Saturday, July 25, 2009

Canadian Border Follies

The fine young men at motorhome diaries attempt to visit our neighbor to the north.

Tasty bit:
The border bureaucrat #17225 noted that in her previous conversation with Jason she had been told that some friends of friends knew some people in Canadian government and that if and when Pete and Jason attempted to cross the border again it would help their chances to have an invitation from such people. Pete was also told that if he and Jason had a different image - “If you wore a tie” – they likely wouldn’t’ have been questioned/investigated so heavily.
In thinking about Canada, it is useful to recall that 225 years ago a separating equilibrium was generated in which all the people who liked government and hierarchy moved north while those who did not like them stayed south. Though that was a long time ago, it still explains a lot of observed variation - including the tie comment. The median voter in Canada trusts the Canadian government. The median voter in the US does not trust the US government. That matters for outcomes.

In my experience the danger with looking too professional at the border is that they will think you are on business and will try to make you buy an employment visa. In earlier years I tended to dress down rather than up for my border crossings when I am not with my family, and to indicate to the border agent that I was visiting friends (if the visit is long enough to make that plausible) rather than on a work trip. This had the virtue of being true but incomplete rather than false. This strategy usually worked well except for the time I was going to Ottawa for an HRSDC conference that ended up in the same hotel as the G-8 meetings. The combination of my reservation for the hotel hosting the G-8 meetings (which was at the time surrounded by a temporary fence, lots of government agents and a lot of young people milling about and hoping for some excitement), my claim to be visiting friends and my downscale attire sent my young female border agent into a bit of a tizzy, with the result that she searched my briefcase and called my dinner companion for the evening, a former honors student from Western Ontario working in Ottawa for the federal government, and asked her whether I deserved admission into Canada. Fortunately, my friend answered correctly and we were only an hour late for dinner.

Also in terms of what not to do at the border, I heard a story once from some Canadian friends about a high-powered US academic who got questioned a bit too much for his taste by the Canadian border agent and told him or her that "I make more in a month than you make in a year" (or something to that effect). According to the story, the high-powered academic spent the day at the border visiting with border agents and missed his conference.

I should note too, in fairness, that my general experience from quite a number of border crossings, and from hosting many foreign friends in both the US and Canada, is that Canadian border agents are, on average, less bureaucratic and less prone to the sort of petty power plays that afflicted the motorhome diary men than their US counterparts.