A bridge, a lock, a solo wanderer in Rome
We got to Canada Place at the appointed time—9:00 a.m. sharp—but people were already lined up past the elevators. A security guard waved an arm in exasperation. “If you are ready to take the Oath of Citizenship,” he said,“please step forward in a single-file line.”
It was one of those March days where you long to be anywhere but the Canadian prairies. Snow was blowing sideways against the windows. Back in Texas, where I’m from, winter was already over and it was time to sit on patios and drink margaritas.
We didn’t step forward. We—my wife and I, that is—stood back, wondering where the Permanent Residents were supposed to go. We were there to “land”—the technical term—a symbolic act that, for all intents and purposes, would, finally, make us Canadians. First, though, there would be one more interview, with an agent from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).
As we waited, we looked around the room. We were the only non-visible minorities. This was astounding to us. At a time when many American states were imposing draconian policies meant to make life intolerable for undocumented immigrants (mostly Hispanics), here was this benevolent country, ready to open its doors to people of colour.
I felt my eyes well up as I watched the Haitian family next to us, all of them dressed in their Sunday best, including a little boy of about six in a navy blue jacket and tie. They took pictures of each other, looking both serious and very happy to be there. Just past them was a Chinese woman in impossibly high heels and a tight, ankle-length sequin dress, with her entourage of five Canadian friends. The friends snapped photos of her standing in line as if she stood on a celebrity red carpet. She strained to hold back tears from ruining layers of mascara.
I had been hatching plans all winter to leave Edmonton and move back to Texas. Becoming Canadian had been a strategy to hedge my bets against the cruel realities of the American job market, not the fulfillment of a sentimental dream. But here I was, in front of these people, moved by their emotion, their genuine happiness, moved to tears myself by their faith in the abstract promise of “Canada.” I couldn’t look at my wife.
The recent re-election of Barack Obama took me back to the dark days of Dubya, back when some Americans were having serious conversations about moving to Canada if George W. Bush got re-elected, and back when I would have laughed out loud if you had suggested I’d one day be living in Canada. In 2004, I was dating a Texas union organizer who spent the months before the Bush vs. Kerry election travelling around the country, rallying people to support Kerry. She was confident Kerry would win and we spent election night at a party that was supposed to be a victory celebration. She had even bought streamers and balloons. Around midnight, when it became clear that Bush would be re-elected, she made a bold pronouncement: “I can’t take these rednecks anymore! I am moving to Canada!”
For a while, in Texas’s only liberal stronghold—Austin—the city was abuzz with talk of a mass migration. Also around this time the “Jesusland” map started popping up on the internet, breaking up North America into two countries (Mexico didn’t seem to count): Canada and Democratic-leaning states on one hand, and Republican states—Jesusland—on the other hand. Almost everyone I knew wanted out of “Jesusland.” Yet the more my girlfriend talked about moving to Canada, the more incensed I became. Not because I sympathized in the slightest with Bush, but because I lived here, in Texas.
“I’m not coming with you to Canada,” I told her one night at a party. “This is my country, damn it. If you don’t care enough to stand up and fight to change it, then you should leave.” A fight ensued. She was the labour organizer and I was the navel-gazing intellectual. What right did I have to sermonize? Had I ever walked a picket line? No, I hadn’t. Had I ever organized prison guards? No, I hadn’t. I’d never been to Canada either, but I suspected it wasn’t the liberal paradise she had in mind. Did she even know who the Prime Minister was? No, she didn’t.
We broke up soon after the incident. I think she moved to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, I started dating someone (my current partner) who shared my affinity for Texas food, music, and football—even if we both felt excluded by the state’s politics.
I continued to disparage liberal migration to Canada, until—sweet irony—I received a job offer at the University of Alberta during the last year of the Bush regime. Despite having spent a good deal of my twenties roaming around the world, I had never been to Canada. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I was one of those Americans who thought about their neighbor to the north, whenever I thought about it all, as an undifferentiated mass of ice and snow, populated by wild game and naïve people who ate lots of donuts and drank lots of beer. My entire Canadian knowledge base was derived from SCTV, Neil Young, and Kids in the Hall.
Around that time, I had become friends with a Canadian from Ottawa who told me to turn down the Edmonton job and stay in Texas. “You’ve seen Strange Brew, right?” he said. “Then you know what a hoser is. Well, Edmonton is Ground Zero for hosers. It takes a special kind of troglodyte mentality to live that far north.”
I ignored him. He lived in Houston, after all, and Houstonians have no right to feel superior to any city on the planet. I packed up my things and made the trek north. At the border, a guard asked to see my resumé, which was not something I had thought I would need on a road trip. Without my resumé, no work visa could be issued, and I was not allowed to enter Canada as a Skilled Worker. I had to enter as a tourist, get the university to fax me my resumé, then drive back across the border. I re-entered with my resumé in hand and sat down on a bench to await permission to enter the country on the proper grounds. A German man sitting next to me was called in and I heard him being interrogated. The agent eventually turned down his request to renew his permanent residency. In a polite voice, the German was ordered out of the country. I think the agent may have even said he was sorry.
The same agent emerged fifteen minutes later and waved me into his cubicle. I was shaking with fear but liked his uniform. The CIC insignia seemed ornate and poetic, especially in French. He wore cool, chunky black glasses. In fact, everyone in Canada seemed to have hip eyewear. This country was already an improvement on the hotheads who greet you on the U.S. side. He shuffled through my documents and then addressed me in Spanish: “Why do you want to come to Canada?”
“En español?” I asked.
“Sí, señor,” he said.
I started in about my dissertation, specifically my research into an interesting episode in the Cold War in which Cuba…
“Enough,” he said. “My Spanish actually isn’t that great. Here’s your work visa.”
My heart was racing, and I couldn’t help but feel that I’d gotten away with something as I pulled out of the border station.
Life in Canada did bring about some minor culture shocks. In December of 2009, the temperature dropped to -38 Celsius, a number for which I had no frame of reference, until someone explained that Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at -40. During this time, I started to experience sharp chest pains, and I imagined the worst-case scenario: heart trouble. All the men in my family have had heart disease, most of them dying from some form of it before reaching the age of fifty. I was approaching my late thirties, and this pain seemed to augur my fate.
What to do? In the States, you do your homework: find an in-network specialist from your insurance provider, while researching what kind of co-pay you will incur. This, I found, is a foreign language in Canada. I went to a Medi-Centre and saw a doctor within five minutes (the magic words if you want to get in quick: “chest pain”). The doctor listened to my breathing for a few minutes and I told her how it had come on. I had been out for a jog during the morning when the temperature plunged to -40. “You had an allergic reaction to the cold,” she said. “Take it easy when it gets that cold.” She turned and walked out the door. I looked around, unsure of what to do. I asked the nurse at the front about my co-pay.
“What’s a co-pay?” she asked.
I couldn’t wait to go back to the States and brag about Canada’s health care system to all my Republican friends and extended family. (Two years later, when my wife waited all night in the emergency room with our feverish toddler to see a doctor, I wanted to take it all back.)
Last summer, as I toggled back and forth between Canadian and American coverage of the Olympic games, another subtle, yet significant, cultural difference became apparent. Canadian networks focused on the international competition almost as if they had no dog in the fight, whereas American channels were resolutely focused on American athletes winning gold medals. Even more tellingly, any showing at all for a Canadian athlete seemed to be respectable for the Canadian commentators, while anything less than a gold for the Americans was a disappointment.
I followed a Facebook post from a Canadian friend who posted: “WE WON! WE WON WE WON!” I scrolled through the comments to find what the hubbub was about: the Canadian women’s soccer team had won a bronze. A bronze? The enthusiasm for sub-gold medals was repeated on CTV. Announcers went over the top when the Men’s Eight won a silver in rowing. On the American side, meanwhile, it appeared that a national tragedy was unfolding when McKayla Maroney bungled a landing from the vault and wound up with a silver. There were tears and hushed tones. Americans just don’t do silver. Canadians, meanwhile, seemed content just to be a part of the Games.
I find the Canadian approach a humane alternative to the cut-throat American attitude I was raised on from my first days in Pop Warner football, when my sixth-grade coach yelled at me to stomp the other player’s “dick in the dirt.” From an early age, I wondered why America had to dominate the world. When I was in elementary school, I remember Ronald Reagan invading the tiny island nation of Grenada in something called Operation Urgent Fury. Later, Clint Eastwood made a movie about it—Heartbreak Ridge—portraying the invasion as heroic. Dealing with all this was embarrassing when travelling abroad. It’s no wonder so many Americans stitch a maple leaf on their backpacks. When I traveled across Latin America in 2011, I often claimed I was “from” Canada, even though this was a half-truth.
In Peru, my cover blew up in my face: the Canadian gold mining company Barrick had been accused of causing a massive water shortage in the north of the country. One protestor had died while trying to enter a Barrick mine. Canada’s reputation in Latin America, it turned out, was not quite that of the sane “Third Option” it used to represent during the Cold War.
After two years on a work visa, I was ready to tackle the mountain of paperwork that accompanied the application for permanent residency. First, I had to account for every single address I had ever occupied since I turned eighteen. There were the police reports from all the foreign countries and all the states in which I had lived. Some states—Iowa and Texas—emailed me back with a police report without ever checking to see if I was who I really claimed to be. Other states required some legwork, such as going to Police Headquarters for a thumbprint to be sent to the FBI.
All of this seemed reasonable to me. If you want to be part of a foreign country, it makes sense the country would want to know if you’re a con artist or a serial killer before granting you residency. At times, however, I was tempted to lie. I had lived in Spain for a year in the nineties, and having spent many fruitless days trying to accomplish something rather simple—like renewing a student visa—in the Spanish bureaucracy, I knew that getting a police report would be a challenge. I feared bribery might be necessary, but hundreds of dollars and many months later, I had the police report in my hands.
The last step was the medical exam. I booked an appointment to see a doctor on the southern fringes of Edmonton. He went through a long checklist of things that—and I’m extrapolating here—the Government of Canada did not want to see in its new residents: drug addictions, genetic mutations, HIV-AIDS, cancers, smoking. I confidently answered “no” to all of these and he seemed satisfied until he got out the otoscope and looked in my ears.
This, he said, needed to be addressed immediately. He’d practically yawned his way through my family history of early-onset heart disease and cancer, but it seemed my excess earwax had finally accorded me a little respect.
I sent the whole dossier—police reports, medical exams, employment histories, financial statements—to an immigration processing centre in Ontario and waited. Three months passed and one day I came home to find my wife in tears: they had rejected the entire application and we would now go to the back of the line.
I had somehow omitted one month of my life between June 1, 1994 and July 1, 1994. I have no recollection of what I was doing during that time, but I could have easily said I was travelling and would have been fine. But I left it out completely, and for that reason I was looking at another four to six months for the processing of my application. I started over.
Finally, the day came. Last March, after making our way through the weepy happiness of the citizenship office waiting area, we were led into a windowless room where a middle-aged woman with a slight Indian accent questioned us about recent criminal activity. No, we hadn’t committed any crimes in the past few months. It all seemed rather perfunctory until the final stage: the signature that would be printed on our Permanent Residency cards. It was of the utmost importance, she said, that we sign inside the box. If any part of the signature went outside of the box, the signatures would be invalidated and we would have to “land” all over again. “Here,” she said, “practice a few times.”
We practiced signing our names in a small box on a sheet of paper. When the real form finally came I was gripped with panic. I took a deep breath and out came the signature. She seemed relieved to see that nothing was outside the box.
“You now have the rights and responsibilities afforded to all Canadians,” she said. “There are only three things that differentiate you: one, you cannot vote; two, you cannot run for elected office; and three, if you commit a felony, you may be deported back to your home country.”
When my Permanent Residency card came in the mail in the spring, I couldn’t resist showing it off. One afternoon, over beers with some friends, I fell into a reverie about my day at Canada Place What a moving experience it had been, united with these people from all over the world. What an authentic display of multiculturalism in action! Canada really was a mosaic!
“Bullshit,” my friend Eddy cut in. “You’re buying a line of government propaganda.” The gist of his argument was that Canadians don’t like to face the reality that feel-good multiculturalism rhetoric masks a basic fact: immigrants are treated as nothing more than the sum of their labour, which, to make matters worse, often results in “brain waste”—highly skilled people toiling away in menial jobs.
Eddy told me about Jayesh Prajapati, an Indian immigrant in Toronto. Prajapati had a Master’s degree in chemistry but was unable to find work in his field after immigrating to Canada in 2006. He took a job as a night-shift cashier at a Shell station. One night in September of 2012, a customer started to drive off without paying his $112.85 gas bill. Prajapati ran out to stop him but was killed after being struck by the man’s SUV. Later interviews with friends and family suggested that Prajapati might have run out to stop the criminal not out of loyalty to the Shell corporation, but because many individual gas stations force their employees to pay back theft out of their own paycheques, an illegal but common practice in the industry. (Shell has stated it’s conducting a full investigation and has reiterated in its press statements that, “the Ontario Employment Standards Act prohibits employers from deducting wages because the employer had property stolen.”)
Behold, Eddy argued, the reality of the Canadian Dream. The pageantry of the citizenship ceremony was bread and circuses for deluded folks like me. This was a grave charge: it cost serious money (I spent approximately thirty-two hundred dollars on forms and applications) and the government demanded a serious commitment to become Canadian. For an American like me, the cost was a hardship. For a working-class immigrant from the developing world, it was a lifetime of savings.
There is certainly emerging data to support the notion that Canada has a growing problem with brain waste. A recent report from Citizenship and Immigration Canada found “deteriorating” conditions for skilled immigrants over the past ten years. According to the government’s own data, skilled workers face more obstacles in gaining employment in their field than unskilled workers.
And the proverbial tales of PhD’s driving taxis? As of 2006, (the latest year surveyed), “very recent immigrants” (those who have immigrated in the past five years) who drove taxis were about three times more likely to hold a doctorate than Canadian-born taxi drivers. Furthermore, forty-four percent of immigrant taxi drivers hold a postsecondary degree, which would certainly seem to make them overqualified to be driving a cab.
Once Eddy had burst my new Canadian bubble, it seemed that I couldn’t open the paper or turn on the radio without hearing yet another story about immigrants exploited by Canadian employers. Most recently, an Alberta company pled guilty to a charge of falsely luring a group of Polish welders to work in the energy industry, paying them about half what they should have been paid, while procuring them visas under the false pretense of being students. Under the plea agreement, the most serious charge of human trafficking was dropped. The Poles, who earned ten to twelve dollars an hour, will never see a dime of the twenty-four dollars an hour or more they should have been making. What’s more disturbing than the exploitation of these workers by a rogue Ukrainian Orthodox priest and his associates is the fact that the workers themselves were left with nothing to show for their troubles. Most of the immigrants chose to return to Poland, even though a few have stayed behind, hoping to be granted permanent residency.
In some ways, then, immigration to Canada may be starting to look more and more like immigration to the United States: A high-stakes game that often involves significant amounts of money and corruption, with an uncertain payoff at the end. You could just as easily end up like Tony Montana as Horatio Alger.
All of this—the two-sided treatment of immigrants, the inconsistent health care system, the compromised environmental record—might mean that Canada isn’t quite the socialist paradise American liberals like my ex-girlfriend dreamed of immigrating to in 2004. In fact, many of its deepest problems mirror those south of the border. Still, in my four years here, I have yet to meet an immigrant to Canada—including refugees from the Mexican drug war, and political refugees from Zimbabwe and El Salvador, not to mention various Indians, Chinese and, yes, Americans—who thinks he or she would have been better off back home, wherever home happened to be. For all the horror stories, financial costs, and paperwork, there remains the promise of landing in a country that not only tolerates but encourages immigrants. According to Jeffrey Reitz, a University of Toronto sociologist, support for immigration—even in skilled jobs—is widely supported across a broad swath of the Canadian population. Most Canadians—even the unemployed—do not believe that immigrants are “stealing” jobs.
Canada is the outlier among industrialized countries in its attitude towards immigrants: fewer than twenty percent of Canadians think there are “too many” immigrants in the country, according to a 2010 EKOS Research poll. Compare that with the United States, where a 2007 poll found that three-quarters of Americans wanted further restrictions on immigration. And in Britain and France, immigration is even less popular than it is in the United States. Whereas Canada long ago adopted bilingualism, many Americans increasingly see Spanish as a threat to its “Anglo-Protestant values,” wrote Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in his recent book, The Hispanic Challenge. The results from the 2012 presidential election reflected this sobering fact. The Republican party has calcified into a mono-ethnic tribe of old, white, well-off, Christian men. “The demographics are changing,” said FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly on election night. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
Anecdotal evidence tells me that the emphasis on multiculturalism as a core value in Canadian life is filtering its way into the belief systems of its immigrants. One Colombian student of mine remarked that while her home country is a mix ofAfrican, Spanish, and indigenous stock, multiculturalism is not seen as a virtue. José Antonio García, a petroleum engineer from Venezuela, considered immigrating to various countries, including Spain (where he has citizenship), but was intrigued by an ad in a Venezuelan newspaper that read: “Canada Awaits You!” He did his homework, and, despite his dislike for the cold, picked Canada. “I researched the Canadian standard of living and learned that it occupied fourth place on the Human Development Index,” he told me. Apart from the difficulties of learning English, García has had little trouble integrating himself into Canadian life and continuing his profession.
For Americans, Canada has the added bonus of providing a social safety net that liberals can only dream about. Guaranteed parental leave and universal health care are two aspects of the Canadian social compact that my friends back in the United States envy. When considering my long-term employment options, I received a number of job offers in the U.S. that would have allowed me to cobble together a living wage, but none could guarantee health insurance or long-term stability. Staying seemed the only logical option.
Still, none of this obscured the fact that I had moved to a city so far north that most American maps don’t even register its existence. Three-quarters of Canadians live within a two-hour drive of the U.S. border. I had moved to the northernmost city of over a million people in North America. What was I doing here? Yes, there had been a lot of observable change in our lives: I had a job, my spouse had a tuition break, we had our new fancy permanent resident cards, we had access to health care. But the most profound change lay in the intersection between my identity and my new nation. I still felt somewhat out of place, yet had become unexpectedly attached not just to Canada, but to the idea of Canada. In a kind of personal citizenship exercise, I was now trying to gauge just how Canadian I’d become.
To be sure, there are times when I am still truly perplexed by my new country. Canada, I must report, is a strange place in many ways. On my walk to work, there is an intersection where a busy four-lane street meets a quiet two-lane side street, which rarely has any traffic. Nevertheless, if there is a red light, pedestrians wait patiently at this intersection, looking into the middle distance, a few quick steps away from the next corner. When I approach, I glance both ways, and then skip across the side street on my merry way. I feel the eyes of my fellow pedestrians on the back of my neck, tsk-tsking me for jaywalking.
One of my great pleasures in life is the feeling of hamburger juice running down the back of my hand as I plow into a pink, juicy patty. This—like jaywalking—is illegal in my new country. A federal law mandates that ground beef must be cooked to eighty degrees centigrade for everyone’s well being; E.coli has been linked to undercooked beef. (Of course, as the recent scandal at XL Foods in Brooks, Alberta, has demonstrated, cooking meat at high temperatures won’t always save you from E.coli.) What’s more interesting than the legal status of hamburgers, though, is that Canadians want their burgers well done. Pink hamburgers, the National Post declared recently, are a “Canadian taboo.” I had a barbeque in my backyard a couple of years ago, and a Canadian friend—a foodie, to be sure—took a burger I served her and put it back on the grill. What the hell? I thought at the time. That’s ruining the flavour!
This is the thing about Canada. For all the talk about a cultural mosaic, diversity and multiculturalism, there is a broad consensus on all sorts of social conventions lacking in the United States. You eat your hamburgers well done. You don’t cross the street if the light’s red. You stop for pedestrians. You provide health care for all citizens. You allow your children to walk themselves to school. And you always say “sorry,” even if you don’t mean it.
These were things I’d learned to love and shake my head at since coming to Canada, and I thought of them in March when we were called to formally sign on to this national project that had been so abstract to me as a Texas liberal a decade before. Now, at the drop of a toque, and for reasons I can’t fully explain, scenes of Canadian patriotism often emotionally overwhelm me. I have cried at bad renditions of “O Canada” before Edmonton Eskimos games.I cried when I heard a Canadian version of “This Land Is Your Land,” even though the music was the worst kind of folky kitsch. During the Olympics, I was done in by the most heavy-handed, sentimental portraits of Canadian athletes on CTV, even as egregious displays of bellicose American patriotism (USA! USA!) left me unmoved.
I remember one particularly brutal winter day last year, shortly after I became a Permanent Resident. I sat at a communal lunch table in downtown Edmonton with an immigrant from India and another from Haiti. All three of us bitched about the weather. The Indian shook his head, and then went back into the kitchen to bring us out some chai. The Haitian guy explained that the two had become friends when they moved to Canada ten years ago. They had met while living in a cramped north side apartment building, slowly working their way out of poverty. It had been the Indian guy’s lifelong dream to open up his own café. Now, he had done it. His voice was full of pride and undeniable feeling. As the three of us sat there, watching the wet snow come down, I felt the urge to cry, the emotion, again, welling up inside up as I thought about what they must have endured to get here. I was moved by their struggle, the faith they put in the promise of something new and better.
It’s one year later. Winter is here again. And now I’m one of them.