the Pacific Highway crossing by the US, and I would be unable to teach the class, likely unable to fly back home, and it would have been a real mess. Luckily, I was able to enter wihtout any issue.

    But I stand by my original answer. Be honest. If you had said "sold item" (which was true, except that you received payment by trade rather than currency), you would have had to specify a value for the package. The receiver may have had to pay the applicable taxes when s/he received it in Canada. It may have been selected to be opened and examined by Canada Customs (even gifts are often examined, because frequently items are marked as gifts on the outside with an invoice or eBay transaction printout on the inside – THEN it becomes a potential problem). Nothing more. There are exemptions given to items under a certain value (it used to be $25 CAD) and exemptions for surface mail envelopes (which is why the envelope you mailed previously didn’t require the label).

    Be honest. And come back to visit us again!


  9. Jason Millar says:

    I believe the TN VISA is what Mike is referring to.


  10. Mike says:

    Jason, that is exactly what I am referring to. Reading it again, it sounds like you don’t need it. There is considerable discretion given to US INS officers on this point.

    I don’t agree that anyone should try to figure out the "easiest answer" (ie. "business is pleasure") in order to cross with the least amount of hassle.

    Having been on the inside of the Canadian system, I steadfastly refuse to lie or distort the truth when being questioned at any border. (However, you can usually avoid some hassle by only answering the questions that are asked.)

    I have had various people (often supervisors) request that I "just say you’re going down for a holiday" and I will not do it.


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