Mitch Altman is no longer welcome in Canada?

Ever been kicked out of a country before? Well, it sucks.

I’m in the middle of my Hackers On A Train Workshop Tour, giving my popular Learn-to-Solder and Arduino-For-Total-Newbies workshops at 22 hackerspaces near Amtrak stations, and going to 4 conferences, over a 53 days. All by Amtrak. That was the plan, anyhow.

I was scheduled to give a talk about the hackerspace movement at the WorldFuture 2012 conference this Saturday. While there I was going to stay with my (academy award winning) friend Chris. It was going to be a really wonderful 5 days in Toronto.

To give the workshops, I’m traveling with a rucksack full of clothing and toiletries, my laptop, camera, and two huge suitcases, 50 pounds each, full of workshop stuff, including kits for teaching.

The train to Toronto from Syracuse, NY, stops at the Canadian border for customs and immigration. Everyone has to get out of the train with all their stuff. The line moves rather quickly, and when it was my turn, the Canadian Border Patrol wanted to have a look at my huge bags. After much polite discussion, there was no way that I could assure the CBP that I wasn’t going to sell the kits in Canada.

The CBP folks politely offered a suggestion that I could leave the workshop stuff in the US, and then come back to the border. When I asked where to leave the workshop suitcases, they had no info to offer. When I asked about my train to Toronto, I was told I’d have to call Amtrak. Then they gave me and a Japanese woman a free van ride to the US side of the border in Niagra Falls, NY. As we were getting in the van, one of the CBP people politely told me that in order to get into Canada, I’d need court records for my arrest when I was a young teenager.

Flashback: I’m 13 years old, hanging out with a friend in suburbia. My friend has the idea to grab his remote control for his garage door, and see if it works on any other garage doors in the neighborhood. Wouldn’t you know it — it did! In the hour that we walked around his suburban ‘hood, we came across 5 garage doors that would open. Damn. On the last one, we hid behind a bush, and opened and closed and opened and closed the garage door to see what would happen. The people who lived there came out, scratched their heads, and went back inside. As we were walking home, the police stopped us, assuming we were the people wanting to break into someone’s garage. Oddly (naively), it never even occurred to us that anyone would think we were trying to steal anything.

After meeting with a lawyer friend of my dad’s, he told me that after I did some community service, I should never tell anyone about this, since the record would be expunged.

It turns out, however, that the record was not expunged. After all these decades, it’s the CBP that (politely) told me this. They also (politely) told me that in order to get into Canada, I’ll need the court records for this case, otherwise they’ll assume that the case is still open. Since I was never given any records (from my parents or anyone), and I have no idea how to get any court records, this may mean that I may never be welcome to Canada ever again.

Scratch the WorldFuture 2012 conference in Toronto and the workshop at Vancouver Hack Space.

Categories: Hackerspaces


  • synace

    I was sorry to hear that you’ll be missing the conference. The good news is that there’s plenty to do in Buffalo this weekend. We’ve got the Infringement Festival, a couple of other workshops at Buffalo Lab: a makerspace, the Tinkering School this weekend, and a few interesting buffalo startup companies. I’m sure you’ll also enjoy visiting Niagara Falls while you’re up there tonight. We’ll do our best to show you a good time while you’re visiting us!

  • rageahol

    having been to canada with much much worse on my record, i can say that yes, it might help, but if you’re polite and dont cross them (not like i’d expect you to) they will give you a pass if you pay them $200 CDN (last i checked, sometime in 2003-ish).

    or you could just contact the embassy and say you had trouble and want to sort it out. which is probably what you should have done for this episode, frankly. might have saved you some trouble.

  • rageahol

    incidentally, if you’re at the border, don’t ASK if you can do this whole pay-a-fee thing. that would be pretty dumb. but try and call the embassy and sort it out. different border crossings have different characters.

  • Paul theSignGuy

    This really sucks. My kids and I were so looking forward to the workshops by Mitch at the Vancouver Hack Space. CBSA and US Customs Homeland Security can be such jerks. The worst is when they tell you that you are screwed but ever so politely! Maybe we could do something in Bellingham which is just south of the border…

  • John Hayes

    Hey Mitch,
    As a Canadian, I’m pretty disappointed at your treatment. Who knew they ever sent anyone back?

    If you have video of any of your workshops that you would like to share on let me know. We have a big audience in Canada and the USA, so your message can be sent without clearing customs.

  • Hugh

    That’s horrible.

    I’m in Toronto and wish to apologize for this crazy behaviour.

    In Canada, you can apply to have your record expunged. Of course that doesn’t apply to you, but I wonder if there is a similar US process. A record might hurt you in other ways.

    In Canada, a minor’s record disappears automatically. I would have thought that the Canada Border Services Agency guy would have looked at your age at the time and ignored what came up. But my impression is they seem to do what they feel like. Borders are a great place for apparently arbitrary exercise of power.

    Did you have any print-out of your project? That might have helped explain why you had all that stuff. Of course the agent might have made a snap decision that would have been hard to change.

  • Brolin Empey

    “As we were walking home, the police stopped us, assuming we were the people wanting to break into someone’s garage.”

    I assume you meant to imply that a person who observed you and your friend trying to remotely open garage doors reported you and your friend to the police because the observer incorrectly assumed that you or your friend wanted to enter a garage without permission and possibly change, such as to vandalise, something in the garage or remove (steal) something from the garage, but why would you need to “break into” a garage if you could open its door without even touching it? Similarly, if you find an exterior entrance, such as a door or gate, to a private property has been left unlocked, you can enter the private property without breaking anything, even if your entrance triggers an alarm or other intrusion detection system.

    “After meeting with a lawyer friend of my dad’s, he told me…”

    I assume you meant the lawyer who was a friend of your father told you but your sentence could also be interpreted as meaning your father told you: your father is, by definition, your male parent but the gender of the lawyer is not mentioned: if the lawyer was not male, your father is the only possible antecedent of the masculine pronoun in “he told me”.

  • Brolin Empey

    I forgot to mention I discovered this post via the Vancouver Hack Space because I reside and am employed in Greater/Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada but not in Vancouver proper (the City of Vancouver), which is my hometown.

    Anyway, I need to correct myself:

    “Similarly, if you find an exterior entrance, such as a door or gate, to a private property has been left unlocked, you can enter the private property without breaking anything, even if your entrance triggers an alarm or other intrusion detection system.”

    Your entrance may break an electronic circuit or other connection designed to detect when the door or gate is opened but you entrance will probably not break anything in the sense of causing physical damage.

  • Spuug

    I am disappointed, not only due to the scratched workshops, but especially in the CSBA. I have a suggestion for the Vancouver Hackspace talks: have them at the Peace Arch Park on the border at Blaine, WA.

  • bruce

    Just heard about this (the conference and the incident).
    For the near-term, have you considered a virtual presence at some of the Canadian events (AV link over internet)?
    Not the same as being there, but better than not at all (?) and a good hack in the situation at hand.
    Possibly kits could be imported by other means

  • Theo Macallister

    Solution: Instead of conducting the workshop in Vancouver. Host the workshop in Point Roberts, USA. A geographic boot that is just next to Delta, British Columbia. Most if not all Vancouverites should be able to a. make the half an hour forty minute commute, carpooling etc. And b. cross the boarder with a valid passport. Where Mitch Altman can safely and legally present his workshop and sell the attendees his wares.

  • Paul the SignGuy

    Point Roberts would not work cause Mitch would have to cross over the border to get there. Unless he flew in on a float plane or chartered a boat.

  • Gavitron

    Sorry to hear that your hackspace tour has been foiled, but I think you were a little naive thinking that you would make it across with ‘large bags of [electronic] kits’. As a Canadian who regularly travels to the US, I know that if I even pack a small toolkit, I will be refused entry to the US, for fear I may be driving down to steal a job from a hard working American…

    Also, the US border services have had access to Canadian arrest records for years, and have also used them as cause for denial of entry.

    I’m disappointed that you can’t make it for your planned tour, but don’t turn this into a “Bad CBSA” problem, as they are only now becoming as effective as the US border has been for decades.

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