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I declare: Paying border duties an old Sarnia custom

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Phil Egan

I have a distinct recollection of my first unusual experience with Canada Customs. It cost me three beers.

When I was in my early 20s, you couldn’t buy beer in Sarnia on a Sunday (don’t ask me to explain Canada’s backward drinking laws –until recently, you couldn’t legally cross a provincial border with a bottle of wine).

In any event, I decided to whip across the border to buy a couple of six-packs.

I have always been honest with declarations at Canadian Customs, and that day in the late ‘60s was no exception.

“Anything to declare?” asked the Customs officer.

“Yup – two six-packs,” I told him.

I was directed to pull into “Secondary” – presumably, I imagined, to pay a trifling duty fee.

This time, the officer didn’t look much older than me. “Hey man,” he said. “You can’t bring beer into Canada.” He looked thoughtful.

“Kick one under the seat,” he instructed, “and follow me with the other one.”

We adjourned to a neighbouring washroom. “Theoretically,” he said, “we’re supposed to flush the contents down the toilet.”

I was resigned to losing six beers.

“But it would be a shame to waste them.”

“Right,” I said. It was a hot day. Pulling two beers from their plastic rings, I handed one to my new buddy at Customs.

“Cheers,” we toasted, and took on the task of downing three beers each over the next ten minutes.

Justice to the Crown, it appears, was half-heartedly served – at a total net cost of three beers, paid in tribute to the Queen. Later, I wondered if he was right about not being able to bring beer in on a Sunday. Or was he just thirsty?

Altercations with Canada Customs, I later discovered, are an old Sarnia custom dating as far back as 1835.

In those days, passable roads were scarce and the St. Clair River was the most reliable highway. Ships would regularly make the journey to Detroit for supplies.

Captain Richard Emeric Vidal, one of Sarnia’s three founders, built a wooden schooner that made numerous cross-border shopping trips without hassle. In those days, there wasn’t a single Canada Customs officer anywhere close to Sarnia.

That changed in 1840, when a man named Crampton was named to the position. When he boarded Vidal’s ship to collect duties for the first time Vidal didn’t share his cargo, like I did 129 years later. He simply threw Crampton off the ship.

The following year, guess who became Sarnia’s new customs agent?

That’s right. Richard Emeric Vidal.

 

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