Craig Axford | Canada
Our reasons for moving north in the summer of 2010 are at once clear and rather hazy. Like a magic eye image, they come into and go out focus from one moment to the next. It’s necessary to keep our attention fixed upon them in a particular way to get a picture of all the events and thinking that led up to the day we drove away from our now empty home, the for sale sign waving us a gentle goodbye in a slow late July breeze.
The U-Haul truck was crammed to capacity with our remaining possessions when we pulled away on that sunny summer day. Behind it, a trailer towing our Volkswagen Jetta lengthened the entire ensemble to around 25 feet. The Jetta too was packed from floor to ceiling with the detritus of our former lives.
Isis, our cat, was perhaps the most perplexed of all by the radical change of circumstances being imposed upon her. Our dog, Zeus, on the other hand, was in typical black lab fashion just happy to be going for a ride. He undoubtedly would have preferred to have the passenger seat all to himself rather than having to share space in the cab with my wife and the cat, but from his perspective, an uncomfortable trip was better than no trip at all.
Most Americans, whether they are the overtly patriotic type that proudly displays the Stars and Stripes every chance they get or not, tend to be convinced of the myth that whatever its faults, the United States beats all the alternatives. Even the loudest complainers from both ends of the political spectrum that we know personally, including those with the means to live just about anywhere in the world they want, still showed no strong desire to join the large and growing community of American expats happily living elsewhere.
Whether it was really there or not, we always perceived a bit of suspicion when it came to our decision to leave the country. From passive to passionate patriots alike, questions both subtle and blunt about our motivations were common. We weren’t traitors, but we were hardly as enthusiastic about our native country as we were supposed to be either.
Health care was one reason we could readily offer for heading north. The cost of higher education was another. Even for international students tuition tended to be at least as reasonable as it was in much the United States for the locals. We were entering Canada on my student visa, with plans to take advantage of the three-year work permit all graduates were entitled to afterward. Hopefully, during that post-graduation period, I could find a skilled job that would allow us to become permanent residents. That was the initial plan anyway.
We had a strong intuition that the culture in Canada must be more relaxed and less polarized. They wouldn’t provide people with universal health care coverage or invest more in education otherwise. And of course Canada lacked America’s enthusiasm for guns. We had seen Michael Moore go door-to-door randomly twisting doorknobs in a Toronto neighbourhood in Bowling for Columbine and liked the idea of living in a nation where people were so comfortable leaving their doors unlocked.
There were other reasons too. Both my wife and I had been raised Mormon and had been living in Salt Lake City for our entire married lives. Though Utah’s capital is itself majority non-Mormon and represented entirely by Democrats, it is still an island in a slowly retreating sea that consists largely of both the state’s dominant faith and conservatism. That sea was retreating rather too slowly for our liking.
I had left Mormonism years earlier and my wife had stopped attending church long before the move as well. None-the-less, we wanted to live in a more secular society where one of the first questions so often out of someone’s mouth when you first met them wasn’t either “what [Mormon] ward do you live in?” or “where do you go to church?” The slightly less presumptuous would ask the latter question while the more presumptuous typically preferred the former.
It was somewhat ironic, then, that our first landlord in Canada turned out to be a born-again Christian who took it upon himself to politely but rather insistently attempt to dissuade me from my alternating atheism and agnosticism. He was a nice man originally from Ontario struggling through the breakup of his marriage. He had somehow found himself saddled with a home in the countryside outside of Victoria, British Columbia that desperately needed some repair and often said he preferred Toronto to his current surroundings. Feeling as though my resistance to attending church with him might be hurting his feelings, I agreed to go once. If the spirit didn’t move me we agreed that would be the end of it. It didn’t and it was.
The rent at our first apartment was too expensive and the location, though beautiful, was too far from the university and downtown for our liking. After nine months we put everything in storage and departed again with the dog and the cat upon a trip across Canada with the intention of returning to the states by June to work for the summer and save up for the following year.
This had not been how things were supposed to go. Unfortunately, our house had taken longer to sell than we had planned. For our first few months in Canada, we were paying both rent and a mortgage. When the house finally did sell we made only a few thousand dollars on the sale. A hoped-for source of revenue had failed to materialize in time to do us much good.
Of the two of us, my wife, Chris, is the long-term planner and the one who does most of the worrying. I’m more interested in a little adventure. Like most gamblers, rolling the dice suits me just fine — except when I’m on a losing streak. At the end of that first year, the losses were adding up and fast. In spite of some assistance from family, we were headed back to Utah for the summer hoping to pull a rabbit out of the hat that would facilitate our return to Canada again by late August.
Isis was not pleased. We spent a week at a campsite on the shores of Cowichan Lake where she settled in. When the time came to leave she disappeared into the woods rather than get back into the car. For better or for worse her traveling days were over. Hopefully, she turned up again for the camp hosts. They had cats of their own roaming around the campground and assured us they would keep their eyes and ears open for her. We left our cell phone numbers and spent a night or two in town so we could drive back to see if she had made an appearance, but we never saw or heard from her again.
In the weeks ahead we drove slowly across Canada, stopping for a few days in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country near the BC border. We also camped on a small lake just over the provincial line in western Ontario. It was so calm on that particular night that one could look down into its still dark waters and see what seemed a perfect reflection of the thousands of stars shining overhead. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the universe so clearly without having to crane my neck.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the universe so clearly without having to crane my neck.
We eventually ended our eastward trek in Kingston. There I met up with a friend who traveled with me to Algonquin Provincial Park while Chris stayed in town recuperating from too many days on the road. My friend and I spent a couple of nights in the park where I had my first real intimate experience with the haunting call of Canada’s famous loons, and also with eastern Canada’s infamous black flies. Zeus was there too, always the happy companion under any conditions.
Once back in Utah we moved into the basement of some friends biding our time until we could return. Chris and I both took a job with the Utah State Democratic Party helping them prepare for the annual state convention, organizing other events, and doing some data entry. Before leaving for Canada in 2010, I had worked as a DNC party organizer assigned to the Utah Democratic Party’s office, so it was good to see everyone again. It was also nice of them to have me back on the payroll for the summer given I had left in something of a huff shortly after the public option was dropped from consideration during the 2009 health care debate.
It’s been said here and there by people who have experienced serious setbacks that if they had known in advance all the difficulties that awaited them, they would never have embarked on their adventures in the first place. This being the case, a certain degree of limited foresight is necessary to progress.
The list of problems I hadn’t anticipated and the stress all the accumulated uncertainty had created was immense for both of us as we approached the conclusion of those first twelve months. Had we seen it coming the previous summer we would have taken our house off the market and stayed put. Zeus was the only member of the family to remain perpetually happy no matter where he landed. He came to work with us each day becoming something of an office mascot as well as a consistent source of comfort.
But we did return in August of that year, and this time we remained for six more years. I graduated from the University of Victoria with two degrees in 2014 and was able to get a three-year work permit following graduation. In spite of countless interviews, age and a lack of permanent residence status plagued me. Eventually, I took a job with UPS and settled into a routine there, making new friends that would turn out to be both a comfort and a resource in the future in the process. But alas, my position with the company wasn’t considered skilled labor, so once again it was necessary to look into other options if we were going to remain in Canada beyond the expiry date for my existing permit.
Pursuing those options landed us back in the US. I arrived in early September of 2017 and Chris followed a few months later. It’s a long story involving a mistake on my application to renew our stay and the necessity of resolving the issue from outside the country. But now we’re back. I’ll shortly be pursuing a master’s degree at Royal Roads University on southern Vancouver Island. Hopefully, I’ll at last be able to translate my time spent at Canadian universities into permanent resident status and eventually citizenship for both of us. We may not be the most skilled navigators of Canada’s immigration system, but we’re persistent.
After seven years here we’ve established a network of friendships that provide considerable emotional as well as tangible support. That was almost completely absent at the end of our first year. I’m now able to quickly move back into a job and Chris in particular has become a very savvy shopper when it comes to locating what we need on the rental market. Each bump in the road we’ve experienced has been a little smoother than the last.
People often see the border as a kind of finish line for immigrants. That’s incorrect. Immigrating to a new country is a process that really is just getting underway after making that initial crossing. I’ve gained a great deal of sympathy for those attempting to establish a new life in another country. It’s the kind of experience one can only barely begin to understand from the outside. The stories people see on the news and read in the newspaper or online at best only provide half of the picture. The sleepless nights and emotional turmoil that come with wondering if you’ve made the right decision or whether you’re going to make it are rarely even mentioned.
We’ve had the advantage of sharing a common language with the country we moved to. Our home and family is only a relatively short flight or long day’s drive away if we ever need to return or wish to pay our old home a visit. Those coming to Canada from war-ravaged Syria or other troubled parts of the world aren’t nearly so fortunate.
None-the-less, the United States does seem increasingly alien to us. Gridlock and anger have become the new normal. Political differences are in the air at family gatherings and are explicit on TV or online. The animosity building between people doesn’t seem poised to go away anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the working class, in particular, remain alienated as health care costs continue to skyrocket and the kind of educational opportunities I’ve been pursuing in Canada move further beyond the reach of everyday Americans. It’s not sustainable. That all of this is totally avoidable and far easier to fix than most people south of the 49th parallel seem to think makes all these self-inflicted wounds intensely agonizing to witness even from our perspective north of that line.
Some immigrants are pushed out of their homeland with a shove by war, famine, or some other major calamity. Others, like my wife and I, are just responding to gentle nudges. We have never endured anything like extreme violence or poverty, but we did feel more and more like square pegs trying to fit comfortably into a round hole. The events that have taken place in the years since our departure leave us increasingly convinced that the welcome mat has been taken in. Because we’re citizens with passports, social security numbers, and all the rest the door remains unlocked but behind that door the house is increasingly falling into disrepair.
As Chris was putting things into storage late last year and preparing to follow me back to the States while we attempted to renew our status in Canada, one of our old landlords told her that she was sad to see us leave. She said we were more Canadian now than American. That rings true, and I think that will always be the case no matter what the future holds.
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