I saw a commercial today for the NHL’s Winter Classic and it got me reminiscing some fond memories of Allister’s experiences with our neighbors to the north, Canada. All in all, I enjoyed just about every show or tour we did in Canada. At various times, we were lucky enough to catch a few Expos games (for those of you non-baseball fans, the Montreal Expos packed up and moved to Washington, D.C. and began calling themselves the Nationals sometime around 2005), we played in Edmonton at a club inside the largest mall in the world, we played in a tiny town called Ft. McMurray, which is so far north that it actually closes all access roads and shuts down for the winter, and we nearly wrecked our van more than a few times courtesy of the giant infamous Canadian moose. We also played a show in a Calgary gymnasium during the 2004 NHL finals that saw the Flames battle the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hockey is such an obsession there that we were only allowed to play during the 15 minute intermissions. We blazed through a few songs during the first intermission, waited out the second period while the 400+ kids turned their attention to the giant projection screens at one end of the gym, and picked up right where we left off during the second intermission. It was very strange. My most vivid memory of Canada, however, goes all the way back to 2001. I always like to think of it as Allister vs. The Canadian Border Patrol.
We had been touring the East Coast during the spring of ’01, playing mostly VFW halls, backyards, and basements, when we got word from our record label that we had been offered to open a few shows in New Brunswick, Canada for the Canadian punk band, GOB. We were excited because GOB was a real band and the shows were going to be in real venues with real crowds. The shows were also a few weeks away so we had enough time during our current tour to make sure that we were tight. Our label promised to take care of all the paperwork and we found ourselves counting down the days to the shows.
Luckily, we wrapped up our U.S. tour in Connecticut so the drive to meet up with GOB was not far. New Brunswick is north of Maine and it was only a 6 hour drive to the border. Our van (I don’t think we had a trailer at this point yet) was loaded down with all of our gear and a hefty new order of Allister merchandise. We were hoping to sell quite a few T-shirts and CDs. One thing, however, was amiss. The paperwork that our label had promised us had never arrived. For fraud and for tax purposes, Canadian law usually required you to have manifests of all the gear and merchandise that you were carrying into the country. Merchandise would be counted and taxed, ensuring that the Canadian government got its fair share of revenue from sales. Serial numbers on gear would be documented and saved, thus (theoretically) preventing the trafficking of stolen goods. You could generally get by without paying the tax by stuffing all your T-shirts into a personal suitcase, making them appear as clothes, but we had just received a new shipment and everything was stuffed into boxes. For a broke band like ourselves, it was imperative to save every penny. We knew the tax would be heavy because of all our merchandise, so on the way up to the border we decided that it would be best if we all told the border patrol that we were simply visiting friends. Yes, we were in a band, but we were merely seeing the beautiful sights of Canada during a few much needed days off. One little white lie wouldn’t hurt anyone…
As we neared the border crossing, we went over our story again to make sure everyone had it right. I was confident that we’d have no problems getting through. We pulled up to the checkpoint and I explained to the guard that we were a band from Chicago, touring the east coast but now taking a few days off to visit some Canadian friends in New Brunswick. She smiled and asked me to pull up so our vehicle could be checked. This was standard procedure with large vehicles so I wasn’t worried.
I pulled the van up, turned off the ignition, and got out. A few other guards came over and collected our IDs, asking various questions. Back in 2001, you only needed a Driver’s License or state ID to cross the border. I could see some of the guards going through our boxes of T-shirts and CDs, talking quietly between themselves and occasionally stealing glances our way. It was taking a lot longer than I expected and I was beginning to get a little nervous. Finally, the head security guard walked over to me. “So you guys are in a band, eh?” “Yes, sir,” I replied. “And you say you’re just visiting friends up here? You didn’t drive up here to play shows or sell merchandise?” “No, sir,” I said. “We just drove up to spend a day or two seeing New Brunswick. We’ve never been here before.” “Well then what are all those T-shirts and CDs doing in the back of your van?” he asked. “Like I said, we’re touring the east coast of the U.S. selling that stuff,” I told him. “I see,” he said. “I see.”
He motioned over to one of the other guards. The other guard came over and they talked quietly between themselves. One of them spoke a few words over his radio. They parted ways and the head security officer looked at me again. “I’d like you all to follow me please,” he said.
Fuck. This wasn’t going as easily as I had anticipated. They led us all into the border building, a drab, gray brick structure that had about as much life as corpse. As we entered, we all quickly got separated, each of us led away by a different security guard. Holy shit….they’re taking us into interrogation rooms! Sure enough, I found myself entering a tiny, stale room, furnished only with an old metal office desk and two folding chairs. There was a very mean-looking security guard sitting behind the desk as I took my place on the chair in front of it. The door slammed behind me. I remember being extremely nervous. We had done nothing wrong (except maybe trying to skirt the Canadian tax) but I felt like a criminal. The guard fired questions at me and made me feel like I was guilty of committing some heinous crime. I answered all of them to the best of my ability, trying to focus by reciting the facts of the story that we had all gone over in the van. My hands were sweating but I was trying to stay calm so he wouldn’t think I was lying. I was in there for at least 25 minutes before he finally released me.
I walked out of the building and found my way over to the van, chain smoking cigarettes as I waited for everyone else. One by one, the rest of the guys shuffled out, along with the head security guard who had inspected our van. He lined us all up next to our van and said, “Guys, I’m sorry but we just don’t believe you. We don’t think you’re here just to visit friends. We do, in fact, think you will be playing and selling your merchandise. You have two options. You can pay the tax on the merchandise or you can leave all your gear and merchandise here in a storage shed and continue on your way into New Brunswick.”
Paying the tax was out of the question (it was something like $500 which we just could not afford). We also didn’t want to leave all of our gear in some storage shed. What if we weren’t able to borrow anything from the other bands? It was pointless for us to go any farther. Dejected, we informed the security guard that we would simply turn around and head back into the U.S.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. We ended up forfeiting those 3 or 4 shows with GOB. We were all pretty upset about it at the time, but something tells me now that those Canadian shows would not have made or broken the band. As it turns out, we spent the next week or so back in Hamden, CT, marking the first of many times we would end up crashing with our friends in the band Grover Dill. They became some of the best friends that I’ve ever made while touring the country, and some of them remain so to this day. So I suppose all was not lost on that day at the border…