VANCOUVER — A British Columbian man has learned the hard way that you don’t ask a U.S. border guard to be polite when he asks you to turn off your vehicle’s engine.
Desiderio Fortunato, of Coquitlam, B.C., asked the guard to say please and instead received a face full of pepper spray.
“I just said please,” Mr. Fortunato explained Thursday. “He said ‘get out of the car or I spray you’ and … I thought he was just trying to scare me off or something and I was pepper sprayed from a foot or two away.”
He said it was then that five or six border guards jumped on him, placed him in handcuffs and questioned him for three hours last Monday afternoon.
“I felt like I was attacked by a bunch of wolves. They jumped on me, they threw me to the ground and they kneeled on me.”
But he said the worst part was the pepper spray burning his eyes, and every time he rubbed his eyes he made the problem even worse.
Mr. Fortunato, 54, was born in Portugal, but became a Canadian citizen almost 30 years ago.
During questioning from U.S. officials, he said, the first thing they wanted to know was where he was born.
He said the entire demeanour of the officials changed when he told them he was of Portuguese origin.
“Their shields dropped slightly down. It was like you know: OK he’s a Westerner, OK he’s not a Muslim, OK he’s a Christian, he’s one of us. That’s what I read [from them].”
Mr. Fortunato noted that the motto of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is to “serve the American public with vigilance, integrity and professionalism.”
“What is that, that’s what they pledge. I’m just asking for a please, and I get pepper spray in the face, and of course their argument is you must comply with anything an officer says.”
U.S. Customs spokesman Mike Milne said the officer made a lawful order that travellers must obey but the use of force is under review.
Mr. Fortunato said he spoke with the same guard later and the man seemed contrite.
He crosses the border two or three times a week to visit his second home in Blaine, Wash., and said he plans to go back.
But first he’ll need to send U.S. Customs an RCMP criminal record check and proof that he lives where he said he did.
He has no criminal record and said he isn’t worried about going back.
Mr. Fortunato, who travels the world competing in and teaching jazz dance, said he often deals with customs agents.
“I just become more cynical,” he said.