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Flight Not Fight

As the U.S. political climate grows more conservative, some look north to Canada as a liberal beacon calling disillusioned Americans home.
 
 
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Joanna Harmon is considering whether to leave the United States for Canada. Nik and Nancy Phelps practically have visas in hand to set up business in Belgium. Joan Magit and her husband are eyeing Vancouver. Amy Gertz moved to the United States from Canada two and a half years ago -- she's now moving back.

These are scary times for progressive Americans. Many feel isolated and embarrassed by the actions of our government. Some are downright terrified at what will happen if Bush is re-elected in November. When politics get too bleak, it's comforting to remind ourselves that we can always move to another country. But how many of us are serious about it?

A recent letter to AlterNet columnist Auntie Establishment generated quite a buzz. The letter, from a reader identified as 'Packing My Bags in Pennsylvania,' asked Auntie what she thought about people abandoning the United States for more politically prosperous horizons. Said Packing, "I'm seriously considering escaping across the border and moving to Mexico or Canada."

E-mails came pouring in from people who are also seriously considering leaving the United States for Canada or other parts of the world in an effort to escape the claw-like grip of the Bush administration. While Auntie urged people to stay and fight, some felt that was asking too much. Things were going to get worse before they got better, many seemed to feel. Why stay on a sinking ship?

News sources from CNN to Salon.com to The Daily Show have run pieces about Americans supposedly leaving the United States for other parts of the world. Even some celebrities were rumored to be leaving the U.S. Johnny Depp did -- he lives in France. Alec Baldwin, Robert Altman, and Eddie Vedder allegedly threatened to leave if Bush was elected in 2000 (though Baldwin later denied ever saying any such thing).

There certainly has been a lot of talk. But is that all it is -- talk?

Oh Canada!

If Americans are leaving the United States, Canada is certainly one of the most convenient places to go. It may be a little chilly at times, but it's right across the border and most Canadians speak English. Many of the major issues that divide people and political parties in the U.S. seem resolved in Canada. They have a lower crime rate, universal health care, and reportedly better education. Their medical doctors can dispense marijuana and last year they decided to officially recognize same-sex marriages. And, on top of all that, the rest of the world isn't mad at them.

Americans have fled to Canada before. In 1970, during the Vietnam War, roughly 23,000 Americans legally moved to Canada, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Since then, the number of people who move to Canada every year has dropped steadily, even through the Reagan and Bush I administrations. In the 1990s, the number of people moving to Canada every year leveled out and since then has hovered in the 4,000s and 5,000s.

Which brings us to recent events. According to Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Department, the numbers of American foreign nationals awarded permanent residence in Canada were:

Year: Number
1997: 5,028
1998: 4,768
1999: 5,528
2000: 5,815
2001: 5,902
2002: 5,288

The numbers indicate a slight peak in immigration around 2,000 and 2001, during the election year and the first year of Bush's term, with another slight dip in 2002, after September 11 (when U.S. patriotism was running high and Canada was tightening its immigration laws). However, there's no way to know for sure whether that spike has anything to do with politics. A peak in immigration in 2000 and 2001 could just as easily have to do with the sluggish U.S. economy as it could with people wanting to flee the Bush administration.

Obviously, the Canadian government doesn't track whether people are coming into Canada because of disgruntled political philosophies. And the Canadians I talked to who deal with immigration seemed skeptical that anyone would move to Canada to get away from a dominant party.

But others have noticed a slight change.

"I don't think you could say we've seen a marked increase in Americans interested in moving to Canada," says Colin Singer, a Montreal attorney who specializes in immigration law. "But you could say there has been a slight increase in same-sex couples and Americans under common-law marriage looking at Canada as a place to take up residence."

But whether a few or a lot of people are leaving the United States for another country, some people are definitely doing it. Take Nancy and Nik Phelps of San Francisco, who are moving to Belgium later this year. Nancy says their reasons for leaving the United States are 80 percent about politics and 20 percent about lifestyle change.

"There was a time I felt that we should stay in the U.S. and fight," she says. "Then again, there was a time to get out of Germany during World War II, too. This is that time here. I think the oppression is just going to get worse here. If Bush stole one election, why wouldn't he steal the next one?"

One of the reasons people are thinking of leaving the U.S. is because of a fear of fascism. Whether or not that fear is realistic is debatable, but recent changes like the Patriot Act restricting our rights and dissent being criticized as unpatriotic has weighed heavily on many minds.

Joanna Harmon is an archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Though she hasn't made up her mind, some of her reasons for considering the move are based in history.

"I specialized in history for my degree," she said. "And I see a lot of parallels between our society and what happened when the Republic became a dictatorship in ancient Rome. I don't want to stay here if it turns into that."

A lot of people who are thinking of moving out of the United States, to Canada or otherwise, are waiting to see what will happen in the November 2004 election. If Bush is re-elected, many plan to start the relocation process. Joan Magit, who lives in Northridge, California, says she and her husband will most likely move to Vancouver if Bush gets in.

"The damage that has been done by this administration, especially in the court system, is a lot worse than people comprehend," she says. "I don't think I will want to live in a country that is so right-wing."

Approximately 20,000 Canadians move to the United States a year, but at least some of them are turning around and moving right back. Amy Gertz was born in the United States but moved to Canada when she was 5 years old. She spent most of her adult life in Canada, but two and a half years ago, she moved back to the United States with her husband. Now at age 50, she has decided to return to Canada, where she will stay for good.

Though she says she would be considered conservative in Canada, Gertz says she's horrified by the differences between the two countries.

"What the heck happened to the U.S. while I was gone?" she said. "I had no idea that I was moving to a corporate dictatorship. I don't want to get caught in the inevitable global backlash, and I feel guilty even just being here."

As someone who knows firsthand, Gertz agrees with many of the things you hear about Canada: It has better schools and stronger health care, does a better job separating church and state, and is more globally minded than the U.S. She also points out that the U.S. is not a "postmodern" country, i.e. it isn't open to a variety of perspectives, recognizing them all as valid.

"America is more extremist, both on the left and the right," Gertz says. "Americans seem unable to manage much compromise. I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in."

Gathering Points

Not everyone automatically qualifies for permanent legal residence in Canada. Canadians have an immigration system based on points. Applicants take a test that assesses whether they meet minimum immigration qualifications. You have to score 67 points or better to get into Canada. Among other things, an individual moving to Canada has to have a bachelors degree or equivalent education, be fluent in English or French, have a minimum of four years' work experience, and have sufficient financial resources to settle in Canada for six months. The system limits likely immigrants to a middle-class, educated group.

"There can be additional factors of assessment that can make it easier," said Singer. "Having an educated spouse or family ties in Canada can lessen the burden for you."

But whether you qualify or not, think hard before abandoning the U.S. As Auntie chided readers: "Unpack your bags ... and gear up for a long, dirty struggle for the soul and spirit of your country."

You can take a test assessing your immigration status at http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/skilled/assess/.