Saturday, December 13, 2003
I went for my new passport last week and as usual I felt like an illegal alien trying to prove my identity. First, I had to track down a "professional" - like a doctor, an accountant or a chiropractor - to testify I'm really me.
Then, I had to stand in line for two hours to show my birth certificate and two personal references. But the real humiliation took place when I got my passport photo at a shop on the Main, where I sat down and instinctively flashed my best smile.
"No - don't smile!" said the photographer. "No teeth should be visible for passport photos. Those are the new rules."
I clamped my jaw shut, but the photographer nodded her head again. "No - don't frown, either. Just look calm, with no expression at all."
The whole thing seemed surreal. Ever since childhood, I've been trained to smile for photos. I've been asked to "Lookit the birdy," or "Smile for the camera," or "say cheese!" But this time I was supposed to get rid of my grin.
I thought about winter slush and the GST, about métro strikes, demerger debates and George Radwanski.
Finally, I rearranged my facial features into a sombre look that would suit a corpse in a funeral home, after the makeup artist was through.
"Perfect!" the photographer said, with a smile, and she pressed the shutter.
Minutes later, my new mug shot was ready. In my old passport, I looked like a cheerful guy you'd love to have visit your country.
Now, I looked as grim as a terrorist.
As you may recall, Ottawa announced a ban on passport smiles back in August, to help airport security guards easily identify passport holders. A smiling photo is supposedly hard to compare with a non-smiling face.
Our passport office granted an amnesty to illegal smilers until Nov. 3. But now the grace period is over and we must all wipe the smiles off our faces.
The new Canadian rules forbid even a hint of a grin. So as mobs of Canadians flood the passport office for Christmas travel, our country is about to get a new image as a smile-free zone.
When all these travellers start handing over their passports to service staff all over the world, we will gain a reputation as the sourpusses of the planet, a grim people who don't grin.
We've always been known as a slightly dour nation, but at least it was just a habit. Now it's the law.
You could argue a smile is a small loss in our scary new world, a tiny thing to have confiscated at the airport along with your penknife and nail clippers. And most people will readily comply. But just why have we sacrificed our smile, anyway?
The idea was proposed in a report on passport standards by international aviation authorities. But so far, the only nation that's gone along with it is us.
The European, Australian and U.S. press have all written sarcastic pieces about our "smile police," with headlines like NO MORE SMILES IN CANADA. Americans may be the security champs of the planet, but they haven't given up their constitutional right to grin.
In the land of the smiley-face, it's probably considered anti-American NOT to smile. This leaves us Canucks in the strange position where everyone in the world can enter Canada with a smiling passport photo. Except for Canadians.
As security efforts heat up, where will our cheerless new policy end? Will I have to stop smiling for my driver's licence? My Medicare card? My gym card? My Gazette photo? And will banishing our smiles really work anyway?
Officials claim our sombre new pictures will make it simpler for border guards and computers to match up faces with photos - and spot known terrorists. But I suspect the terrorists will just find another way to fool them.
They will start smiling whenever they go through customs, so they're still hard to compare with their photos. I can see the scene at airport security.
"I'm sorry sir, you'll have to go through the electronic barrier again - and this time make sure you don't smile!"
The truth is if Canada wanted to make sure our photos always matched our faces, why couldn't we go the opposite way? We could just ask everyone to smile when they took their passport photos, then require them to smile again each time they go through Canadian customs.
We would be the only country in the world where you have to smile to get in. That would be great for our national image and a contribution to a cheerier post-Sept. 11, 2001, planet.
Frankly, it would probably be tougher on terrorists, too.
When you're carrying a suitcase bomb, I bet it's hard to give a genuine smile.
Marc.. cute article! As of yesterday we also got a new Prime Minister, so we no longer have to talk out of the sides of our mouth. I could never figure out how our old one could talk out of the one side of his mouth, while talking out of both sides of the mouth <G>
Marc, I saw that in the Gazette too, Josh Freed is Montreal's version of Dave Barry down in Miami (we get him in the Gazette too). It's true about the passport photos; I was in the pharmacy not long ago where they take photos for your passport, or your medicare card, and I couldn't believe my ears when I heard the photo technician telling the customer NOT to smile!
And, as Kuki said, yes, we have a new Prime Minister, Quick, can any Americans name our new Prime Minister? Answer later...
I have one of the new non-smiling passports. I don't know I think I now look like someone you really wouldn't want to sit near. I look like a real sourpuss. Also, you have to take off your glasses (at least I had to) because they said glasses hide your face and it's harder for them to identify you. Now we will be the no smiling can't see Nation....