All of the following nasty results have happened to my clients. Usually prior to retaining me to get them out of the jams they wound up in, after innocently showing up a Canadian Port of Entry (POE).

No Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) Border Services Officer (BSO) was acting improperly. This was all within their rights under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and Customs Act. BSOs have a huge amount of discretion over how they deal with people who are seeking entry to Canada and are neither citizens nor permanent residents, the only two classes who generally have an absolute right to enter. 

Many of us cross borders so often in our increasingly globalized world, that we’ve become complacent. We forget that many borders used to tougher to get across. And there’s recently a rethickening of borders as more countries demand traveller information prior to arrival, arm their border officials, and impose harsher punishments for violations of immigration and customs regulations. 

The following real examples, with some personal details changed to protect privacy, prove that the last place you want to get near is a border crossing (including air and sea ports of entry) if you can help it. They aren’t the place to be fixing immigration legal issues. Those need to be cleared up long before getting close to a border.

1. Be Refused Entry & Excluded for 12 Months from Canada

Show up at the border as a foreigner with a U-Haul Truck packed with all your worldly goods, and your four foreigner children in tow, saying you’re coming to stay with your girlfriend in Canada - who it’s true you’ve visited dozens of times before, but minus the truck - and not only will the BSOs refuse you entry, but you’ll get excluded from Canada for 12 months. Or more. They’ll even issue an exclusion notice to your two year old. 

Canada demands guarantees that anyone who isn’t a citizen or permanent resident will leave Canada at the end of their status period. Usually in 6 months if admitted as a normal visitor. Maybe longer with a work or study permit, or upon special request. But permissible stays could also be shorter. 

Wondering how best to convince the CBSA and IRCC that you’ll leave Canada as required so that they’ll let you in in the first place? Call an immigration lawyer. Even if you’re stuck at the border. The CBSA will let you do that. 

2. Be Arrested & Charged Because You Forgot About the Gun/Dope/Money in the Trunk

Think coming to Canada for lunch would be fun because you’ve never been here? But honestly forget the 9mm with ammunition properly locked in your trunk because you always drive around with it? You risk not only Customs Act seizures and charges, but also criminal charges that could lead to jail time. 

Even things that are perfectly legal to drive around with on either side of Canada’s borders take on a magical nasty quality when you try to move them through the border forcefield. Guns, drugs and money seem to be the most common things to forget in your vehicle or luggage that could land you in jail. 

It’s easy to forget stuff. The CBSA might believe you honestly forgot whatever you are found to have, and you’ll still get charged. Sanitizing your vehicle or luggage before arriving at a border crossing is the only solution. 

If you do get caught, being VERY, VERY nice and forthright might avoid criminal charges, and only lead to a seizure and Customs Act charges. If you’re stopped by police inside Canada, the advice of say nothing is usually the opposite to being stopped at a border where confessing your sins might work. Maybe. 

Again, ask to call a customs or criminal lawyer before saying anything if you’re found in possession of any serious contraband. They’ll let you do that.

3. Have Your Canadian Status Revoked Because the CBSA Thinks You’re Lying

Flagpoling used to be all the rage. Literally doing a loop from where the Canadian flag flies on one side of the border to where the United States of America flag flies on the other, and back again, saying a quick hi to the US Homeland Security officer as you turn around and head back to see a CBSA officer.

An older version of flagpoling was called the Buffalo Shuffle for foreigners from Southern Ontario who needed to leave Canada to update their status, but wanted to go to Canada’s closest foreign mission. The Canadian consulate in Buffalo, New York (until it was closed) was indeed pretty convenient to Toronto.

But the huge risk you’re taking in physically leaving Canada in order to update your status is that the CBSA BSO you report back to when attempting to reenter might not like what she sees or hears. She might doubt some of your paperwork. Might doubt some of the things you’ve been up to in Canada. 

She might accuse you of illegal work. Or illegal studies. Or of overstaying your status. 

She has the power (sometimes with management consultation) to revoke whatever Canadian status documents you already have. On the spot. And to effectively strand you in the no man’s land between the US and Canada. 

The same can also happen at a Canadian airport POE. Maybe you’ve popped back home overseas for a week to visit your ill parents. And then quickly fly back to Canada, confident you’re going to be let back in, as you’ve got that study permit in hand. 

You never thought your documents would be seized at the POE and you’d be put back on the next plane to where you just arrived from. Your study or work plans wrecked. Perhaps over suspicions that you were working too many hours while studying in Canada. Or had dropped out of your program. If you hadn’t popped out of Canada, the CBSA would likely never have flagged you for that. And if you did get flagged inside Canada, you would have had many more options available to fight to stay in Canada.

Ask to call an immigration lawyer before agreeing to do or say anything in response to accusations of breaching your terms of entry into Canada. They’ll let you do that. 

4. Be Arrested & Locked Up in Prison with Real Criminals Because Your Identity or Status Can’t Be Verified

I had this happen to a Canadian citizen client of mine! But one who had never obtained a passport, had a right to enter the US, and was used to crossing and recrossing the border. 

The client even had ID. But one day out of the blue the CBSA not only decided they doubted his right to enter Canada. They further decided it was necessary to lock him up in prison while they tried to figure out if he was was who he said he was, and if he had status.

It took me a week to organize a detention review hearing to get him out. 

Ask to call an immigration lawyer before they haul you off to jail if the CBSA claims your identity or status can’t be verified. They’ll let you do that. 

5. Be Referred for an Admissibility Hearing and Be Banned for Life From Canada

Sure you’re doing everything the right way to get into Canada, with a nice thick wad of professionally prepared paperwork to present to the CBSA upon your arrival at a land POE? Hire a law firm to draft a Temporary Residence Permit (TRP) application because of a single non-violent criminal conviction in your past life? Present that TRP at the POE, fully disclosing your conviction, even though the CBSA would probably have not have otherwise known about the conviction because of where it happened?

Oh, and did I mentioned you’ve got a Canadian wife? And Canadian children? And a likely Canadian job waiting for your? And all you want to do is settle down to the quiet life near Vancouver?

Think the worst that can happen is you simply get turned back from the border, to try again later? Maybe with a slightly better pitch? Or after a little more time?

How about being banned for life from Canada? Did you think that result possible?

Not at all because of your conviction, from which you’ll be eligible to apply for full criminal rehabilitation in Canada in a couple of years anyway. It’s because you show up in Canada in an inadmissible state.

Once you’re at the POE, you’re already in Canada. POEs don’t perfectly straddle the Canada-U.S. border, where your feet remain in the U.S., and you talk through a window to a BSO in Canada (though I’ve heard of a library straddling the Vermont-Quebec border that is set up that way). Rather, you step over the magic line, and talk to someone. But once you’re over that line, it’s too late.

Not everyone showing up at a POE with an admissibility problem gets referred to what’s known as an Admissibility Hearing. Remember what I said about lots of discretion among BSOs? But it happened to my client, so it can happen to you (no, I didn’t tell him to show up, he hired me after that).

And a finding of inadmissibility at an Admissibility Hearing means a deportation order (bizarrely even you’re not even in Canada), which means a lifetime ban from returning. There are ways to attempt to fix that ban, but it can be a big pain.

The moral of the story? Stay away from borders and inland POEs unless you’re certain all your paperwork is in order, and you have an almost guaranteed chance of entry.

If you’re already inside Canada, even with a status problem it can take the CBSA/IRCC years to remove you. During that time, you might be able to fix your status problem. Leave Canada for 5 minutes (literally), and you might have the reentry door shut in your face. 

Some POEs are kinder than others to people showing up seeking admission. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Generally, you’re better off trying your luck at an air POE, like the Pearson Toronto International Airport, than at a land border crossing. The airport BSOs are likely keener to keep everyone moving, and senior CBSA mangers are more likely to be present who can use greater discretion to resolve entry issues. 

But if you don’t already have a valid Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), it’s unlikely you’d be permitted to board a flight to get to a Canadian inland airport POE. Your alternative is getting legal advice on which land POEs might be most forgiving.

Back to that story moral, I again urge you to do everything in your power to sort out your admission to Canada BEFORE you show up at the border. If you’re overseas, submit an application for entry to whichever Canadian consulate, embassy or High Commission provides those services for your part of the word. If you’re in Canada, use whichever mailing address or online form you need for inland Canada applications.

Some still take their chances at a PEO, because they don’t want to wait a few days, or weeks, or months for an IRCC response to an advance application submitted from a distance. But IRCC response times are improving, likely because all received information is now digitized and then distributed to processing agents around the world, rather than letting stacks of applications pile up on one Embassy’s desk, while another Embassy has no work. 

If you have any doubt about your admissibility to Canada, you should hire a lawyer, regardless of your plans for advance application or taking your chances at a POE. We see client after client submit the same application they did themselves over and over again to IRCC, keep getting the same refusal, fiddle a bit with the application, and then get another refusal.

No, you don’t absolutely need a lawyer to get into Canada. But definitely if you’ve already been refused once, I suggest you don’t try again without professional help. And try to stay away from those borders until you have some assurances Canada’s actually going to let you in.

Gordon S. Campbell is an immigration, customs and criminal lawyer based in Ontario, helping those seeking to enter or remain in Canada from anywhere in the world. He has served as legal counsel to the Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Learn more at www.compleximmigration.ca.