INNISFAIL – Michael Potter vividly remembers the bullying he endured decades ago as a teenager in Innisfail and Bowden because he was gay.
But Potter knew then he at least had a chance to defend himself.
“I have been gay-bashed and bullied. But I had a chance to fight back or at least speak my mind,” said Potter, now 46 years old and a married self-employed interior designer in Windsor, Ont. “The other day I wasn’t even allowed to speak or say anything on my own behalf unless I was asked a question.”
That day was March 24 when he tried to cross the border into Detroit, something he routinely did every few weeks to go shopping, buy cigars for his husband Matthew Allsopp, and go to a gay bar.
As he was in line to cross into the United States, Allsopp sent an innocent text that was flagged by U.S. border guards. It set off a three-hour nightmare of detention and rigorous interogration.
Potter claimed he was put in a cell and frisked by border guards while standing shoeless against a wall, with pants undone, and legs spread apart for 15 minutes. Potter said he was ushered to different guards who repeatedly asked the same questions about his husband, why he texted him, why he was travelling alone and why he wanted to go into Detroit.
When the ordeal was over, Potter committed himeself to a solitary mission to stop what he perceives as an unjust proposed federal legislation, Bill C-23, known as the Preclearance Act that aims to speed the flow of people and goods across the border at airports and other ports of entry.
“I still feel horrified, terrified. I haven’t even left the house since Friday (March 24). I don’t want to go anywhere. I feel violated,” said Potter, who was born in Olds, before becoming a resident of Innisfail for 11 years, and then in Bowden for another 14 years. He still has a brother living in Olds and a sister residing in Innisfail.
Last week Potter sprang into action and with the help of his husband, he sent letters to 16 members of the House of Commons, including the Speaker and the prime minister’s office. Potter then drove alone to Ottawa to present a petition to the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for the scrapping of Bill C-23, which reached second reading in February.
The legislation has faced strong political criticism, notably from federal NDP members who claim it would lead to an erosion of rights of citizens travelling to the United States, specifically when a citizen is in a preclearance area, which is Canadian territory.
The current system allows any Canadian to simply walk out of a preclearance area if they change their mind about entering the U.S. However, under Bill C-23 a U.S. border officer can ask a visitor to identify themselves and why they’re changing their mind. If a violation of Canadian law is suspected, the citizen can be subjected to interrogation and detention before being handed over to Canadian authorities.
“And that is why I am going to Ottawa, to get this from being passed,” said Potter, who has also contacted the office of his MP, Brian Masse, who represents the riding of Windsor West and is the party’s Canada-U.S. Border Relations critic. “I just want to make sure that nobody else’s rights are violated and that this can never happen on Canadian soil.”
In an interview with the Province last week, Masse called the incident involving Potter “troubling,” as the border crossing between Detroit and Windsor has historically represented strong cultural, social and economic bonds between the two cities.
“Unfortunately we have seen another case come to light here and (we’re) grateful for (Potter) sharing the story, because it does bring awareness that is important but often very difficult for somebody to do such a thing,” said Masse. “There are the issues related to the fact that even on Canadian soil individuals will not be able to change their minds about crossing into the United States and exit the premises without permission. That is a real sovereignty issue for myself.
“We have always been opposed to this prior to Mr. Potter’s experience but I applaud him for making the connection for other people, so I give him a tremendous amount of credit for not being selfish and sharing it and taking efforts to raise awareness. We have been trying to do that in Ottawa and it just hasn’t resonated for lots of different reasons.”
In the meantime, Potter, who was in Ottawa last week when the House of Commons was not sitting, vows to keep the heat on to ensure Bill C-23, as it’s now presented, never becomes law.
“This is not just about me,” said Potter. “This is about other minorities too because I am not the first and I am not the last.”
“I just want to make sure that nobody else’s rights are violated and that this can never happen on Canadian soil.”