Somewhere towards the end of my first 24 hours in Nova Scotia, about the time I hopped a fence in the cemetery I was walking through when there was no gate where I expected, I looked around to make sure there were no guards or police on the lookout. No one was watching me, despite being obviously out of bounds in my oxford shirt and business tie with a portfolio case, cutting through a cemetery in search of shade on a hot August day.
Back on the city side of the fence I realized that no had been watching me the entire time I was in Halifax – I had not seen one police car on the streets or one security guard in the three hospitals I visited. Although I know a white man in a tie can access many places without question in this world, the amount of security I encountered up north was beyond lax. It was non-existent.
Canada’s reputation for being safer than United States is borne out by statistics. The rate of property crime in Canada is three times less than here (943 vs. 3,036 per 100,000) as is their homicide rate (1.62 versus 5.0 per 100,000). Maybe this is due to culture or stricter gun control laws; it is certainly not due to more police. In the United States we equate safety with security; we like having guards and police to protect us from the bad guys. Canada feels safe without security; there just are not as many bad guys up there.
This feeling safe without a security presence rang particularly true the next morning as I navigated Halifax airport. Anyone who has flown in the past ten years knows the drill. We stand in a line, an officer with a gun at a podium checks our ID and boarding pass. We move to the next line. An officer with a loud voice calls out about liquids and gels and removing our belts and shoes. We scurry to the shortest line and toss all our stuff into grey bins, but the rollies don’t fit so they go on the belt alone. In some cities they want the shoes in the bins, while in others they don’t, in some airports the laptops require a separate bin and in others they don’t. There are many rules and they change just often enough that we never quite know them. Our stuff rolls through x-ray while we get diverted to be scanned. If we get pulled aside for more security, our stuff lingers at the end of the belt, like the sad orphan child of a delinquent parent. Dozens of people in TSA uniforms linger about, many more than have clear tasks, and when they are through with us, we collect our stuff and reassemble ourselves as best we can.
The process is very loud. Our bodies and our possessions follow disjointed paths. The sheer volume of uniforms and guns bespeak security, yet the process does not make us feel safe. We are exposed, we are anxious. American airport security is an accusatory system based on the supposition that any one of us could be the bad guy. Security is rampant, safety is tenuous and everyone feels violated.
The security process in Halifax starts the same as in the US, with a guard at a podium checking my documents. Of course she looks me in the eye and suggests the best place to catch breakfast in the terminal, but I am used to Canadian’s genuine friendliness and figure she might have heard my stomach growling. In the second line I notice the change. It is quiet. Very quiet. There are fewer guards and they are not clustered in the hinterland beyond the scanner; they are close to travelers. As I approach the conveyor a guard stands in front of a monitor. She asks for my documents, scans them again, and in a quiet voice reminds me about gels and belts. She hands me wide shallow trays that holds all my belongings. She makes sure they are on the conveyor square and then she places a dividing bin between me and the next person. My belongings are grouped together and identified with me. I get scanned in sync with my stuff, and on the other side, the scanning guard asks me a few questions about the contents of my bag from the x-ray view. I use my bicycle panniers as carry-ons and they have a few odd metal hooks. Satisfied with my answers she releases my belongings and I rearrange myself.
Canada follows all the same security steps we do in the US, but they do it in two fundamentally different ways. First, they address each person as an individual, no one screams directions at a group. Second, their interactions are not rooted in looking for evil. The atmosphere is one of ‘we’re all good folk here but let’s just check everything to keep it tidy’. I did not feel the usual anxiety that me and my stuff were at odds with each other, I never felt targeted. I felt respected.
Canadian airport security mirrors the country as a whole. It does not provide the same volume of security, but it fosters a deeper sense of safety. They don’t sweat the oddball things, like guys in dress shirts hopping cemetery fences, which would surely draw a siren in the US. They operate from the premise that our actions are benign, rather than sinister, and that makes all the difference.