Dear Americans: moving to Canada is hard

Dear Americans: moving to Canada is hard
The border. Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

The election is over, and once again Americans are wondering: what if we just left the country? There are lots of places to go. Australia is nice at this time of year. Germany has a great economy, and apartments in Berlin are supposed to be very cheap. And yet, the only place anyone ever seems to want to go is Canada. It’s right next door! Healthcare! Politeness! It sounds great.

It’s likely that most people aren’t serious about wanting to make a cross-border move, but I was. I was born in New York, and I came to Canada in August 2007, during the tail end of the Bush years. His presidency was a factor in my decision to leave the country, but only a minor one. The real reason I made the move—and the only reason I was able to do it relatively easily—is that I had been accepted to a graduate program at the University of Toronto, which smoothed the process of getting a temporary resident permit. By graduation, I had a life here: the beginnings of a career, some friends, an emotional connection with Toronto as a city. Politically and culturally, I felt at home. I wanted to stay.

In the popular imagination, there’s a persistent notion that the border between America and Canada isn’t a real thing. Americans are used to the idea that Canadians are their friends—and friends don’t treat friends like potential risks to national security, right?

So imagine my surprise when I learned that getting permanent residency (the equivalent of an American green card) wasn’t just a matter of filing some paperwork and waiting for my documents to come in the mail.

By 2014, when I finally gained permanent status in Canada, I had cycled through four different temporary work permits. At one point, I paid an attorney $4,000 to walk me through a complicated application process that involved convincing the Canadian immigration bureaucracy to waive a requirement that my employer seek Canadian applicants for my job before hiring me. There was even a scary period, between permits, when I had no official status in Canada. (Owing to a loophole in Canada’s immigration law, my presence in the country was legal—as long as I didn’t leave and try to re-enter.)

My first application for Canadian permanent residency was rejected, because I didn’t have the right variety of work experience. My second application was a year-long gauntlet of paperwork, chest x-rays, a blood test from a sketchy doctor who only accepted cash and was later arrested for sexually assaulting another patient—and, oh yeah, constant anxiety. I had to send my fingerprints to the FBI so they could perform a criminal background check. I combed through my receipts and assembled a diary of every one of my international trips for the previous five years. I took a language test to prove that I was proficient in English. During the test’s speaking portion, my examiner could barely contain his laughter as he asked me vaguely racist pre-written questions like, “In your culture, are handmade objects popular?"

Including application fees, legal fees and incidentals, I’d estimate that the entire process cost about $8,000—not including the extra salary I didn’t earn during the years when the conditions on my various permits placed arbitrary limits upon where, and for how much money, I could work.

All of which is to say, moving to Canada isn’t going to be easy for the average Trump refugee. It’s also kind of a bad idea. Remember: people making major decisions purely for momentary political catharsis is what got us into this situation. Moving to another country as a form of political protest only exacerbates that problem. It’s also a little delusional. Canada is a great place to live, but it’s not some ultra-liberal theme park where divisive, racist politics don’t exist. Canadians elected Rob Ford! And Canada’s federal Conservative party is already clamouring to capitalize on Trump’s success. At this point, the only way to hide from the Donald’s influence would be to emigrate to the ocean floor.

But, if the fantasy of a new life north of the border still seems appealing, here’s a guide to making the move. Younger and more highly skilled Americans might actually be able to pull it off! But the rest of you are probably stuck with the president you elected.

Figure out your category

There are exceptions, but Canada’s immigration system is, for the most part, designed to deal with four different types of people: students, wealthy-ish businesspeople, skilled workers and refugees—and the immediate family of anyone belonging to one of those groups. Anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories is most likely out of luck.

Getting into the country as a student is, in a lot of cases, the easiest path to permanent residency. Once a person has an offer of acceptance to a Canadian college or university, the process of getting a temporary resident permit is straightforward. When the permit expires, Canada allows many students to apply for something called a post-graduation work permit, which is the stuff of a Trump supporter’s nightmares: an unrestricted work permit (meaning, it’s not tied to any one specific employer or job type) that can last for up to three years. Working in Canada greatly improves one’s odds of being able to stay in the country permanently.

For businesspeople, Canada has an “immigrant investor” program, which allows a person with a personal net worth of at least $10 million (in Canadian dollars, naturally) to fast-track a permanent residency application in exchange for an investment in a government venture capital fund. This program has been criticized, justifiably, for essentially selling Canadian residency to wealthy foreigners, and it’s currently suspended. But Quebec runs its own, scaled-down version of the scheme, as do other Canadian provinces.

As for entering Canada as a refugee: there’s a list of countries whose citizens the Canadian government generally doesn’t consider worthy of refugee status, and the U.S. is, of course, one of those countries. The Donald Trump situation will need to get a bit more serious before Americans qualify for the same sort of treatment extended to, for example, Syrians.

Most Americans would probably prefer to emigrate to Canada as skilled workers, because doing so requires neither university acceptance, nor $10 million, nor evidence of persecution by a tyrannical president and/or warlord. But it’s nearly impossible to get permanent residency this way without first working in Canada, or at least getting a job offer from a Canadian employer.


And getting a Canadian job offer is, by design, very difficult. Ordinarily, to hire a foreigner, a Canadian employer needs to get what’s called a Labour Market Impact Assessment, which is an official ruling on whether or not hiring that specific foreigner is in Canada’s interest. If the assessment is negative, the job offer is void. There are certain job types that don’t require an LMIA, because they’re exempted under NAFTA. But Donald Trump hates NAFTA, so those windows of opportunity could be barred shut at any time.

Enter the applicant pool

When I was applying for Canadian permanent residency, all I had to do was submit a very complicated application and then wait a year for a decision. Shortly after I applied, though, Canada’s then-Conservative government introduced a new immigration system euphemistically known as “Express Entry.”

Currently, before most people can even apply for permanent status in Canada, they first have to enter a pool of candidates. All the candidates are scored out of a maximum of 1,200 points, according to a complicated rubric designed to weed out anyone who might have a hard time assimilating.

There are points awarded based on a person’s age (20 to 29-year-olds get the highest scores), education level (the more advanced a person’s university degree, the better), language proficiency (it helps to know French), and work experience (only skilled occupations count, and there are extra points for people who have worked in Canada). But the single weightiest factor—worth 600 points out of the 1,200-point total—is an offer of employment from a Canadian company, subject to all the bureaucratic hurdles mentioned above.

Only the immigrants with the highest scores are invited to take the next step, which is the actual permanent residency application process. The minimum acceptable score changes from week to week, but it’s rarely lower than 470. The maximum score possible without either a Canadian job offer or some Canadian work experience is 470. That’s why getting into Canada without a job lined up is so hard.

Get hitched to a Canadian

I recommend this highly. I’m about to marry my Canadian girlfriend of five years, and she’s great. You should see how skillfully she handles a bag of milk. But: marrying someone here isn’t a surefire way of getting into the country, no matter what the trendy app-makers want you to believe.

“If you look at the internet, to sponsor a spouse looks easy,” said Benjamin Kranc, a Toronto immigration attorney. “But the real test in these applications is: is this a legitimate marriage?"

Marriage fraud happens, and Canada’s immigration officers are on guard against it. “If you have no evidence of history with a person and suddenly you’re married and you want to do a sponsorship, it’s going to look funny, and they’re going to reject it, even if you meet all the technical requirements,” Kranc said. In interviews with Canadian immigration officials, his clients have been grilled about details as small as the colour of their spouse’s toothbrush.

Don’t be a criminal or have health problems

Even otherwise perfect residency applicants can be rejected for a host of reasons. Past criminal convictions are often automatically disqualifying. Canada will even deny permanent residency to people with serious health conditions (which is why the application process includes a blood test and chest x-ray).

To anyone who decides to go through with an application, though: Godspeed. And send me an email, because I’d love to talk to you about it/out of it.



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