a
 biography  press  pictures

 

CRUEL BRITANNIA

God may the save the Queen, but what about the rest of us?

lmclaren@globeandmail.com

It's Victoria Day weekend at last - time to fire up the barbecue, crack open a domestic microbrew and contemplate our glorious and historied relationship with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Ain't it grand being a member of the Commonwealth? All those cute little heads on the currency, the sophisticated charms of MichaŽlle Jean, the Queen paintings of Charles Pachter, that highbrow "u" in "colour" and "neighbour" and of course the scintillating Toronto Empire Club luncheon series.

My ancestors fought in the Battle of Dieppe and I grew up singing God Save the Queen at school every morning; there was even a picture of Her Majesty looking pretty in a jaunty blue sash right beside the classroom clock. As Canadians, we're loyal to the Queen and she, in turn, is loyal to us, right?

Don't count on it in today's Britain.

Last week, the Home Office officially "named and shamed" a list of 17 individuals banned from Britain, whether they plan to travel here or not. The List (as it has been dubbed) includes a handful of Islamic religious extremists, a couple of anti-gay Christian preachers and, most controversially, the right-wing U.S. shock jock Michael Savage - who, like a true Yank, is threatening to sue the British Home Secretary for damages.

As yet, The List contains no Canadians, though I'd be happy to suggest one or two if Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is on the hunt - Ernst Zundel, say, or, if he's not available, Ed the Sock.

The move has been roundly mocked in the British press as "demented" and "intellectually bankrupt," and I agree.

However, as a foreigner in Britain, the story also sent a chill up my spine. Those of us who travel regularly to this small island would be smart to pay close attention to The List, because it's the latest - and most extreme - move in a series of border restrictions introduced by the British government since the economic downturn last fall; others include phasing out the Commonwealth-specific Working Holiday visa, heightening education and financial restrictions on migrant workers and probationary delays for foreigners waiting to be granted citizenship.

The result of this new normal at the formerly quite welcoming British border will probably be a decline in the number of foreigners - many of them from Commonwealth nations - allowed to enter Britain.

"From an immigration standpoint, the Commonwealth is now a myth," Nicolas Rollason, a senior immigration lawyer at the London law firm Kingsley Napley, said in an interview this week. "There has been a shift away from the Commonwealth countries and toward the EU."

He adds that these are "protectionist measures" that, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously said earlier this year, are meant to protect "British jobs for British workers."

What does all this mean for your average Helen Mirren-loving, Coronation Street-watching Empire Loyalist-descended Canuck? Well, you might want to plan your year abroad somewhere else - or, to put it in the Queen's English, Sod the bloody Commonwealth.

I should know.

I was recently turned away from the British border on my way back from working at a children's refuge in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

The experience was mildly traumatizing. Not because I did anything wrong, but because I was treated as though I had.

After explaining my complicated (but perfectly legal) situation to the customs official - I have a house and job in Toronto, a boyfriend in London and an expired British writer's visa in my passport, which I have not renewed because I don't wish to work or officially reside in Britain - I was taken to a small room where I was searched, interrogated and finally denied entry to Britain on the grounds that the customs official simply did not believe my story.

The experience was eye-opening, especially for a white, middle-class Canadian like me. First, the border cop went through all my reporter's notebooks, asking me to explain passages headed "bribing government officials" and "local corruption" (I'd been doing a story about Africa, for heaven's sake!). Then I was taken to a communal detention cell, divested of my belongings apart from a novel and a cardigan and told to wait. I was not allowed to receive visitors or have Internet access. On one wall was a public telephone, which was constantly in use by a succession of young Muslim men who prayed regularly and looked about as happy to be there as I was.

Several hours later, an extremely unpleasant woman came and informed me tersely that I was being sent back to Morocco - my last point of entry.

I begged to return to Canada and at first she flatly refused. I wept, argued and even threatened civil disobedience; after 30 hours of detention, I eventually found myself being escorted by two guards in a cage van to an Air Canada flight back to Toronto - at my own expense, of course. As we were waiting to board, one of my escort guards tried to cheer me up by pointing out that I shouldn't take it personally, as they had "been stopping a lot more Americans these days."

The Air Canada flight crew - who were instructed not to give me back my passport until we were in Canadian airspace - brought me an extra glass of chardonnay after takeoff and I nearly fainted with gratitude.

Within a few weeks, I had obtained entry clearance to return to Britain - the British High Commission in Ottawa, thankfully, believed my story - and back I came. But the whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to British immigration policy.

I no longer assume any special affinity to Britain just because I grew up with a picture of the Queen in my classroom. This Victoria Day, I'll be singing God Save the Queen as usual, but you can rest assured it'll be the Sex Pistols' version.


 

back to press