If Trump wins, don’t expect a stampede to Canadian border

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Donald Trump’s seemingly relentless march to the Republican presidential nomination has a lot of Americans wringing their hands about the future of the United States.

Some apparently are looking for the exit, maybe through a door that leads to Canada, if response to joking post pitching Cape Breton, N.S., as a landing spot for American refugees from Trump is anything to go by.

After Trump’s solid victories in the Super Tuesday series of primary elections, the Washington Post reported a spike in Google searches for “how to move to Canada.”

The flurry of interest supposedly caused Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s (CIC) web servers to slow down. But a department spokesman told Yahoo Canada the problem was due to an unrelated technical issue.

Twitter hash tags “#Trump” coupled with “#move to Canada” also enjoyed a good run.

ALSO READ: ‘Cape Breton if Trumps Wins’ draws thousands to real estate listings

Real American uneasiness over a Trump-led administration became evident last month when radio host Rob Calabrese received thousands of inquiries after setting up the  site, as did a local tourism immigration lawyer, according to CBC News. The idea even drew the interest of CNN.

In reality, Google Trends shows a steady climb in “how to move to Canada” searches since December, when people began to realize Trump’s candidacy would outlast the political silly season. But so far there’s no stampede to actually come.

[Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump speaks to the media at his Mar-A-Lago Club on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump held the press conference, flanked by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, after the polls closed in a dozen states nationwide. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)]

Toronto immigration lawyer Blair Hodgman told Yahoo Canada her firm, which has a Canada-U.S. immigration practice on both sides of the border, has not seen an increase in inquiries.

“I know when George (W.) Bush was re-elected I had an uptick,” she said, adding only some followed through with immigration applications. “I think people are waiting to see what happens probably.”

Likewise, Montreal immigration specialist St��phane Duval, who also chairs the Canadian Bar Association’s national immigration law section, said he’s seen no increase.

“And I did not hear of other members who were, let’s say, flooded by consultations from the U.S.,” he said. “I don’t think we see much impact so far.”

Figures provided to Yahoo Canada by CIC on the number of permanent resident applications received last year show little changed in the last months of 2015, as Trump’s candidacy began to take off. Numbers for the first part of this year were not yet available.

If history is anything to go by, though, it will take more than a little skittishness over Trump putting his distinctive stamp on the White House to get Americans to pull up stakes.

Canada historically seen as haven for some Americans

From the time of the American Revolution, some have seen Canada as a haven, starting with the United Empire Loyalists who’d backed the Crown during the war of independence and found themselves dispossessed and shunned in the new republic.

Later, thousands of black American slaves made the perilous journey to Canada via a route that became known as the Underground Railroad. The official closing of the U.S. western frontier in 1890 triggered a wave of American migration into Western Canada, drawn by the prospect of free land for homesteads.

There was indeed a spike in Americans coming to Canada following George W. Bush’s re-election in November 2004, according to CIC figures (and reflected in Google Trends). The following year, 8,394 U.S. citizens became permanent residents here, compared with 6,990 in 2004. The number peaked at 10,190 in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected, dropping back to the historical average range of 7,000-8,000 a year. Last year, a total of 6,343 Americans applied for Canadian citizenship.

Hodgman also noted some gay and lesbian Americans opted to move to Canada in the early 2000s because same-sex marriage was legal here, whereas U.S. federal and most state laws explicitly barred it until recently.

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The Vietnam War may be the best example of what it takes for Americans to vote with their feet.

There’s no firm figure for the total number of draft dodgers and military deserters who came to Canada from the mid-1960s until the U.S. withdrawal in 1973. Researchers’ estimates range from 25,000 to 50,000.

[Isaac Romano, director of the Our Way Home Peace Event and Reunion, honouring US war resisters who came to Canada during the Vietnam War, speaks to media in Vancouver Tuesday May 23, 2006.  The sculpture which depicts resisters being welcomed to Canada will cast in bronze and placed in Nelson, B.C. to honour the resisters.(CP PHOTO/Chuck Stoody)]

Immigration figures obtained via Library and Archives Canada show a distinct upward trend beginning in 1965 when U.S. military intervention in Vietnam escalated and Americans began turning against the war. That year, about 15,000 Americans arrived in Canada, jumping to about 17,500 the following year and peaking at 26,541 in 1974, the year after the U.S. pullout and the end of the draft.

“The U.S. represented the second largest source [after the United Kingdom] of immigrants during that decade [1968-78], accounting for about 20 percent of all immigrants to Canada,” according to a 2005 article published by the Migration Policy Institute. “During the peak years of 1971 and 1972, nearly 50,000 individuals moved across the northern border.”

Besides draft-age men and deserters, many fleeing war service brought their families, said John Hagen, John D. MacArthur professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.

Hagen’s book, “Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada,“ chronicles the impact of the anti-war migration, of which he himself was a part.

In 1969 while attending the University of Illinois, he read a pamphlet put out by a Toronto-based anti-war group outlining the options for draft-resisters. Hagen and his wife moved to Edmonton on a student visa after he was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Alberta.

Later he became a permanent resident and then a Canadian citizen. He taught for almost 30 years at the University of Toronto, contributing like many of his fellow resisters to Canadian society.

Iraq war resisters get no asylum in Canada

The war-resister migration has had a tiny echo in this century. A couple hundred U.S. military personnel have claimed asylum in Canada since the the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

[United States Iraq war resister Kimberly Rivera speaks at a press conference in Toronto on Friday, August 31, 2012. Rivera, an American soldier who fled to Canada after she became disillusioned with the Iraq war is to be court-martialled Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim]

But unlike their Vietnam-era counterparts, they’ve met a cold official welcome. The former Conservative government saw them as deserters from the all-volunteer armed forces, although many fled after being recalled for additional tours in Iraq or Afghanistan under the so-called “stop loss” program. 

Almost half of the Vietnam-era draft resisters elected to stay in Canada after President Jimmy Carter issued an unconditional amnesty in 1977, creating a significant brain gain for Canada since many were, like Hagen, highly educated and enterprising. Many also stayed because they opposed U.S. policies more generally, he said.

ALSO READ: A border wall with Canada? No way, says Trump

A Trump victory may provide a parallel in that regard, Hagen suggested, in that some Americans may conclude the United States is taking a fundamentally wrong turn.

“I don’t think it’ll be nearly as large certainly as those earlier migrations we’ve talked about,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised there would be some increase in migration from the United States to Canada.”

Crossing the northern border not easy

Not all Americans who decide they want to relocate will be guaranteed entry into Canada, at least not quickly. In January 2015, CIC implemented its express-entry program, designed to speed the initial permanent-residency application process by moving it online.

Applicants fill out an extensive form that includes skills, work experience,
French- and English-language ability (there’s a test), education, and
other information to see if  they fit into one of the several federal immigration programs or as provincial nominees. Policies currently aim to attract skilled workers and those who already have work experience in Canada. The investor-class program was canned last year.

Eligibility is determined on a points system and those who qualify go into a global pool (there are no quotas based on nationality). Every couple of weeks or so names of those above a set level of points, which can vary week to week, are drawn from the pool and invited to make an application for permanent residency.

Ironically, said Hagen, the points system was first introduced in the late 1960s by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government to make the selection process more objective. It kept immigration officers, who often were military veterans, from discriminating against draft resisters and deserters, he said.

“That was the way I did it and probably the way most draft resisters did it,” said Hagen.

Those who aren’t picked from the pool in the first year need to update their profiles to remain eligible, according to the CIC website.

Getting a transfer a possible route to living in Canada

Another alternative, said Duval, is to work in the U.S. for a company with operations in Canada and be transferred here, something that’s been made easier under NAFTA rules.

“If you get a work permit first it might be an easier way in for permanent residency,” the immigration lawyer said.

Hagen said some of the graduate students he teaches at Northwestern have begun peppering him with questions about his former home.

“They really are curious about Canada,” he said.

They and other Americans are becoming interested in perceived sense of renewal since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals took power last fall, compared with the angry U.S. political climate, much like when Hagen came to Canada.

“It’s such a contrast and from someone of my era it’s so ironic,” he said. “The contrast between [former president Richard] Nixon and Pierre Trudeau couldn’t have been greater.”

A return to Canada isn’t out of the question for Hagen and his wife. He still conducts research here, his sons grew up in Toronto and the couple maintains a network of friends.

“It’s something we think about all the time,” he said.

If that time comes, Hagen and his wife will only have to wave their citizenship cards at the border.