In Honour of Canada Day, July 1: Going To Windsor Used To Be Easy

June 28, 2012, 4:28 PM by  Bill McGraw

Many people become nostalgic over distant cities they have visited, and they lament their inability to return on a regular basis. Paris, Florence and San Francisco come to mind.

I long for Windsor.

Yes, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The city that is so close that I can look out my office window and watch Windsorites walking along the Detroit River.

I used to love going to Windsor. It was such a casual thing that someone at work would say, “Let’s go to Windsor for lunch,” and we would jump in the car, and 15 minutes and one tunnel ride later, we would be sitting at a table, remarking about the bottle of vinegar next to the mustard and ketchup.

Windsor is Detroit’s most interesting suburb. My Windsor memories include watching the Spitfires at funky old Windsor Arena; eating at the Yummy House restaurant; hanging out at Plunkett’s; reading British newspapers at a store on Ouellette; marveling at the Detroit skyline from the riverfront and buying a 12-pack of beer at those Soviet-like stores where your order rolls out from the back on a long, metal plank.

That was the 20th Century.

After Sept. 11, 2001, authorities tightened the border, traffic backed up and crossing became an ordeal. In the entire 21st Century, I’ve been to Windsor only a handful of times.

The long lines have diminished, and entering Canada isn’t a problem. But returning to the United States can be a huge pain.

About 18 months ago I crossed into Detroit via the Ambassador Bridge one night with a friend. We were coming back from a weekend in Toronto.

The Customs and Border Patrol agent in the booth quizzed us closely, asking us our occupations, ages, what we had done in Toronto, the nature of our relationship and how long we had known each other. He also wanted to know how much money we had.

Then he announced it was our “lucky day.” A computer, he claimed, had selected us for a secondary inspection.

We walked into an office, where another agent yelled at us to stand on a line that was painted on the floor and keep our eyes looking forward. Outside, agents searched our car.

We answered questions. They checked our documents in their computer. We answered more questions. I reminded him that we had even declared the chocolate Canadian Easter bunnies we had bought. They let us go after about 30 minutes.

I will acknowledge the agents left the inside of our car looking undisturbed. But it was a jarring experience. After a couple of other intrusive encounters with American border agents, I don’t find myself in the mood to go to Windsor much.

I’m not alone. The number of Americans going into Ontario these days is less than it was in the 1970s.

I learned that one day recently when I braved a border crossing to visit William Anderson, a specialist on the border at the University of Windsor.

Prof. Anderson’s office, appropriately, virtually sits on the border, near the bridge, close to a long, lovely riverfront park.

He said there are a number of reasons for the drop in visits, including the rise in the Canadian dollar, the recession and the requirement that border crossers have a passport or enhanced driver’s license.

He also said the treatment by inspectors clearly turns off visitors. Windsor residents and people with business at the university tell him crossing the border is a major annoyance.

“Most law-abiding people don’t like being looked at suspiciously,” Anderson said. “It is unpleasant.”

Another border expert is Thomas Klug, a history professor at Marygrove College. He noted the beefing up of border security was in motion well before 9/11, but said the relatively new passport rule “runs against the grain of the informal border-crossing practices most people who live in the border zone had going back generations.”

Klug said border-crossers now have an obligation to convince the U.S. inspector that you have a right to enter the country.

“In the old days you simply told the inspector you were an American citizen and, if asked, you told them where you were born,” he recalled.

The good old days.

If anything, the U.S. border has become militarized, with cameras trained on Canada across the St. Clair River and actual drones patrolling sections of the Canadian border out west. At least these drones are unarmed. 

So far.

I had a typically nice time in Windsor during my visit to Prof. Anderson’s office. I bought the Toronto Globe and Mail and had lunch at Sir Cedric’s Fish and Chips on W. University. It was delicious, though the bill for halibut and a pop was kind of steep at $17.00 Canadian.

Exiting the tunnel, I braced myself as I approached the border-guard booth through that forest of cameras and poles and detectors and warning signs.

The guard took my passport and entered some information in a computer. She asked me what I had done in Windsor. “Was that visit to the university business or pleasure?” she inquired with a pleasant tone.

Then she sent me on my way. And she told me to have a good day.

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