Customs Officer
Interview by Trevor Risk, Illustration by Steven Snider


ome professions are automatically brushed with a sour glaze.  It’s shocking whenever we encounter a polite, sensible landlord or a guitar guy in a music store that doesn’t chortle when we ask why our Fender Jaguar is constantly out of tune.  When we see a Canada Customs border guard, a cold sweat washes over us.  “Did I declare everything?  Is the guy riding in my backseat a weekend ketamine user?” I however, have been blessed with having a father who has worked for Canada Customs and as a Senior Intelligence Officer. My entire life, I have not feared the law. I thought the wonder in which I viewed my father, Barry Risk would dissolve over time, but the man I saw as Indiana Jones as a child becomes more and more enthralling as I age and his stories come to life.  The best part is, his best ones are still classified.

You’ve had some run ins with a fair share of celebrities. 
I’ve had the pleasure of clearing two presidents of the United States and six prime ministers of Canada.

How come rappers have such a difficult time getting into Canada?
Well first of all what a lot of people don’t understand is that many rappers, especially Americans, have a criminal record and criminality is one of the reasons that the department of immigration, not customs, stops them from coming in.  Now they can appeal that, they can have served their time, there are many things they can apply for including what used to be known as a ministerial permit.  Customs sends them to immigration to be evaluated, but if a guy is a molester of children the Canadian public would not want him into Canada would they? Well some of the rappers were involved in drugs, they were involved in violence.  Some come out of the gang streets of LA and maybe they’ve changed their lives around and I wish them all the best but until they appeal their sentences and served their time, they’re not coming in.  It’s the equality you need.  If a buddy of yours who is not famous at all got refused entry into Canada because he had driven under the influence, then at the same time you’d like to think that Ice-T got nailed for the same shit.  It’s the universality of those laws that we apply. Now these guys are high profile and they hit the press and they wind up their fans, and of course anyone in uniform, and we understand this, is the big, bad guy and we’re not allowing them to hear their favourite music and live concert but they also have to keep in mind that we’re protecting you, not from the rapper but the universality of the application of that law.  You want to feel safe in Canada that the next time you go into a back that an American doesn’t come in with a gun and pull a robbery while he’s there.

Tell me about the man in the pacific northwest who had a project going not dissimilar to The Great Escape.
When that occurred I was what’s known as a senior intelligence officer and one of the jobs of the senior intelligence officer working at the national level is to act as a liason if international enforcement arms had to be involved.  For instance, if an RIO or regional intelligence officer in Vancouver wanted to check if this person had Interpol connections, it was our job to contact Interpol. That was a marvelous operation. They knew from the get go, from the amount of wood that was being taken into a barn to the point where they even were running ground search radar over the road, looking like they were repairing the road and were following the progress.  They literally busted it when the guy opened the tunnel on the other end at the American side.  We let them work the whole thing.  The entire thing was tracked from the beginning.

But you had to wait until he was finished and came out the other side, right?
Well… no we didn’t., but it wasn’t until he was finished that we was really on the American side and that meant that they were going to be taken down by Americans and that meant now they were dealing with American law which is sometimes a little more stiff than what we’ve got up in Canada.

You worked with a man from Ulster who acted on certain prejudices.
At one time when there was a policy within Canada where RUC, which stands for the Royal Ulster Constablory, were subject to threat by the IRA. They were being allowed to immigrate to Canada for their own protection, and obviously would want to still take jobs in law enforcement. One of those characters ended up working for us at Toronto International Airport. He was renowned for being very vocal and of course Toronto has one of the largest gay communities in North America. He was renowned for muttering under his breath about having to “deal with queers” and things like that. At one time we used to have a lookout for certain men who would wear a little pin in their lapel which was a clinched human fist which meant they belonged to a thing called the Fist Fuckers of America. What it would also indicate was that they would carry a certain drug with them that would relax certain muscles of the body. That drug was illegal so they were on a lookout. This one time a gentleman flying in from San Francisco was wearing a one piece, brown, leather jumpsuit, and he had the pin so we sent him to secondary. We had a gentleman who was working for us who always liked to pull pranks and set us up into trouble and we decided to pay him back. We sent him in to tell the RUC guy that a body search was required of the gentleman in the leather jumpsuit.  In a very loud voice he announced that he hated “queers”. The two of them went into the secondary operation in the back room for a body search and all of a sudden there was one hell of a scream. The one lad came running out, sheet-white and we said “What’s wrong? What’s wrong??” and he says “The guy’s got nipple rings on”, and I said “So?” and he told us that the RUC guy got his finger stuck in it and ripped his nipple off. What he was doing was he was hammering on his nipple, pointing and yelling “What the hell is this?”, got his finger stuck in the ring and pulled his nipple away. Thank god those stories are in the past. Those are dead stories that are not likely to occur anymore and that’s the way it should be.

What was your role specifically, and what was Canada Customs role in the Yugoslavian war?
The international community, specifically the European union had come to Canada and a number of other countries to enforce the UN sanctions against Serbia. These sanctions were to stop the movement of strategic goods.  Now that’s not just limited to weapons and ammunition but it’s also things like specialized oil, fuel, steel; anything that can be used and made into strategic goods.  So Serbia being the major instigator of the Yugoslavian war of course against croatia and slovenia, has many many borders.  For instance, the Danube runs along there.  There’s a border with slovenia, croatia, hungary, Bulgaria and Macedonia, and each country took a different portion of that border to be responsible for. Canada was assigned the border between Serbia and Macedonia.  I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate in that role. That’s not to say that it was all Canadian.  We had a multi national customs team the consisted of Americans, Canadians, turks, and Norwegians. Within that border the military that was part of NATO was a thing called NORBAT which stands for Norwegian Battalion.  They provided the military security of the border and we provided the expertise on examination and enforcing the sanctions again Serbia. This would involve things like catching trucks trying to smuggle things through Macedonia, weapons on trains, major ammunition and therefore a lot of organized crime started to participate in the smuggling because there’s big bucks in it. I had the fortune to spend some time in there working on numerous cases of international smuggling and was actually named in a federal case in Sweden.

You mentioned once that your colleagues had a very shaky experience coming back from patrol one night.
Those were three military men who were assigned to monitoring ethnic cleansing specifically between Serbia and Croatia. They consisted of a captain of the Canadian armed forces, a major from the German armed forces and a third gentleman.  I used to meet these guys every morning at the hotel I lived at in Skopje, Macedonia.  One morning I met them and they were very white, very non-talkative and very cold. Eventually I talked to the Canadian captain from Lord Strathcona’s Horse and asked him what was going on. We used to have coffee, we used to have a laugh and they had a particularly bad night.  They had come across an elderly gentleman of about 75 who had been skinned alive and he died in his arms but after he had all his skin removed by the Serbs.  So it gives you an idea of the viciousness of that war. I always used to tell people when I got back to Canada and was asked “Every individual Canadian doesn’t have the capacity to hate like they hate”.  The hatred that’s built in is over generations.  I mean these are guys who had a war memorial for a battle they lost in 1485 called The Battle of the Blackbirds.  They lost it and they built a memorial for it.  They hate a lot of European Muslims, they detest the Roma which of course are the gypsies.  This sort of thing is very foreign to us in Canada. 

Originally published in Spring 2011, Issue 5.2.