In July 1981 my wife Terry and I were transferred from Wabowden, Manitoba to the capital city of Winnipeg. At this point in time I have 8 years of service with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; she and I have been married for 7 years. While both of us worked at our respective careers during this period of time, the three latest postings had her scrambling to find self-fulfilling employment within her field. The move to Winnipeg promised to stabilize our roots, give Terry deeper opportunities and shift our gaze and goal toward expanding our family.
Since my graduation from the RCMP academy in 1973, I had been wearing the RCMP uniform and conducting provincial and criminal code investigations in small towns and villages in the northern and southern regions of Manitoba. My working dress was exclusively a highly visible uniform. My transfer to Winnipeg, a city of 650,000 people, and to the Immigration and Passport Section (I&P) changed my dress as well as shifted my investigative focus to the enforcement of a federal statute, the Immigration and Citizenship Act.
Our section was comprised of a civilian office manager, a Sergeant in charge of the section, a supervising Corporal and three Constable investigators. I was the junior investigator. Much of our work was conducted in tandem with Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). CIC was the regulatory department that processed applications for immigration of all types into Canada. They were also largely responsible for detecting those immigrants whose status in Canada had expired or were engaged in activities outside their permit restrictions. As examples, an immigrant in Canada on a visitor’s visa could not work. A visitor to Canada needed to depart within an established time period. An immigrant who gave false information on an application for immigration status could face prosecution or deportation. Complaints were also received by our offices from throughout the province.
During this epoch of Canadian history, the Government of Canada had opened its doors to many part-time visitors, immigrants from economically depressed parts of the world and refugees from war-torn or politically volatile countries. While most of these new arrivals adhered to the regulations and rules governing their immigration status, some breached the regulations and exposed themselves to administration sanction or law enforcement action.
While I&P and CIC offices were located in separate government buildings, the I&P Section members worked hand-in-glove with CIC admissions and enforcement officers on a daily basis. The relationship was both professional and collegial. It was quite a change for me to be working within such a large and interdependent work environment. Plus I got to wear “plain clothes!”.
When I entered the RCMP in 1973, I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday and the years preceding my “coming of age” had been a mixture of part-time employment, educational upgrading, factory work and university. My casual wardrobe therefore consisted of jeans and T-shirts, shirts, shorts and a two pairs of double knit dress slacks, one light blue and the other plaid. Given that most of my RCMP life was spent in uniform, that wardrobe had not changed significantly over time, much to Terry’s chagrin. While she had enjoyed some major wardrobe victories over the years; the above the ankle length plaid pants had been “lost” in transit somewhere and the light blue pants had worn thin and were increasingly vulnerable to a seam breach so that even I saw the need to retire them; I was generally still fashion-challenged and resistant to any behavioural change. My transfer to plainclothes duty changed that instantly. I needed a wardrobe consultant and Terry offered, no demanded, to fulfill that role.
Our shopping spree was interactive. Terry wanted something that was adaptable to both a work and social environment, while I preferred more rugged working attire. She recommended a blue suit. I selected a camel hair sports jacket with dark elbow patches, light brown slacks, black plastic sole slip-on loafers, a neutral shirt and tie. A blend of function, durability and indistinctness! After all, I was going to be working on the streets, not attending the opera. Terry acceded to my choice, rationalizing I suspected, that a war cannot be won in one battle. Suited-up, I was ready to roll.
It was a beautiful Friday August afternoon and I sat at my desk after lunch going through my basket of tasks; files that had been assigned to me for investigation. Feeling full from lunch and looking forward to the weekend, I wasn’t really in the mood to either start or continue anything complicated or complex. Remembering a complaint that I had received earlier in the week I looked for, found, and opened the file folder to refresh my memory of the details inside.
The complaint read,
At this time and date a call was received by the under noted from an anonymous female caller stating that Almedia Construction was using illegal workers at a construction site on Donald Street. There is an office building being renovated and a male called Luis is working illegally. Luis is described as 20 years of age, 6 ft tall, 150 lbs, black collar length hair. He usually wears a dirty blue vest. Apparently he is related to the site foreman in some way. The foreman’s name is David and he drives a black Ford pick-up truck.
The female caller stated that her boyfriend was fired from the job after a disagreement with Luis and that the foreman blamed her boyfriend. She doesn’t think it was fair since her boyfriend has bills to pay and now has no job.
Complaint sent to I&P Section for follow-up inquiry.
R. Dingle, Cst
A visitor working illegally in Canada. Quick and easy. Perfect for a Friday afternoon.
Carrying the file I left my desk and walked across the floor to Jim’s office. Jim was the Corporal supervisor and over lunch we had shared our general displeasure at being indoors on a warm sunny Friday afternoon.
Standing in the doorway of his office I leaned against the doorjamb and posed a question to his back. He was facing the window and hunched over working on something.
Turning and standing tall, he shifted his gaze from my eyes to the file folder hanging in my hand and then back to me before his predictable reply,
“I’ve gotta go out and check a construction site downtown. We have a report of an illegal working there. A visitor to Canada, apparently working for a relative. A 20 something male. I have a description. Should be a quick check. Do you want to go?”
“Yeah sure, let’s go.”
While Jim left the office to get a car from the building basement parking garage, I checked as much information as I had on file with our Headquarter’s Crime Index Section (CIS). In 1986, CIS still maintained a legacy index-card based records management system while at the same time managed the modern computerized Canadian Police Information Center (CPIC). CPIC was also linked with the USA National Crime Information Center (NCIC). There was nothing on file on either the construction business, the owner, or the illegal Luis LNU. LNU is a police acronym, which means Last Name Unknown and is pronounced la-noo, so when I asked our records management clerk, Elaine, for anything on Luis LNU she questioned,
“Can you spell his last name?”
“OK, but can you spell it out?”
“Oh, OK, that LNU. When you said Luis La-noo I was hoping for something exotic.”
“It sounds like you’re ready for the weekend Elaine?”
“Actually, I start holidays today.”
Jim was waiting for me at the front door of the headquarters building and I jumped into the passenger seat and updated him on my records search. The update was short.
“CIS has nothing.”
“Ok, let’s go look-see,” he said and put the car in gear.
We found the construction site and Jim circled the block a couple of times. Each time around we observed different details. On the first pass we observed a black pick-up truck. Standing near the truck was a short stout male wearing construction garb and a white construction helmet and holding what looked to be construction blueprints.
“Must be David,” I remarked.
On the second pass Jim observed,
“It looks like three workers outside, one looks like he might be our guy. Seen enough?”
“Yeah, let’s just go in, “ I replied.
Jim drove into the site and parked behind the foreman’s truck. We opened the doors and got out and I started scanning the area and the people within my sight. I was looking for and attempting to read some reaction to our arrival. When a big green 4 door sedan enters a construction site and two sports-clothes-clad short sheared men get out you expect a reaction. The boss in the white hat was the only one who moved. He walked forward to meet us. I imagined that he was used to various government agencies coming to inspect his work, his site or his equipment. So, his manner was calm, professional and inquiring.
“Can I help you?” he opened when we came face-to-face.
“Yes,” I replied. “You must be David, we are looking for your relative Luis.”
“Why do you want to speak to him?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, my name is Constable Bill Adams and this is my colleague, Jim. Jim and I are with the RCMP and we need to check Luis’ immigration status.”
“What’s to check. He’s my nephew, my brother’s oldest son, from Portugal. I paid his way over for a visit.”
“Yes, but what’s his status?”
“He’s my nephew.”
I glanced sideways at Jim and saw a hint of a smile, perhaps the start of a smirk. I turned back to David, now understanding the need to clarify and explain the situation more fully to him.
“David, what’s your last name?”
“Ok, Mr. Acosta. So Luis is your nephew, Luis Acosta?”
“And he’s in Canada as a visitor, correct?”
“I brought him here to see his cousins.”
“Yes, but he’s not supposed to work while in Canada unless he has authorization. Does he have a work permit?”
“What work? He’s helping me. He’s my nephew. He was bored at home so I bring him to help me, learn something.”
“Does he speak English?”
“Does he have his passport with him?”
“No, it’s at home. My wife has it. She’s at home.”
“Ok, Jim and I need to see his passport. He needs to come with us now to get his passport. Can you call him over and explain that to him please?”
David turns and scans the work-site until his eyes fall upon Luis.
“Luis, get over here,” I expect he yelled in Portuguese. Luis was quick to respond and was now identified to us as he walked across the rubble of the construction yard and stood before us with an inquiring look towards his uncle. They spoke.
“Ok, I told him that you were police and that you were going to take him home for his passport. My wife will be there. She speaks ok English. Then what will you do?”
“Well, if his visa shows that he’s not supposed to be working, then he’ll be arrested by us and turned over to Canada Immigration for an immigration hearing. He could go to jail or be deported. He could also be charged under the Immigration Act.”
David turned back to Luis and the next few minutes were spent in interactive discussion. I could see that although David was trying to downplay the situation, Luis was becoming agitated; an expression of fear and uncertainty obvious in his face and demeanour.
“Ok, he’s ready to go,” David said.
Jim put his hand on Luis’ shoulder and escorted him to the police car. Walking behind him I took better note of his dress; stained yellow hard hat, dirty jacket, dusty grey cargo pants, scuffed and high-ankle dirt-clogged steel toed boots. He had been “helping” for quite awhile. Normal visitors to Canada can obtain a 90 day visa. Luis had 90 days of working wear and tear on his clothes. As Jim helped him into the back seat of the car, I glanced at Luis’ hands. Tool nicked and dirty. Luis was a bonafide construction employee. I got into the back seat beside him. We drove off the site.
Jim pulled the police car into the back laneway of the house.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” Jim asked.
“No, it’s ok” I replied.
I’ll pause my story here for a moment. In retrospect, we should have done things differently. In retrospect, I should have seen the red flags popping up. Should I have formally arrested Luis? Likely. Should he have been handcuffed? Probably. Should Jim have accompanied me into the house? Yes. Should my spider-sense have tingled when Luis removed his heavy work boots at the back door? Yes! Sadly, none of those things happened, but I can explain; provide a rationale.
Luis was a young man, likely even a juvenile, who was working for his uncle for the summer while visiting Canada and his cousins. On any scale his crime was minor and the resulting legal repercussions would likely be small. But Luis didn’t know that. His visions of corporal punishment clearly clouded his judgment, or perhaps cleared it.
As soon as Luis cleared the back door, he took off like a rabbit, bolting down the hallway of his uncle’s home in his stocking feet, breaking for the front door and freedom. Startled momentarily, I engaged in hot pursuit. As I gained on him running down the hall I could see ahead to the front door. There, a middle-aged woman was standing to the side of the door, holding it open. Luis made the door, ran through it and took his first step to freedom. God bless the woman. She did not let the door go and I followed Luis through the door, down the stairs and onto the walk-way. Just ahead of me, Luis reached the chain-link fence fronting the main street, a busy four-lane roadway, and pushed through the swinging chain link gate. He pushed it closed behind him. Unable to stop on my plastic soled shoes, I slid into the leading edge of the gate. The gate caught me square in the crotch; well to the right of the “crotch”. It hurt like hell and gave Luis a longer lead.
He was half way across the four lanes of traffic before I hit the curb. But I was able to gain some ground. He had to be careful of traffic. Cars were honking, fingers were pointing upward as angry drivers vented their disapproval. I was able to gain on him through this now safe pathway. But I was loosing steam, and as we crossed the road and cut between two houses on the opposite side of the street and into the back laneway, I knew he had me beat. We both turned right down the laneway, his distance between us lengthening. So I slid to a stop on my plastic soled shoes and between heaving breaths yelled loudly, “POLICE! STOP! OR I’LL SHOOT!!!!”
The rabbit turned into a deer, Luis hit the afterburners and disappeared, poof!
Of course I had no intention of shooting the kid. My revolver was still tucked into my waistband. It was a last ditch effort to save myself from what was now a very embarrassing situation. I’d lost a prisoner! And as I walked back to the house muttering to myself, I looked for some redemption. Was he really a prisoner? I hadn’t uttered the words “you’re under arrest”, no handcuffs were used, nobody was hurt. Well except for my groin. But the people in the house knew. The lady that helped his escape knew. I had officially run after her relative through her hallway. Arrest or not, our visit was official.
As I walked back in the front door of Luis’ uncle’s house, my embarrassment turned to anger. Anger more at myself than at the kid or at the woman. How could I salvage my pride, make up for my carelessness, and resolve this file without having to write reams of pages in my report detailing my stupidity? A bluff perhaps?
Entering the door behind me was a young woman accompanied by a young boy. She identified herself as Maria, another relative from down the street. Maria was fluent in English, a second generation Canadian, wise to the ways of both cultures. She became my mediator. In an angry tone I described the situation to Maria and with behavior close to ranting, I threatened to come back and arrest everyone in the house if Luis was not at my office in one hour. Maria translated my rant and demand to Mrs. Acosta, the door holder, Luis’ aunt. Done, there was nothing else to do, I left by the back door and returned to the car.
“What took you so long?” Jim asked when I settled red-faced into the passenger seat.
I spent the next 2 minutes calmly outlining my last 25 minutes of chaos to Jim, attempting to minimize the issue of the chase and my rant, and neglecting to disclose my sore groin. The issue between us now was the “lost” prisoner.
“Did you really yell stop or I’ll shoot?”
“Don’t remind me.”
“And what are the chances that Luis will show.”
“Zero,” I meekly replied.
“So what’s the next step?” Jim asked.
“I guess we gotta tell the boss.”
Telling the boss didn’t go well. He, Jim and I spent the next ½ hour discussing various scenarios, problems that could arise, complaints that could be made. In the end, the fault was all on us, there was nothing that could be “done” to the Acosta family. In fact they probably deserved an apology for our incompetence, and in fact, that was the final decision that was made. Go back to talk to the family and settle the issue. Obtain closure.
Decision made, we sat pondering our strategies in silence, broken only when Brenda our office manager came through the door and announced,
“Bill, you’ve got a visitor at the front desk.”
Walking through the interior doors into the building front lobby I recognized Mr. Acosta, Marie and Luis standing next to the front desk guard. Our eyes met. We all smiled, me perhaps more sheepishly than them. Luis had a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. Part fear, part resignation; an expectation perhaps of the worst possible outcome.
Jim joined the four of us in the interview room while I took a statement from Luis, using Maria as an interpreter. By the time I had finished, Linda, a colleague from Canada Immigration had arrived to take over the case. She was advised of Luis’ status and his visa breach for working. Neither Luis nor his family would be facing any criminal charges from our end and the matter would be left to the administrative process of Canada Immigration. Linda introduced herself and explained the administration process and the possible sanctions that could result from the formal hearing in front of an adjudication officer. She explained that pending the hearing, Luis would be detained at a government detention centre. Jim intervened at that point.
“Ah, Linda, I think we can show some flexibility on the need to detain Luis.” With a sideways glance at me he continued, “I think that Bill will attest to the fact that Luis is not a “runner”; he can be depended upon to show up for his hearing. And I think Mr. Acosta will ensure his attendance as well.”
Everyone nodded, Luis would show for the hearing.
Luis was not detained and did voluntarily appear for his immigration hearing, which was scheduled for the day before his original visa was to expire. His sanction was voluntary removal from Canada, which meant that if he left Canada on his own accord, he could literally apply the next day to return. He left the day after his hearing, for Portugal.
While many of the investigations in the I&P Section concerned serious breaches of the law and were challenging and complex to investigate, most of our interactions were with people who were just trying their best to make a better life for themselves and their families. Such was the case with Luis. And while our duty and obligation was focused on ensuring the integrity of commerce and protecting the livelihood of Canadian workers, the application of that duty needed to be fairly and justly applied.
The yellow, blue and black bruises on my groin healed faster than my bruised ego and pride and I took many a ribbing over this incident. Disclosure of the facts was spread widely and long-after repeated at the most inappropriate times. But the ribbing was a reminder to me and a lesson to others of the danger of becoming too complacent in seemingly simple law enforcement cases and how a lapse of proper care and attention can seriously raise the risk of personal injury or public liability.