One Border, Two Very Different Experiences

The experience crossing the US / Canadian border is shockingly different. One of the things that makes travel to the US unpleasant (at least before Nexus) was the experience with the folks at the border – particularly the land crossings.

Going in to the US, even as a citizen the feeling is distinctly one of being asked to prove one’s innocence. You’re crossing the border – show me you’re not up to no good.  I’ve been chastised for my reasons for renting a car (“What do you mean you don’t own a car?!”), criticized for my description of my (rather complicated) job (“Yeah well, what do you actually do, do you just sit around all day? What do you do?!??!” – I now just say “project manager” rather than explaining further).  My son got in trouble for not knowing my birthday. (Look, none of us really celebrate birthdays in our family – it’s not a big thing for us).

On this last trip we got off easily. Only a little bit of grumpiness at our proceeding forward on our bike before the light turned green.

Contrast that to Canada. Generally the officers are very much no nonsense without being authoritarian. There’s respect expected and respect given. Crossing over is such a non-event that I only have a few stories. As late as 2008 I have had experiences where driving across the border I wasn’t even asked for my ID.

Crossing back in after Daegan’s first trip to New York City where we spent four days was pretty funny. We got off the bus, saw the officer and went through the usual formalities and then asked if we bought anything. I said we hadn’t (we don’t usually do a lot of shopping in general).  “You didn’t even do a little shopping? (pause to let me own up to the bags of sale goods he thought I had in my suitcase) OK, what did you do then?”  “Sightseeing and we went to museums.”  Then, not missing a beat he turned to Daegan, then about 10 and too young to collaborate on some great duty evasion plan, “What was your favourite museum?” “The Natural History Museum.”  “Great, that’s pretty cool, thanks. (stamps our passports and sends us on).”

Yesterday’s crossing was my second favourite of all.  We biked up to the officer – the light was ALWAYS green – I checked!  She asked where from and where we were coming from (Newport – about 30 min by bike). Then she asked how long we’d been out of the country – a little over a week. What had we been doing? Riding around Vermont. We were really surprising her now. “You’ve been riding for a week?” and then looked at our four small panniers “All your clothes fit in there?”  “Wait, where’s your car – you’re not riding all the way back to Toronto, are you?”  Nope – but we have no car. We’re riding to St. Jean – almost two hours away by car.  “Well…um, not that you can carry much in those bags, but do you have anything to declare? Did you buy anything?”  Satisfied, she opened the gate and we were back home.

But my all time absolute favourite experience with Canadian customs was at the beginning of our immigration process. Back in 2004, there weren’t as many folks moving up from Canada so my company made my employment offer contingent upon the fact that they could figure out how to do the immigration paperwork. They had done it many times for Canadians working in the US but to get folks from the US up to Canada? Unheard of. So they gave me a letter to show to immigration (in French which at that time I couldn’t read the least bit of) and flew me up to Montreal. I got off the plane and went to immigration to get my temporary work permit.  I handed the paperwork along with my birth certificate – back in 2004 you didn’t yet need a passport – and I didn’t even have one at the time).  The officer, in his mid 50’s, looked at the birth certificate and noted “You were born in El Paso, Texas?”


Then, without any warning, as he issued my work permit, he started to sing:

“Welcome to Canada.”

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