i used to think Vancouver had a skunk infestation problem. Being new to the city, I couldn't understand why every back alley and open window offered up dank puffs of smoke much like that green cloud that followed Pepe Le Pew around in Looney Tunes cartoons. I became obsessed with the idea that I had unknowingly moved to a town that smelled like N-bulymercaptan until, finally, a friend said, "Dude, it's the B.C. bud. Shut up already."
Formidable pot and its unmitigated use are just some of the perks that come with life in Vancouver, and in Canada at large. Add in the same-sex marriage laws, and it's enough to make you throw in your red-white-and-blue star-spangled towel. But wanting to move to Canada to blow some trees and marry your Butch Cassidy won't stick with Immigration, so, as I am Canadian (nice, helpful, and a citizen of a country that has harboured draft dodgers and fugitives since the days of the Underground Railroad), here are some pointers on how to begin life anew in the land of the gay and the chronic.
Canada wants and loves immigrants, especially if they've got the skills to pay the bills. But that doesn't mean it's easy to become a Canadian citizen. First off, you have to be a permanent resident for three years, and then pass a difficult test about Canadian explorers and French grammar. So, concentrate on getting your permanent work visa first.
There are four ways to do this. The business immigrant visa is for entrepreneurs ready to invest $400,000 in their new Canuck venture. If you've got a loved one in Canada who'll sponsor and support you, go for the family class visa. A new class of visa, provincial nominee, encourages applicants willing to live nowhere near the standard immigrant destinations of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Finally, the skilled work visa is the most common, especially if you've got a university education and at least one year of relevant work experience. Canada needs skilled workers in every occupation under the sun: telecommunications managers, pilots, journalists, coaches, data-entry clerks. You could check the National Occupation website (www.canlaw.com/immigration/noc.htm) for a list of allowable professions, but I guarantee your job is on it: There's not a single restricted occupation listed at this time.
If you are unsure which category is best for you, a plethora of free immigration assessments are available at websites like www.canadavisa.com and www.akcanada.com. Canadian immigration lawyers like David Cohen (888-947-9445) and Abrams & Krochak (416-482-3387) are well versed in immy dilly-o and will answer your questions for a fee (Cohen charges $100 for 30 minutes). Or simply call Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) at 604-666-2171. Application forms can be downloaded from the CIC's website (www.cic.gc.ca) or picked up from any Canadian embassy or consulate, like the one on Sixth Avenue and Stewart Street in Seattle (immigration line: 443-1777).
So just how long is this going to take? Prepare yourself for at least a year. Application processing times vary from 22 to 150 days, and the call for an interview comes in six to 18 months; you'll need to undergo a medical examination, and then wait for your visa to arrive. Your permanent resident card won't arrive in Canada until about 30 days after you do. To bide the time during your wait, brush up on Canadian-centric topics like the queen, especially if you plan to apply for full-on citizenship in a few years. Did you know that our dear old Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, introduced a new breed of dog called a "dorgi" when she crossbred her corgi with her sister's dachshund? Or that she wears those boxy dresses because she is large-breasted? She's also the 13th cousin, twice removed, of your very own George Bush Sr. You might be related.
Gaining temporary residency through work, study, or visitor permits is much faster--especially if you're a cathode ray tube repairperson, a cattle or swine herdsperson, a registered nurse, or a long-haul truck driver. The Canadian government fast-tracks work permits for these much-in-demand skills.
But having a work permit doesn't necessarily guarantee a smooth ride at the border. I was in a rock band on tour through North America and we decided to get work permits so that we wouldn't have to worry about the border. (On other tours we'd just lied and gotten across fine, but we didn't want to push our luck.) As soon as we showed the Peace Arch border guard our papers, he pulled us over, ripped apart our wood-paneled minivan, and apprehended our merchandise, causing us to miss our in-store in Seattle. In that instance, having a work permit sucked. If you are thinking about a temporary stay in Canada, a chance to just chill and smoke the weed, check out the list of jobs exempt from the work permit requirement at www.cic.gc.ca/english/work/exempt-1.html.
Or take your chances and cross refugee-style. In 2001 alone, almost 6,000 Americans immigrated to Canada--800 of whom entered at a Washington-Vancouver border. And those are just the ones Immigration knows about. See? People do it all the time. But you still need a good story for the immigration official. Tell them you'd like to learn more about the metric system. Or that you're coming to see the Bachman-Turner Overdrive reunion show. Just don't mention pot or develop your story out loud while waiting in the line-up: Borders are equipped with radio surveillance systems that listen in on conversations within a one-kilometer radius. I am not shitting you.
Here are some further tips from a Vancouver friend who goes to Anacortes once a week to earn money and is such a pro that the border guards now give her dogs treats on her way through: "Make eye contact. Act really friendly and unassuming, perhaps a little on the dumb side. Laugh a lot--like, "Oh, ha ha, hello.' Seeming confused doesn't hurt either."
The drive from Seattle to Vancouver takes about three hours and offers a choice of four border crossings: Aldergrove, Abbotsford, Peace Arch, or the Pacific Highway. Everyone must show a passport or birth certificate and a driver's license to the border guard. Baptismal certificates work too. Going by car has its advantages, as it's cheap and you can bring stuff from home. Items with an air of permanence--waterbeds, encyclopedia sets, home-sweet-home plaques--should be left behind if you don't have a visa, so as not to raise suspicions. You can also travel by plane (airport customs officials are notoriously lax with questions), by boat (the Coho ferry travels between Port Angeles and Victoria), or by helicopter (stylish, though this costs close to $300).
If you don't have a prearranged job upon your arrival, you'll need to find work as soon as possible, especially since your hard-earned American cash just isn't going to go as far as it used to. Our 12-sided bronze loonie is healthier than ever; currently the Canadian dollar equals about 70 American cents, which means you'll be able to buy the Peace Songs compilation for a measly 12 bucks. The Vancouver Currency Exchange, on 402 Hornby Street, gives the best rates in town.
A browse through the help-wanted section of the Georgia Straight unearths plenty of opportunities for brake and exhaust mechanics, clairvoyants, and Paul or John musicians willing to round out Beatles tribute bands. One particularly hot business seems to be the she-male industry. Transgendered? Then Canada's a great place for you. Just remember, if you're here illegally, the trick is to find a boss who is willing to pay you under the table. Small-business owners happy to skip out of paying the hefty government taxes are your best bet.
As for shelter, Canada is a gigantic country with a minuscule population, so living spaces aren't hard to come by--except in Vancouver, where current vacancy rates are 1.4 percent. Try to find a cute Canuck roommate to share a place with, maybe even a lonely or reckless soul who would consider marrying you at a minute's notice. This is a handy option to have if you're here illegally and Immigration is positively ready to boot your ass south, although it may be expensive. "A friend of a friend's sister offered me a couple thousand dollars to swap citizenships by marrying," says an American friend. "But I don't know. I just don't think I want to live here that badly."