I avoid making any furtive movements as the two women holding machine guns eye me curiously. There’s a tall one and a short one, both dressed in crisp gray shirts, black slacks and bullet-proof vests, the snouts of their rifles pointing downward as they guard entry into the country.
Or are they preventing escape?
I didn’t have an appointment, hadn’t even rehearsed what to say. I just showed up, expecting to be let in. Typical American.
Stationed beneath a metallic sign that read “UNITED STATES CONSULATE GENERAL,” the short one asked how she could help. Wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt and running shorts, sweat dappling the backs of my knees, I slinked through the nonexistent queue, a fiction created by two yellow ropes leading to a mobile podium on small wheels, and furrowed my brow.
What’s the right way to defect to Canada?
A day earlier, my brother, girlfriend and I touched down in Vancouver, British Columbia, for what was supposed to be a temporary holiday. The tickets were cheap (enough), the flights were short (enough) and the timing was just right.
It was 10 months after the United States elected its first openly rapey president, and the grand experiment was not faring well. Our white-supremacist-in-chief was toilet-tweeting us into World War III and searching out new adversaries to bury in swamp muck, from the GOP to the NFL to the people (and pronunciation) of Puerto Rico. Besides the ghastly parody that America was becoming, my hometown was grinding me down as well. I sorely needed a break from Sacramento, with its out-of-touch politicians, gentrifying stormtroopers, summertime shooters and tired, change-the-channel debates about shit that never, ever changes.
I was always going to come back, of course. Until I wasn’t.
I didn’t tell any of this to the heavily armed guard. Instead, I babbled something about being a California reporter wanting to learn about the immigration process (true enough). Within minutes, an embassy official appeared and broke the news: I was at the wrong government agency. The consulate’s office was for Canadians trying to reach the United States.
No wonder the queue was empty.
I capped my pen, shoved my reporter’s pad into a drawstring gymsack and jogged away. Oh, Canada, you’re not keeping me out that easily.
No escaping Trump
Wearing mirrored shades, a hay-colored mop of hair and a sweet ’stache, Bill has the air of a children’s television show host who’s dropped too much acid. Piloting the charter bus up to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park—“Bill’s excellent adventure,” as he calls it—he might just be the most learned man in Canada.
Vancouver’s resident big-wheel-philosopher gives his passengers delightful lectures on everything from the Lions Gate Bridge and earthquake trends to water quality. Lumbering through the financial district, Bill explains the city’s vertical construction patterns, with gentrification pushing into the higher elevations as poverty circles the drain below.
My girlfriend and I witnessed this firsthand, when we rented wobbly blue bicycles through the city’s bike-share program and chugged into Chinatown. Under the tiled gateway arches that promised old-world flourishes, Vancouver’s skid row awaited. Blighted SROs, littered transit stops, throngs of people cloaked in poverty and the occasional bystander yelling obscenities at invisible opponents. As far as I can tell, this is where the city’s poorest residents have clustered.
Up until this point, I’d wondered where Vancouver’s homeless people were. I’d only seen traces of them my first two nights in country.
The Vancouver metropolitan region and Sacramento County claim to have similarly sized homeless populations of around 3,600. (That’s a baseline figure, by the way, based on overnight censuses done earlier this year.) The big difference between the two is that most of Sacramento’s homeless residents are literally unsheltered, while Vancouver’s are under some sort of roof, whether belonging to shelters, transition homes, safe houses, detox facilities, hospitals or jails.
In other words, the Vancouver area is doing a better job of managing its neediest residents.
Aboard the charter bus, Bill shows us how the other half lives as he maneuvers his large rig past a gleaming luxury hotel with a familiar name: Trump Tower.
“All right people, eyes right. Nothing to see here,” Bill raps into his headset microphone. “That’s how you avoid a political discussion.”
Bill tells the eight or so souls on board that the construction project began several years ago, back when the Trump brand was still palatable, at least to local politicians hoping to ride the tourism wave. But construction delays and funding issues kept the hotel from opening until well after the election—and now there was trouble. (For any other person, getting elected president would be good free publicity.)
“The problem was it opened in March,” Bill says. (February 28, to be precise.) Protesters gathered outside for that grand opening. In June, local media reported that Trump Tower Toronto was relinquishing the unpopular name under new ownership, leaving Vancouver as the only Canadian city with a big, phallic tribute to America’s most successful con artist.
Vancouver: an alternate timeline
I’m watching sea otters frolic inside a turgid water tank at the Vancouver Aquarium, wondering what it is about these mammals—with their ink-drop eyes, bristly mustaches and awkward surface-world waddle—that makes us humans so giddy, when she leans in, close enough that only I can hear.
“You know they rape penguins, right?” my girlfriend whispers.
“Yeah,” Jasmine continues nonchalantly, “they’ll keep the carcass until there’s almost nothing left. From the raping.”
Several children have pressed their noses to the glass as two otters play their version of swim tag. The kids bounce on their heels and flap their arms in that excited, I-don’t-care-who’s-looking way that only children, blissed-out Christians and people on MDMA seem able to.
I turn to look at Jasmine. She winces. This next part is worse, she telegraphs.
“They prefer baby penguins,” she says apologetically.
“Jesus!” I gasp.
I look it up later. Sea otters actually rape baby seals to death. So, you know, still awful. But it reiterates the folly of judging a book by its adorable cover. And it begs the question: What do I really know about Canada?
I make a quick mental inventory. Hockey, maple syrup, moose—mooses? No, moose. A chief export is comedic personalities (Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Justin Bieber). There was that one mayor who did crack—not Marion Berry, he was ours … shoot, I forget. Did I mention hockey?
This is embarrassing. I need to dig deeper.
I grab a copy of The Georgia Straight outside a breakfast commissary called Yolks, which specializes in poached eggs, surprisingly decent diner coffee, and an undying appreciation for young Mariah Carey. While nibbling on a two-eggs’ Benedict column, I thumb through the paper, which happened to put out its Best of Vancouver issue while we were there. If you’re ever new in town, pick up an alternative weekly, which can’t hide its contempt for social injustice or political incompetence even when tasked with celebrating happy stuff.
By the end of my third cup, I learn that British Columbia’s welfare rates are so low some destitute people say they can make more panhandling; the synthetic opioid fentanyl is stealing lives here as well; supervised injection sites are a thing; and police are doing more to respect the rights of transgender individuals, but still raiding medical marijuana dispensaries.
Then there’s Canada’s original sin.
About five years ago, aboriginal communities drew wider recognition of the institutionalized neglect and forced assimilation they’ve faced since French and British colonialists began fighting over their lands almost 500 years ago.
Specifically, their protests shined a spotlight on the epidemic murder and disappearance rates of aboriginal women, which the Royal Canadian Mounted Police documented in a 2014 report. A year later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada looked at the disproportionately bad health, education and foster care outcomes for aboriginal children, who used to be “abducted” into church-run residential schools intent on stripping them of their identities, says Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer.
Reimer was the only one to volunteer to meet with me when I spammed her and her council colleagues with emails from an American reporter whose AirBnB was just down the street from City Hall. I was too hungover to make her appointment window, but she graciously made time for a phone interview later.
British Columbia plays a unique role in Canada’s native rights history, Reimer notes. The province is home to half the First Nations, most of which didn’t sign treaties with “the Crown.” (Even though Canada negotiated its independence from British rule in the early ’30s, this is how Canadians refer to their government.) Reimer says a “crushing” number of court rulings since the ’70s established that these indigenous communities still retain absolute authority over their lands, putting them on equal footing with the official government. These rulings “super-charged what already was pioneering work” on the issue of reconciliation, she adds.
“It was like a thread that got pulled,” Reimer says.
During our trip, I see frequent reminders of this ongoing, soul-searching dialogue. Signs, art, planned events, marches—I’m reminded of being in Germany, where public acknowledgments of the Holocaust are prolific. It’s a painful, necessary vigilance.
Whereas, in America, we have Black History Month and Indian casinos, and seem content at leaving our great shames at that.
Reimer says she would like to see a reconciliation process take place for African Americans. (They can’t even quietly kneel without our president throwing a conniption.) She gets choked up speaking about what she’s seen happen in her country, in her lifetime, that she didn’t expect.
“If you can’t find a pathway forward for the truth to be told, for the healing to begin, it’s the same trauma over and over and over again,” she says. “The only path forward is reconciliation.”
This is part of what makes exploring Vancouver like being in an episode of Sliders, the hokey sci-fi series from the ’90s about parallel universes. Each episode plunked our heroes in a society that was different from ours. Because the show was on Fox and its budget was modest, the alternate universes differed from our own in the most innocuous, half-baked ways. What if the summer of love never ended? What if the Amish ran society? What if caffeine was illegal?
These were actual episodes. On television. That hundreds of people watched.
Vancouver is by no means a utopian society. But it has diverged from our timeline in critical ways. Let me cherry pick two other examples that will resonate with a Sacramento audience: homelessness and prostitution. In recent years, Vancouver has taken steps to decriminalize both.
In October 2015, the city eased its urban camping prohibition in direct response to a U.S. Department of Justice opinion that it’s unconstitutional to arrest people for sleeping outside when there isn’t enough shelter. Acknowledging the cruel and unusual Catch-22, the Vancouver City Council revised its ordinance so that homeless people could legally rest on public property between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., without fear of being ticketed or arrested.
Just to be clear: A foreign government adjusted its laws in response to a U.S. legal opinion that Sacramento has so far ignored.
To be fair, Reimer says, the city was responding to forces other than the U.S. Justice Department. There were other provincial court rulings that forced local governments to act, including one that granted homeless people the right to refuse shelter if they feel their safety is at risk. Plus, British Columbia’s provincial government in Victoria has been more consistent at supplying money for shelters and permanent housing than California legislators have.
Vancouver is also pilot-testing a new tax on real estate speculators, which Reimer hopes will induce property barons to open up more housing options across the city. If they don’t, they pay into a fund for affordable housing.
These are among the reasons that Reimer says Vancouver probably has the reputation as the most progressive city in Canada. She chooses the term carefully.
“The left doesn’t necessarily see us as left,” she chuckles.
On that point, Vancouver and Sacramento are equals.
The amnesty challenge
It takes a little poking around on the Canadian government’s website, but I finally find a link to a questionnaire that promises some answers about whether I’m eligible for citizenship in this PG-13 America. I’m excited. I love online quizzes, and this one looks like it runs on a more perceptive algorithm than most. (No way am I Ross from Friends.)
Scanning the drop-down options, I tell the government spooks where I’m from, when I was born, where I want to move (British Columbia), what I plan to do (find a job, I guess?) and how long I plan to stay (forever!).
A couple more clicks, I crack my knuckles and wait for Mother Canada to spread wide its wings and—rejected?
It must be a mistake. I try again, saying this time that my main reason for coming is self-employment “as a farmer, sportsperson or artist.” Crap, now they’re asking me my net worth. Um, no, I don’t have any interest from angel investors or venture capitalists just yet, but—another rejection!
I call up Nir Rozenberg, a licensed immigration counsel whose firm assesses foreigners like me hoping to plant stakes in Canada. Most of his clients become permanent citizens through their Canadian spouses. The other 30 to 40 percent are doctors, IT workers, chefs, truck drivers and the like applying for skilled-worker visas.
“What we do is evaluate their credentials and qualifications against the Canadian immigration system, which is skill-based. It’s a points-based system,” Rozenberg explains. “A lot of our clients are Canadians bringing in spouses. Other clients of ours are Americans who have gone to school in Canada and are looking to become permanent residents or are just Americans that, now, with everything going on, are interested in Canada because it’s a different option.”
Hey, that’s me. I want a different option.
I ask Rozenberg if Trump has made that big a dent in his business. He answers with one word, repeated three times: “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
“As soon as Trump won the election, we saw the very next two, three days, into that week, an influx of phone calls,” he says. “And those phone calls have not necessarily stopped coming in.”
This new run on Canada by desperate Americans does not make the math work in my favor. The country has granted permanent residency to 6,130 Americans through the first three quarters of 2017, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. That’s less than the 6,980 American expatriates the country admitted over the same time last year, but higher than the first three quarters of 2015, when Canada adopted fewer than 6,000 dissatisfied Americans.
It might be too soon to see the Trump effect laid out in an Excel spreadsheet, but Rozenberg says his office has been fielding more calls. The immigration counsel says there’s some 60 different ways in which a person could become a permanent resident, most of which require education or work experience in Canada, both of which I lack.
But unlike America, the Canadian government offers its poor, huddled masses yearning to be free a legal pathway to achieving its national dream. This pathway to citizenship is called Express Entry, which is a misnomer, Rozenberg says. It’s more of a points-based selection system that can also function like a lottery.
“The U.S. doesn’t have any program like this,” Rozenberg says.
Here’s how it works:
Got a college degree? Proficient in English? Have several years experience in a desirable profession? If Canada likes the media more than our president, then yes to all three.
Then Rozenberg pops my balloon: Between the age of 21 and 35?
Nuts. I’m 37 going on 80.
Rozenberg says all is not lost. Sure, I lose points for aging, kind of like a lame Logan’s Run, but he says the English requirement is the one that matters. Still, I need an ace in the hole if I want my citizenship application to make the cut. And I think I know who to call.
Save me, Ryan Reynolds
Ryan Reynolds sounds different on the phone.
I’ve been desperately trying to make contact with a Canadian celebrity since returning to the states. My editor thought it would make the story more interesting to read, but I had ulterior motives. After the immigration attorney confirmed for me that my humiliating rejection from Canadian Border Services was no fluke, I knew I needed an edge to get the government to reconsider. I needed a celebrity endorsement.
I started googling for famous Vancouverites. Clicking on a 2014 slide show from Van City Buzz, I sized up my unsuspecting benefactors:
Jason Priestly? I tried, but the former 90210 star’s people never got back to me. Property Brothers’ Drew and Jonathan Scott? Gross. Seth Rogen? Before Trump blundered along, the wheezy comedian was the person most likely to start a war with North Korea. Ryan Reynolds? Like I’ll ever be able to track down contact information for—oh wait, here it is.
That was easy.
When the superstar actor of Deadpool fame and Mississippi Grind acclaim (seriously, check the latter out) answers the line, he sounds younger and is less quippy than I expected. He says I’m reaching him at his studio in San Jose. (He has his own movie studio? In San Jose? Interesting.) He shocks me by saying he’s not working on a Green Lantern sequel, but preparing for a February art show at the B Sakata Garo gallery right here in Midtown, Sacramento.
Typical Hollywood, I think. Make enough money and they’ll let you dabble in any medium. Remember Eddie Murphy’s pop album? I can’t forget it.
Reynolds says he’s actually been painting for 20 years and that he specializes in slightly abstract oil renderings of landscapes and scenes of suburbia. Then Reynolds tells me he’s also an art teacher at Santa Clara University. “It’s the oldest college in California actually,” he says.
Something’s wrong here. I ask him point blank, is he Ryan Reynolds the actor?
“Oh no,” he says. “I’m Ryan Reynolds the artist.”
It turns out this Reynolds was born in Southern California and is not married to Blake Lively. He gets this sort of thing all the time, he says. One time, at an airport in Utah, someone holding a sign with his name on it drew an eager, and then disappointed, crowd. It’s a funny story, but I’ve got pressing concerns.
“So you would have no in with the Canadian government, say, if someone like me was trying to relocate,” I ask. “It’s not like you could call up Justin Trudeau …”
I hear laughing.
“I wish I could,” he says. “That would be great to have that kind of clout. But no, I’m afraid I don’t even know that many Canadians honestly.”
Coming (back) to America
I’ve been back home for a few weeks now and the dream of Canada has started to fade. The daily grind is like that—it grinds you down until all you see is what’s in front of you.
There are mass shootings to be horrified about, late-season wildfires to be terrified of, fresh hells to cover. Sitting in my car, idling behind a line of other cars waiting to turn left from 12th Street onto J Street, I’m reminding myself to breathe when I spot the shirtless man whose karate moves have backed up traffic.
He has hair like Kurt Russell, a sturdy gray beard and a pinched expression of haughty disregard for the motorists threading around him. He makes a point of waiting for the lights to change so that he can wade into oncoming traffic and perform what looks like some off-the-books version of tai chi. Yet I don’t see anyone lose their cool, lean on their horns or threaten to bumper-tag him out of their way. We accept this man. We honor his performance. And then we roll on.
Even with the delay, I manage to beat Julio Molina to Ink Eats and Drinks on N Street.
Julio Molina, a Sacramento resident and DACA recipient, reminds me the American Dream is still worth fighting for.
Molina works at a nearby property development company and is president of the nonprofit Dream. Develop. Do., which focuses on making higher education more accessible within marginalized communities.
Molina knows this terrain intimately.
The 26-year-old was brought by his parents to Sacramento from their native Mexico in the early 1990s, when Molina was just 2. Growing up undocumented in America, Molina says there was no expectation that he would attend college. When he was in high school, an art teacher grabbed hold, introducing him to different clubs and community colleges, which was an alien concept at the time. He eventually graduated from UC Santa Cruz.
Molina knows why his parents broke immigration laws to come here. If you’re a mother or a father, you probably know the reason, too. It’s that old saw about wanting your kids to have the opportunities you never did.
Molina’s father dropped out of elementary school to enter the workforce. His mother dropped out of nursing school when she became pregnant with him. In a cartel-run city in the state of Acapulco, the reasons to leave were not hypothetical.
“My uncle was just killed. Most of my dad’s friends are dead and murdered,” Molina says.
The next generation is faring somewhat better.
Molina renewed his DACA status before the recent upheaval, caused by a Trump administration making political sport out of human lives. Not all of his friends or family members have been so lucky. One of his cousins has been deported. His mother received an e-verification notice that basically lets her know immigration enforcers know where she works. She’s not under immediate threat, but given the administration’s relaxation of enforcement standards, she’s fair game as well.
“They’ve given godlike powers to the Department of Homeland Security,” Molina says of Trump’s executive orders. “It’s like an attorney once told me, we’re the nails, they’re the hammer.”
Molina’s story makes me feel ungrateful. Here I’ve been daydreaming about a great escape from a county he, his loved ones and my parents have only made better since their fraught arrival. It’s a complicated reality. I ask him if he ever thinks about leaving the United States.
“Of course,” he says. “If I live here, I have to fight the rest of my life.”
Molina says his conscience won’t let him rest until all 11 million undocumented are safe from persecution. That’s a heavy burden for one man to bear, I say. He agrees. People have told him to relax, that Trump is a one-termer. He’s not so sure, but even so.
“How can you get through four years when you can’t even get through one?” he asks.
I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out together.