Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reflections on ASEH and Toronto

After approximately nine hours on the train, we finally reached the border. I thought to myself, this is like the "underground railroad," except it's not underground and it is actually a railroad. But here we go, crossing into Canada like fugitive slaves.

Niagara Gorge; the border between the United States and Canada

The moment our train was across the gorge, we were then officially in Niagara Falls, Ontario—Canada—and the train came to a screeching halt. 

Border Control. 

As a child I used to cross into Canada from the United States all the time. My father traveled to McGill University in Montreal annually for an academic conference, and my mother, my brother, and I tagged along. We stayed at the Holiday Inn, swam in the hotel pool, and explored the Old City. I don't remember ever getting interrogated at the border about what children's television shows I watched, or what my feelings were towards eating all my vegetables. Therefore, when Canadian Border Control gave me a hard time this week at Niagara Falls, the whole thing took me a bit by surprise.

I can just imagine the meeting where it all went down. The United States representative of Homeland Security said to the Canadian rep, "We are afraid of X getting into our country through the porous Canadian border." (For X, substitute "terrorists," "Mexicans," or whatever enemy was then the fashion of the week in Washington, D.C.) Then the Canadian said, "But it has always been this way." The U.S. rep then said, "yes, but you see, we have this military-industrial complex thing-y here, where companies that produce new border control technologies lobby our government to pass laws requiring that states use these technologies." "Oh," replied the Canadian. "And so the short of it," continued the U.S. rep, "is that we are going to make you institute these new border control policies in Canada, otherwise we will blame your country when X makes its way into our country and ends up X-ing up a lot of good Americans."

Now, the real history of how the U.S.-Canada border got all screwed up is probably a different story. First, I am probably making the Americans seem too sinister, and I am likely letting the Canadians off the hook here. But this is the story that played in my mind as I waited in line—for ten minutes, then twenty minutes, and so forth—for my turn to pass through the hoops of Canadian border control.

When it was finally my turn, this is pretty much exactly what happened:

I hand the woman at the desk my passport.
"What is your final destination?" she asks.
"Toronto."
"Visiting friends or family?"
"No," I reply. "I am attending a conference."
At that moment the look in her eyes change. She scribbles something on a piece of paper that is my ticket into Canada. 
"What kind of conference is this?" she asks, now in a more forceful and suspicious tone.
"Well, it is the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History," I say. 
Pause. "Do you have an invitation?"
"You mean, a letter of invitation?" I ask, remembering that the conference organizers had offered letters of invitation to those applying for visas, but as a U.S. citizen—and thus not needing a visa to enter Canada—I do not have one. "I was told that as a U.S. citizen I do not need a letter of invitation," I say.
"Who told you that?" she barks back. "They should have talked to us first."
"What?!" was the look on my face. Although I did my best to not vocalize it.
"Where are you staying?" she then asks.
"At the Strathcona Hotel in downtown Toronto."
Pause. "Go over there," she says, pointing towards a round man with a gun at his waist.

At this point I still thought I was going to make it through. The round man took my luggage and put it through an X-ray machine. Meanwhile he told me to stand right "there," pointing to a very nondescript spot in the middle of the room.
When my bags came out of the X-ray machine, I went to grab them, but he casually stepped between me and my bags and grabbed them with his own two hands. Then he took my bags up to a counter, and started opening them, and started throwing stuff around on the counter. Mind you he never said one word about all this to me...even as I watched him do it.

So I stood there while he took out each of my neatly folded shirts and pants and ruffled them up with latex-covered hands, looking for whatever little X I might have stashed in my clothing. (For X, substitute "drugs," "bombs," or whatever else you think that I shouldn't have stuffed into my dress clothing on my way to an academic conference.) Meanwhile the mean lady finally came back to question me further. But first she just grabbed my passport and started typing things into a computer. While both officers were working diligently to discover my illegality, they never once said anything to me. It took me finally blurting out, "So is there something in particular that made you suspicious, or is this just a random search?!" And to that, they did not answer.

Then the woman asked me if I have ever been arrested. "Yes," I say, "arrested but not convicted." They both look up. "Tell me what happened," she says. "I was arrested at a protest against the Iraq War in 2003," I say, "and the charges were eventually thrown out." "How long after the arrest were they thrown out?" "I don't remember, maybe a few weeks or so." "Why were you arrested?" I explain that a police officer had kneed me in the back and pushed me to the ground, then zip-tied my wrists behind my back and put me in a police wagon. I was charged with "Obstructing Government Administration," to which all heads pop up to look at me from across the room, as if I had just admitted that I lived in a cave in Northwest Pakistan and was a member of Al-Qaeda. 

Then she questions me about my legal defense, and we get into an argument about whether I was really convicted or not of "OGA," because although the charges were thrown out, I still had to make a donation to a local food bank. I explain that this kind of legal settlement is not an admission of guilt. She disagrees. I want to be like, look, lady, I am working on my Ph.D. and I might just know more about this than you do... but I don't get the chance because then the round guy, thoroughly bored with searching my luggage, starts questioning me:

"What do you do?" he asks.
"What do I do?!" I blurt out at him, probably louder and with more anger in my tone than I should have. "What do I do?! I am working on my Ph.D., I am writing my dissertation on nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi, I teach college courses at a university in New York. What do you mean, what do I do?!"
He then asks me to explain what "environmental history" is. I explain that it is a discipline committed to researching the role that nature (or environment) plays in human history. I give some examples, and start rambling on about fossil fuels, global warming, industrial agriculture, etc. Then I figure I probably should just keep my mouth shut, because anyone well versed in knowledge about energy production and industrial agriculture is probably an eco-terrorist, right? 
Then he asks me about my dissertation, and I have to explain that to him. But a few sentences into my "elevator speech" he appears more bored than ever, so I just stop. He had already stopped listening to me.

Other crazy moments in this wild act of international theater?! How about when they asked me at least three times over, "Who invited you to this conference?!" I kept answering, "Anyone can go! No one invited me." I got to imagining that I was in the film Zero Dark Thirty. What? Do they want me to name names? Yes, yes, it's true, Osama Bin Laden personally invited me to attend the American Society for Environmental History conference!! I wondered how long I could hold out against them. Did they have all the equipment ready behind the next door for waterboarding me?

Or how about the fact that I had to show them the Environmental History journals in my luggage just to prove to them that yes, environmental history actually is a scholarly discipline.

Anyway, finally, as Border Control said I was approved to enter the great state of Canada, they also told me that the reason I was pulled aside was because of my arrest record. At that point I wanted to say, "wait, but you didn't even know about that until half-way through the interrogation!" But I decide to keep my mouth shut. I do get in a few last punches though, about how "even the communist People's Republic of China never gave me such a hard time about entering their country...twice!" To which the woman replies, "well, there's a first time for everything. And you should probably get used to it, anyway," she adds. "You've got a record."

I've got a record?! 

I reboard the train, and we are off to Toronto, just hours away. I spend these hours in a very angry mood, angry about border control, angry about state power, angry about citizenship. I keep coming up with lines that I should have said to those border agents. I could have schooled them on the history of border patrol, like, for example, saying that the United States did not even have a Border Patrol until the 1920s. I wanted to school them about how border control is a relatively new thing in world history anyway—tell them to read Adam McKeown's Melancholy Order, for example. Then my mind goes further: I began to wonder why it is that I must be a citizen of the United States, and that they can have a "record" on me, and share that "record" with other countries. Why do I allow myself to be subject to the United States? or any state, for that matter? Then I began to imagine what it would be like to become "stateless." Our government and media often paint "stateless actors" as synonymous with "terrorists," as if those who don't belong to a state are like children without parents, in need of a strong hand to keep them in line. But are we, the people of the world, really children in need of strong states to govern and surveil us? I understand the positive benefits of citizenship: the right to vote and participate in a so-called democracy. But there is a negative side to citizenship, too: that we allow ourselves to be subject to a distant power with control over whether or not we can get into Canada, for example. I really don't understand why we allow states to have this kind of control over us.

And so, by the time our train arrived at Toronto Union Station, I was that much closer to being a full-fledged libertarian / anarchist. :)

My room at the Strathcona Hotel, Toronto

Around 9pm I check into my room at the Strathcona, across the street from the Royal York Hotel, the conference site. The rooms at the Royal York were too expensive for me, so I decided to stay across the street at the slightly-less-expensive "Strath." For between $90 and $100 a night I got this tiny room with a tiny bed, and a tiny window. I should say that the window faced some kind of elevator shaft or something, and absolutely no light came through it. So when I woke up on my first morning there expecting to see some sunlight pouring in the room, and yet it remained dark, well, that really hurt my emotional stability. This was, you could say, a soul-crushing room. It made me think of all the beautiful hostels I had stayed at across the world, where for $30 a night you can get a private room with a real window, and get free breakfast, free internet, and lots of warm, welcoming friendship. But for three times that amount, I was paying for this dungeon of solitary confinement. The fact that my mind turned to Private Bradley Manning, political prisoner of President Barack Obama in the United States, is enough to suggest that this room was soul-crushing, and I only had to spend three nights there, unlike the 1,000 nights in solitary that Manning experienced.

Between the train and the hotel room, I was thoroughly "pissed off" about Canada by the time I went to sleep. Add on top that, the fact that my phone didn't work (because it was Canada), and that I had no internet in the hotel (until I paid a special fee for it, which I did, so that I did not feel completely alone...)—all this added up to making me feel an extreme hatred for Canada. :)        

(Don't worry, Canadians, it gets better!)

The next morning I got all dolled up and went over to the Royal York Hotel across the street for the beginning of the conference.

Royal York Hotel, Toronto

I attended two panels in the morning, then had lunch at the Presidential Lecture. John McNeill's humor saved us all from complete brain-overload. Then I meant to attend another panel, but got side-tracked talking with old friends. This is, of course, the most redeeming quality of attending academic conferences: seeing people that you haven't seen in a while, and catching up. And you never have to feel guilty about skipping out on a panel here or there, because you are never the only one doing it. Indeed, some more senior scholars, who will remain unnamed, seemed to attend very few panels overall, while on the other hand they could be seen in one of the various hotel bars at any random hour of the day. As another graduate student explained it to me, "That's what we get to look forward to. Tenure. Then we can booze our way through conferences."

I attended one more panel in the afternoon, then it was off to find some dinner. I thought that some old friends were going to meet up with me for dinner, but they never showed. Luckily I bumped into another good friend and we grabbed drinks and bar food at one of the environmental historian-dominated hotel bars. We watched curling on the television. I guess this is what Canadians call a "sports bar."

That evening was the plenary session, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. A panel of Canadian scholars (and, to a degree, also activists) presented about the oil sands / tar sands of Alberta and the political fight now underway regarding the exploitation of this resource. Here in the United States we hear most about it through the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands through the middle of the United States. We heard at the plenary about how indigenous groups in Canada are opposed to these pipelines—the same is true in the United States, too. Most unfortunately, however, there was little time at the end of the plenary for questions, answers, and discussion. Some people stood up and threw what the speakers had said right back at them. One woman from Arkansas got up and scolded the panelists for turning a real environmental issue into a philosophical abstraction. Other audience members got up and made similar points: that the speakers were talking "up here" when the tar sands issue was affecting people the most "down here." I thought this was a most useful conversation. I imagined that at least some of these voices were of local Toronto people who had come to hear the presentation, and then were disappointed by its scholarly aloofness. This can be seen as a stark reminder of why we academics can't just talk amongst ourselves all the time, but we have to learn to communicate better with common people about these issues. And we have to learn to listen, and not just talk. And not talk over other people's heads, too.

The whole thing reminded me of the first time I heard William Cronon speak. It was up in the Adirondacks in the mid-2000s. After his talk, a number of local Adirondackers gave him hell: for not really understanding what he was talking about; for "carpetbagging" into their local political issues; et cetera. I loved seeing and hearing all the talk-back from local people. In fact, anytime people "speak truth to power," it is in fact the kind of resistance that we love to write about in our history books. The tension between local and expert knowledge, right? So, it shouldn't make us uncomfortable when the same kind of resistance is thrown up against our scholarly "expertise." Anyway, I only wish the plenary had gotten more raucous, and more argumentative. When we get to the point where we are questioning the entire distinction between the academy and the "outside world," wake me up. I want to hear that, and I have a few things to say, too.

The next day, Friday, I attended one more panel in the morning, then chatted with friends, and then attended a field trip in the afternoon. The field trip was a downtown walking tour of Toronto. It was free, and so many other graduate students were on the tour, and we all became friends.

Our guide on the downtown walking tour

The walking tour lasted for four hours, including lunch. It was, after 36 hours in my Strathcona dungeon and after hours upon hours of brain-overload at academic panels, my salvation. Until that moment, I could have been anywhere—anywhere in Canada, at least. But the walking tour showed me that I was, indeed, in Toronto, and this is quite the interesting city, too.

International Style architecture? 1960s-ish, Toronto. Financial District: Banking behemoths.

More International Style. Late 20th-century, Toronto. Financial District: Banking behemoths.

Old City Hall. Almost demolished, but saved. Very, very early twentieth-century?

New City Hall. High modernism / Futurism all the way, no? 1960s-ish?

We wandered into Toronto's Chinatown for lunch, and had dim sum at a Cantonese establishment. Afterwards, kept walking...

A Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown that actually used to be Toronto's Labor Lyceum! And, crazy enough, our guide told us that Emma Goldman lay in state here shortly after her death!

Just a crazy view of Toronto. I like the vertically here: the tree, the obelisk, the buildings, the CN tower.

Meet the Jetsons. Toronto: City of the Future.

Twenty-first century Toronto. Condominiums as far as the eye can see...

And there you have it, a tour of this truly "modern" city: one of the fastest growing cities in North America, and a city that, at first glance, seems to have almost no history. Indeed, at least in my photograph collection, there is no building from the 19th century or earlier. Where is 19th-century Toronto? I want to know. Because when you walk around New York City, the 19th century is everywhere, at least in my eyes. But Toronto appears to be much more of a 20th-21st century.

That evening I attended the graduate student caucus meeting and graduate student reception. We had more prizes than usual for the graduate student raffle, so almost everyone—except for a very unlucky 5-10 individuals—won something. Many of us then migrated to a local bar... migrated as in took the Metro (the subway), which was a fun experience, except that I had to find my way back to the hotel late at night by subway after a couple drinks. But here I am writing this blog post, so you know that everything worked out in the end!

Friday redeemed Canada—yes, the entire country—for me. ;)

Saturday I attended more panels in the morning, then headed over to the Executive Committee meeting in the afternoon. I will not post anything about that meeting here.

Five hours later, I emerged, quite exhausted, and plopped down on a couch in the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. Then it was back to conference activities for the final lap of this marathon: the business meeting, the poster reception, the presentation of awards. The smiling faces of all my friends—old and new—kept me going. I was very happy, too, to see a friend win an award at the awards ceremony. 

Then it was off to dinner with a new friend, then back to the hotel. Then back to my hotel, the Strath, to get my stuff. Then a short walk through light snow (yes, snow in April) to the Toronto Coach Terminal. At midnight I boarded a bus to NYC.

At 2 AM we stopped at the Peace Bridge between Canada and the United States and I sleepy-eyed got into line again to go through the dreaded Border Control. This time we were on the U.S. side. Lots of young college-aged folks from Canada were interrogated and forced to provide their fingerprints or retina scans. I wanted to step in and say, "you probably have the legal right to refuse to hand over this biological information about yourselves to the United States." But, alas, I am not the ACLU incarnate. I don't really know the specific legalities here. I just tend to think that the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution protect us from some of the more ridiculous and intrusive aspects of state surveillance and bio-politics. But I was too sleepy-eyed, and too concerned with my own ability to cross the border, to speak up about this, to save my comrades.

When it was my turn, the agent took my passport and asked, "Citizenship?"
"U.S."
"Anything to declare?"
"No."
"You're good."

And that was that. I was back in the United States. As much as I had harped on-and-on before about how citizenship subjects us to the exploitation of the state, now I was grateful for my U.S. citizenship, because if I was truly "stateless" then I would have had an even harder time getting into the United States than I did trying to get out of it. (But still, state borders and state citizenship—not to mention arrest records, fingerprints, and retina scans—don't have to exist. It is our job as historians to remind the public that these things were made at some point by humans and can be unmade or remade as we see fit.)

And that was my experience in Canada. It is always a joy to attend the ASEH conference, and it is always an adventure, too. You can read my "Reflections on ASEH and Madison" from last year's conference. I look forward to seeing everyone next year in San Francisco!!