Tribunal upholds $1,300 fine for bringing skin-covered Eritrean stools into Canada

When Samuel Gebreyesus arrived at Ottawa Airport last July, he had four traditional Eritrean wooden stools covered with cow skins in his luggage. They were a gift from family members in Eritrea, where Gebreyesus had gone

When Samuel Gebreyesus arrived at Ottawa Airport last July, he had four traditional Eritrean wooden stools covered with cow skins in his luggage. They were a gift from family members in Eritrea, where Gebreyesus had gone for his brother’s funeral.

The Winnipeg taxi driver declared the stools at customs, assigning them a value of $150. He also marked “no” on his declaration card where it asked if he was importing any animal products or byproducts.

That turns out to have been a costly mistake. In a March 18 decision, theCanada Agricultural Review Tribunal upheld a $1,300 fine imposed by the Canada Border Services Agency for failing to declare he was importing animal byproducts. The CBSA also confiscated the stools and has not returned them.

In his decision, tribunal chair Don Buckingham directly addressed the question of whether wooden stools covered with animal hides constitute an animal byproduct.

“One might wonder at what point pieces of wood covered with animal hides – items as diverse as wooden stools from Eritrea to expensive leather sofas from Italy – cease to be animal byproducts and become furniture,” he said.

He also acknowledged that “this legitimate question” appears to have been in Gebreyesus’ mind when he told the tribunal he did not declare the stools as animal byproducts because it didn’t occur to him that they were.

Buckingham said there may be a point at which it could become difficult for the CBSA to prove that a piece of finished furniture made of wood and leather met the legal definition of an animal byproduct.

“But this is not such a case,” he said. “While Gebreyesus might well have believed what he was importing was furniture, he was (under the law) also importing an animal byproduct.”

With apparent reluctance, Buckingham upheld the $1,300 fine imposed on Gebreyesus, saying the tribunal had no authority to waive or reduce it for humanitarian or compassionate reasons.

He said the Agriculture and Agri-Food Administration Monetary Penalties Act gave Gebreyesus “little room to mount a defence.”

It excludes “practically any excuse” a traveller might raise, he said, including the fact that Gebreyesus “honestly believed he had declared the stools when he included their value as part of the total monetary value of his imports that he listed on his declaration card.”

Gebreyesus, who emigrated to Canada in 1993, was beside himself when informed of the tribunal’s decision by the Citizen. At the February hearing, he said, Buckingham “told me he was convinced by me. I don’t know why he changed his mind.”

Gebreyesus said the four stools were “very, very important” to him because they were gifts intended to help him remember his late brother. At his hearing, he asked the tribunal to order their return to him, but Buckingham said he had no jurisdiction to do that.

Gebreyesus, who called the tribunal’s decison “unfair,”  said paying the fine would be hard for him because he has little money. Buckingham gave him 30 days to pay.

dbutler@ottawacitizen.com

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6 COMMENTS
  • Awet March 27, 2015

    A Funny Eritrean who imported Stools From Eritrea to Canada….

    • concerned Eritrawi March 27, 2015

      Awat it is not funny,
      People go to their home country and it is normal to bring memorabilia or something they cherish. The man went to Eritrea and he has the right to bring something that belongs to his tradition or something that he cannot be easily find in the country he resides.
      I am not sure your age or maturity level, but when Eritreans visit Eritrea, there are things they usually bring from there.
      Bebere, Shiro, Thihni/Beso books, zuria, traditional cloths, kebero, cross, artifacts, and many others that are traditionally to Eritrea cultures. We as Eritrean work hard to keep our culture and there is nothing funny about this. I do not have the knowledge to talk about the legality of what is allowed or not, but this person might not have known that bring stool would be an issue. The custom is just doing their duty but then they really need to look into this and see if there is

    • Zeray March 27, 2015

      Awet – you have weird sense of humor.

  • Zeray March 27, 2015

    I bet they skip those who wear fur or leather jackets and wasted their court time on such petty matter. Shame. Leave the brother alone!

  • mesel March 28, 2015

    This is a biased and weired legal decision. How can a piece of dyed hide be considered not to comform to the Canadian law. Even the comment of the judge shows it doesn’t have a clear decision. How could such absence of clear law be used to punish individuals.

    This shows the systematic discrimination and making know that you are always a foreigner.

    …hope for the free Eritrean to come and escape this enslavement.

  • FTHIYINGHES March 28, 2015

    wey gud poor reason for his late brother to remember it doesn’t make sense to use his late brothers death to get back the stools RIP for his brothers

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