Yes, after ten years and no troubles crossing the border ever, I figured my idiot lawyer had actually been right about something. Life went on. I traveled to Omak with Laura and Bianca to the rodeo. I drove down to see my parents in Yuma. I had even driven down to see my daughter in 1995, traveling through the States and crossing the border twice with no problems. I relaxed a bit and thought I had put it all behind me.
Life took some unfortunate twists and turns over the next few years. It started collapsing when Dad died in my arms in 2005. That was horrible enough but after he died there was no one to care for Mum who had Alzheimer’s and needed full-time care, so I took on the caregiver role until I finally got her into a care facility, which my sister promptly pulled her out of and ended up killing her, but that’s another story. After I sold Mum’s place I took over a dilapidated mobile in the park next to where Mum and Dad had lived for thirty-five years. I basically took over the mortgage and started on one of the most aggressive renos I’ve ever done in my life. I gutted the place and worked tirelessly, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for a year and a half, turning it into what one Realtor called the “showpiece of the Okanagan”.
The day before I was to list it Noel Derrikson came out in the press stating that anyone who bought on First Nation’s land was “stupid”. He went on to mock owners and Realtors who were selling mobiles in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said there was only thirty day tenancy and the people could be thrown out for park redevelopment. Overnight no one would even touch my place. Realtors hid for fear of being sued. Lawyers told their clients not to buy. Financing fell apart. I had a private mortgage commitment for $68,000 to cover my bills just in case I couldn’t sell until the following spring. When I called the broker she said her backers had pulled out of any deal on native land. I was out of money and out of time. My creditors would soon be chasing me and I had no money to pay them. To say I was stressed out would be an understatement. My buddy Wade found me sitting in a chair in the living room, eyes glazed over and he rushed me to the doctor. My sugar levels were off the charts and he came this close to rushing me to the hospital. He immediately put me on healthy doses of insulin to bring down my sugars. He said I had to get out from under all this stress or it would surely kill me.
I had taken to not answering the phone and hiding if anyone knocked on my door. I was a mess and I knew the doctor was right. I started researching countries to flee to, at least until things died down. My electrician, who I had given shelter to when he and his wife broke up, knew how bad I was and he said to just take off and he would look after the place while I was gone. It sounded like the right thing to do but it turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life in so many ways.
I started having the biggest garage sale of my life. Brand new, unopened tools were going for peanuts. I had over ten thousand dollars in tools and all of it went for nothing. The personal stuff I had left, like golf clubs and my electric keyboard went to an auctioneer for a fraction of its worth. My personal treasures, like the framed picture Tracy had made for me of my kids, went into storage bins which Wade was going to deal with if the house sold. I sold my truck for more than I paid for it, which was great except I loved my truck. I bought an older Civic for just over two thousand dollars after having my mechanic of many years check it out and tell me it was in perfect condition. I had no idea how long it would take me to get to Panama, the country I had picked as the best place to go. I transferred the ownership of the house to Wade so that he could sell it when the market improved.
Despite all the pressure I left my home of fourteen years with a heavy heart and a lot of tears as I drove down the highway, but by the time I got to Peachland I could feel that anvil being lifted off my shoulders. No more hiding or not answering my phone. My buddy was going to look after the place while I was gone and maybe, just maybe, Wade could get a sale that would pay off all my bills and allow me to come back and start over.
As I approached the border at Osoyoos I wondered how long it would be before I could come back to Canada. I also had no idea how long this trip was going to take. I had reserved a house in Boquete up in the mountains in eastern Panama. I was planning to take the coastal route through Oregon which I had been told was spectacular. I knew there might be some challenges going trough places like Mexico where bandits are all too common, but, hell, I had traveled back and forth between Westbank and Brampton five times so I was no stranger to the road. I was looking at it as an adventure, one that I was going to take full advantage of and enjoy.
When I got to the border, a place I had crossed many, many times, the guard asked me where I was going, probably because he looked in the car and saw it stuffed to the gills with my life’s possessions. I didn’t think he would believe me that I was actually going to drive all the way to Panama, so I said I was heading south “until the money ran out.” To this day I don’t know what spooked him or why he didn’t let me through, but he said to pull over. I figured because the car was so jammed they just wanted to have a better look to make sure I had no drugs or weapons (I didn’t).
I went in the office to the counter and was told to go through a door, one that locked behind me, and wait. I had no idea what was going on and thought I was just waiting for someone to come and look through the car. Next thing I know this little short puffed up border guard, a guy who was obviously upset that he failed to get into the police force, asks me why I was finger-printed? Just about swallowed my tongue trying to answer him because, naturally, I was blown away that this was still on file twenty years later! I fumbled with my answer, only making it worse and him more suspicious. The next three and half hours in the hands of the bungling Homeland Security idiots was the worse time of the life. I was finger printed, photographed, interrogated and made to feel like a child molester. When midget man told me I was not going to be allowed into the US or couldn’t even fly through a US airport, I told them I was on my way to a new life in Panama; had rented a house and had nowhere to go back to, they didn’t give a damn. When I asked what would happen if I got a pardon in Canada they told me the US couldn’t care less about that and it would take years to be allowed into the US ever again.
I left the border a broken man. All the crap that I had been through all those many years ago came flooding back on me. I drove back to Westbank without a clue what I was going to do now. I knew I had to find some way to get to Panama because there was no going back now. I called Wade, quite obviously in a horrible state, and told him I had no idea what to do. He suggested I stop at BCAA and see if I could get a flight without going through the US. He said if I had to fly obviously I couldn’t take my car full of stuff with me on the plane, but he would deal with it. He said he would also arrange to sell the car for me.
When I got back to Westbank it was late and I didn’t think the office would be open because it was Christmas day the next day. I was shocked to find them open and they were amazing! They found me a flight out of Vancouver leaving the next morning for Mexico City; a stay over one night and on to Panama City the next day. One way was just over seven hundred dollars, much less than it would have cost me to travel down by car, not to mention that I would be there in two days instead of probably ten. I even bought a set of luggage they had on sale and thanked them profusely for saving me. I rushed back home to repack everything, shocking the hell out of my electrician buddy when I pulled up. I had to make a quick confession that they stopped me at the border and now I had to fly out, taking the bus to Vancouver in a few hours. As luck would have it, Chris, his son and the kid who had worked for me for months, was there and he asked me what I was going to do with the car. After brief discussion with his father he agreed to buy the car from me. I lost about eight hundred bucks in the deal but I had little choice.
They dropped me off at the bus stop in Westbank. This was the first time I regretted not taking my big warm parka with me. I figure I would never need it in Panama and it would just be something bulky to carry around. I already had my pool cue and my roller-blades and three heavy pieces of luggage to drag around. I also forgot that it was Christmas Eve so the bus stop was closed. I was frozen but the bus was due in a few minutes so I figured I’d survive. An hour and a half later the bus showed up, saying he had come in from Calgary and there was a delay through the mountains. I was a Popsicle by then and just appreciated the warm bus. I slept fitfully all the way to Vancouver.
The flight from Vancouver to Mexico City was uneventful; however, when I got in my cab I realized there were two Holiday Inns, one at the airport and the other one a maniacal drive all the way across Mexico City. I was in no mood to try to see any of the city and just crashed in my room with room service. In the morning I went to pay my bill with my American Express travelers cheques and discovered they don’t take them. I was very lucky that I had a preloaded MasterCard and used that to pay my bill.
My driver didn’t hear me right when we got to the airport and dropped me off at the other end to where I needed to be. Then the guy who took my bags put me in the line-up going to Canada. Good thing I asked someone in line and moved to the right line. The flight from Mexico City to Panama City was excellent. Great food. Great service, even great snacks! Thoroughly recommend Mexicana. I had known that I had to buy a tourist Visa, which I got in Mexico City for $20, only to discover I could have bought one at the airport in Panama City for $5. Just the first experience with all the misinformation I was about to experience.
Coming through customs in Panama I knew I had to have the tourist visa and also declare how much money I had. I knew that Panama requires that you have at least $500 to enter the country, but I didn’t want to get interrogated or searched to find my travelers cheques, so I wrote down $5,000. I thought it was a bit strange that the customs guy called someone on the phone while I was waiting for my entry stamp. He babbled away in Spanish so I had no clue what he said. I didn’t get so much as a “welcome to Panama” and he just waived me through.
As I walked out the doors the most oppressive heat blasted at me. I learned that it was 98 degrees at 10:00 o’clock at night. I knew I had time to kill and I also needed to know how to get to the bus depot so I searched out an English speaking driver. A very nice chap who turned out to be not only English, but British English with a delightful accent, came up and asked me where I wanted to go. It may have been a bit bold of me, but after I told him my bus wasn’t leaving for a while I asked if we could come to some arrangement for him to drive me around a little and then get me to the right bus depot in time for my bus to David. I had no clue what taxis cost in Panama City so I really was trusting him. He suggested fifty bucks and that sounded okay. As we got talking I asked him about the customs agent talking on the phone. He said when they see how much money you have they call their taxi buddy who then takes you downtown and steals everything you have. The customs guy gets a cut. I was shocked but I was about to learn a whole lot of things that happen in Panama. We drove around looking at all the Christmas lights which I had not expected; had a nice dinner and got to the bus depot in plenty of time. It was chaos at the depot and I was thankful he was with me to get me to the right bus.
Because the bus was an overnight, arriving in David at 6:30 in the morning, I figured I would sleep all the way through the six and a half hour trip. Wrong! First the bus had music playing that pretty well killed any chance of sleeping peacefully. Then, half way through he stopped at a rest stop where we were to eat and take a break. I was just at the point of exhaustion where I might have fallen off but the stop ended that. After we got back on the road I had just fallen into a deep sleep when I just about got hurled out of my seat through the front window. Right in the lane in front of us were two eighteen-wheelers parked. No lights on. No flares. Nothing to warn you they were there in the dark. The driver had seen them at the last minute and avoided the crash that would have killed all of us. My heart was racing and sleep was not going to happen as I didn’t want to die in my sleep if we hit the next one.
What totally amazed me, and this is so Canadian, was that we would be whipping along at normal expressway speeds, then the driver would suddenly come to almost a complete stop, then crawl across the dirt road in front of us. They have long stretches of the expressway that are being repaired, so they just take out the old pavement. No detours. No barriers. No warning signs. The road just ends in the middle of nowhere. I was SO thankful to get to David alive.
The first thing you notice when you get off the bus is all the dogs. To a Canadian all these wild dogs around are a bit unnerving. They all look very hungry and are all pretty mangy. I found a taxi waiting for the bus to arrive and realized I had best start learning to negotiate. The first number was $25 and I was too tired to wait any longer to get to a bed, so I said “fine’. I knew I was probably paying too much (I was) but I had all this extra luggage and, like I said, I needed my bed big time.
Note: This story is not about my time in Panama which I have blogged about before; it’s about my journey to get a pardon. The only thing relavent is that I tried to go through the Embassy to start my application, but you cannot do it from outside the country. It had to be put on hold until I returned to Canada, if I ever did.
Fast forward to March of 2009 when I had no choice other than to return to Canada. My dear cousin, Joan in Toronto, had offered me a place to stay and was picking me up at the airport. After we landed and started through customs I was red-flagged for an additional inspection. Oh God, here we go again I thought. I figured my record had been flagged and they were going to give me the third degree. What if they wouldn’t let me in? There was a huge line-up of very frustrated people waiting for the one agent working. As I inched up slowly all I could think of was my cousin waiting for me and wondering where I was. When I finally got to yet another failed police recruit he went through everything, even asking me to turn on my computer, which I didn’t think he had any right to do without some kind of warrant. Finally I got so frustrated worrying that my cousin might have left by now I asked him what this was all about. He replied that I had spent time in Panama, a country well known for being the route for drugs from Columbia, with no visible means of support and here I was coming to Canada. It had nothing to do with my record. When I finally got outside my cousin and her daughter had been driving around for hours. I was thankful in a perverse way that I could tell them the truth about why I was delayed.
As soon as I got settled at Joan’s I got to work on getting my pardon. I got all the information and an application from the National Parole Board website. The first thing was to get my fingerprints submitted to the RCMP to verify my ID. That cost me $40. Next was to get clearance letters from anywhere I had lived in the last ten years to verify that I had no further charges pending. I had to take the bus quite a ways to the station closest to me, but it turned out they don’t do it anymore (website hadn’t been updated) and I had to go right downtown to the main precinct, which I did. Another $40 and I was told it would take a few weeks. I was already starting to get a bit nervous what I would say when something from the RCMP came in the mail. Next I applied to the court for a record of my charges, which turned out to be unnecessary because they only go back five years.
Everything was going as planned and, even though the NPB had told me there were some 25,000 applications hopelessly backed up, they said it would take eighteen to twenty-four months. They also warned me that Minister Toews proposed changed to the pardon process, if they were approved, would mean a delay of at least five years, so it was critical that I get my pardon before the new legislation came into effect.
As the weeks went by and I spent every day, all day trying to find any work available, I got to the same place with every employer. They wanted a CRC (Criminal Record Check), which, of course, I didn’t have. At one point my cousin’s daughter got me an interview with the dealership where she worked for a car jockey and I got the job, but he asked for a CRC. I had no choice but to tell the whole story to my cousin, and she was very sympathetic.
Yet another story but I moved to London in the fall of 2009. I had all the documents needed with the exception of my clearance letter from the RCMP in Kelowna. I sent letters, emails and phoned, but I could never get anywhere. Finally, in desperation I went to my local MP, Glen Pearson and they said they would do their best to get a response. Six months later they called me and said they had good news and bad news. They had finally managed to get the clearance letter, but now everything else had expired and I had to start the process all over again. This was such a blow because I was on welfare, barely surviving from month to month and there was no way I could pay the fees all over again, or travel to Toronto again to get my release again. I also had no confidence that I would get a timely response from the RCMP this time.
Thus began my process of writing to anyone and everyone who would listen, from the Prime Minister to Minister Toews to the Governor-General. I filed a formal complaint with the RCMP complaints commission, after which I got a call from a guy in Ottawa who told me the RCMP was accountable to no one, but if I wrote to the Chief in Kelowna, with the “push of a button” he could make this all go away. One of the counselors at Ontario Works said they had a retired RCMP officer who could help me, but, after whatever he tried to do, they said they couldn’t help me. I had moved by this time and I contacted Irene Mathysson, my local NDP MP and she said all they could do was push for changes to the proposed legislation. No matter where I turned I ran into a brick wall. I even contacted CTV to go public with my story and they were to setup an interview, but they never got back to me. It was all becoming so helpless.
I had continued to look for work, anywhere and everywhere, doing anything. I got so close to several jobs, but then the CRC killed any chance I had. It seemed like every employer out there, regardless of the job, now wanted a CRC. Finally I replied to an ad for a call centre job with Stream. I had lied on the application because by now I just had to hope that whoever the employer, they wouldn’t run the check. Stream did and she called me to ask what this was about. I wrote her a detailed email disclosing everything about the conviction, my application for a pardon and why I had lied on the application. She called me shortly after she got the email and all she said was “Gary, this was twenty-five years ago!” She couldn’t believe what I had been through and said to come in to fill out the paperwork to start working right away. I was thrilled.
Okay, so the job hasn’t exactly worked out considering I am on medical leave right now, but at least I feel it might help with getting another job because that employer might not do the CRC when they see I have been working for eight months for Stream. Who knows, but I have no other choice. Thanks to Minister Toews legislation the cost of getting a pardon has now gone up from $150 to $640, making it even more hopeless for me to apply all over again. I finally got a response from the Governor-General’s office to my letter of January, stating that they don’t get involved in legal matters. It states right in the legislation that the Governor-General has the right to issue a pardon in certain cases of hardship. If mine doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what would. Part of the criteria is for medical reasons, I guess if you are terminally ill. I wrote back telling them that in my current state of stress I will no doubt drop dead with all this stress.
Naturally I have had a response from a company back in Kelowna that looks good, but no doubt the CRC will kill it yet again.
Life is timing, for sure. At a whopping $11.25 an hour with Stream I was barely surviving, partly because I lost all my benefits with ODSP, even my drug card, and my meds are almost $500 a month. I’m in public housing, which is based on your gross income, so my rent had skyrocketed to $612 from $115. I filed an appeal with ODSP and thankfully they restored my benefits or there would have been no point in working. I was better off sitting on my butt at home.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse I got a letter from Revenue Canada who had finally tracked me down. They were demanding immediate payment of over five thousand dollars in back taxes. No sooner had I got the letter than I got a copy of the garnishee of my wages which means Stream has to give them thirty percent of my wages. I get nothing being on medical leave so it doesn’t mean much right now, but if I have no choice but to return to work there goes thirty percent of my starvation wage. They’ll even take 100% of my accrued vacation pay if I quit. So, if I go back to work at a job I loathe Revenue Canada will take 30% and my rent will be 30%, leaving me not enough to live on. Add to that I really have no choice but to file for bankruptcy, except they want $377 a month to file. Pretty sad when you can’t afford to go bankrupt.
I also got a letter from MRP, the medical plan in BC, their version of OHIP, demanding payment of $1,200 that I apparently owe them for while I was in BC. No idea where this came from but I’ll just add it to the list right now. I had met with a bankruptcy trustee, but it turns out I can’t even afford to go bankrupt. They wanted $377 a month and I said if I could afford that I wouldn’t be going bankrupt.
Just keeps piling in on me more and more. I can see why people give up and jump off a bridge. No one cares. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own life and they don’t have any compassion for what you are going through. Pathetic that if I was a drug addict or a convicted child molester or mentally unstable I could get help right away. People in my situation are just left to drift and die. Sad. At least if I do find that bridge one day, this blog might help to explain why. Even trying to deal with all this crap every day is not as bad as my children abandoning me. I hope someday they will have a better insight into the challenges I’ve faced in my life and realize I never stopped loving them. As bad as things are right now in every way, reconnecting with my kids and meeting my grandkids would have given me the strength to go on fighting. If my current health situation does me in I hope they will care enough to read what I have written and never make the mistakes I have.