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The curious case Of Peter Watts

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted December 21, 2009

Dr. Peter Watts is a Canadian science-fiction writer. Last week, when coming back to his home and native land, he was pulled over on exit by U.S border police at Port Huron, Michigan. He was helping a friend move to Nebraska. The search was a random one, with the only red flag being the rental car he was driving, but he didn't know that. He had assumed that he had been fingered because he was suspicious in some way.

Subsequently, he found himself arrested, held in jail overnight, and charged with assaulting a police officer. This report from the Toronto Star gives the officers' version of the events:

Customs officials told the Star Watts was given directions "and became non-compliant...he did not follow directions and a physical altercation" ensued.
An officer with the Port Huron police told the local newspaper that Watts "angrily" got out of the rental car and when he refused to get back in, they tried to cuff him and he became "aggressive." In the melee, police said, Watts "choked" a customs officer.

"As a result of that he was detained and turned over to local authorities," says Ronald Smith, chief customs and border protection officer at Blue Water, adding officers were conducing "outbound operations" stopping and inspecting vehicles after the toll booths but before they hit Canadian customs.

Watts' own, also reported by the Star, is a flat denial:

"I can state categorically that I did not choke anybody, I did not use profanity and did not raise my voice, I did not initiate any physical contact," says Watts, who is also a marine biologist with a PhD in zoology.

"All I basically did was use words to ask what was going on."

So, we have a one-word-against-the-other incident. Fellow SF writer and fellow Canadian Cory Doctorow has unequivocally backed up Dr. Watts. He's even donated $1,000 of his own money to help with Dr. Watts' legal defense, if needed. Doctorow's take on the matter is here. He deserves credit not only for encouraging others to donate, but also for bringing the story to the Canadian media's attention.

"Okay, what really happened?"

Any Canadian reading this will likely wonder what really went on. We Canadians are well-known for being deferential to authority. Part of the attraction of American culture is watching people get away with defiances which we never could. Moreover, we tend to side with the police naturally. Up here, even the typical hardened criminal would shy away from pulling what the border guards claimed Dr. Watts pulled. Since Dr. Watts is a writer and professor, he doesn't exactly hail from the criminal element. If we see Peter Watts as a normal Canadian, we're left with a puzzle. Normal, law-abiding Canadians do not act in that way when confronted by legitimate authority.

If there's any odd behavior that we Canadians show, it would be freezing or seizing up. When challenged by police, some of us become placatory. Placating is, of course, a kind of deference.

It's possible that Dr. Watts isn't a normal Canadian. Some, when reading of the mix-up, may conclude so. He is a writer, and many writers aren't exactly pillars of solid citizenship. He's also an intellectual, a line of work that wears you down in certain ways. His "aggression" might have been a maladroit attempt at charm. There is enough grist for the shoulda-known circuit to criticize his own role in the altercation.

However, it looks to me like the border-guard officers simply don't know how Canadians tick. As children, we're trained to see police officers as helpful and even as our friends. This custom permeates our culture.

Another one, also widespread, is the belief that police don't pull people over unless they've done something wrong. Our mindset tends to short out when it comes to random searches, with the possible exception of drunk-driving checks. It's true that a dyed-in-the-wool solid-citizen Canadian would probably feel guilty or afraid if pulled over in a random search, and assume that (s)he's done something wrong without knowing it. It's true that "charm offensives" aren't really normal in such situations.

What is normal, though, is deference. That's important to keep in mind. The outlaw mentality that's still palpable in America is almost entirely absent in Canada. Here's an example: Canadian actor Sarah Polley got two of her teeth knocked out in 1995 when participating in an anti-government demonstration. Had Canadians been like Americans, she would have been the cause célebre of a thriving anti-police movement. Yet, she isn't. Beyond being a well-told story, it's had no legs.

The closest approach to an anti-police movement has been the lobbying for more outsider oversight of Canada's police forces, and ad-hoc demonstrations, protests or petition drives from time to time. There is no "police brutality industry" in Canada.   

Look long upon Mr. William Grigg's blog - look long upon it. I can't put the Canadian/American gulf any more plainly than to say, without reservation or hedging, that he has no Canadian equivalent. Not in the far Right, not in the Left, and not in Canada's embryonic libertarian movement. Not any. The closest I could find was on a single page of a Canadian leftist Website, and its language is intemperate insofar as consistent with a cry for help.

On the other hand, a quick Google search using the phrase "police brutality articles" will show that Mr. Grigg has some company amongst his fellow Americans.


Given this gulf profound, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Dr. Watts got entangled in a misunderstanding. I'd bet real money that the arresting officers believe that Canadians are just like Americans, except politer. I believe I've made it clear that, in the area of deference to officers of the law, we Canadians are quite different.

Misunderstandings of this sort can only erode what's been a long-enduring international friendship. To prevent further misunderstandings, two easy steps can be taken by the U.S. border guard:

  1. liase with Canadian law enforcement professionals to find out how law-abiding Canadians act when they're surprised by a surprise search;
  2. ask anyone who acts in such a manner, "Are you a Canadian?"

Dropping the charge against Dr. Watts would be an amicable gesture. If he's the Canadian that I think he is, he's had the fear of the Lord put into him already. The chances of him being further trouble are minimal. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.


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