The Odds Are Good: Getting into Canada

Or not getting in, as the case may be

The USA-Canada border. Also known as purgatory. PHOTO: Mark Stevens/Flickr Creative Commons

The USA-Canada border. Also known as purgatory. PHOTO: Mark Stevens/Flickr Creative Commons

When Jess handed over our passports to the friendly Canadian border patrol lady, I assumed we'd skate right through. The border didn't seem to be a particularly busy one. I was in the car with three people I'd met in Spokane, headed for Revelstoke, one border crossing, one ferry ride, five coffees, and seven hours of driving away.

Enough minutes ticked by that we started to joke about what could be going wrong (maybe she went for a Tim Hortons run?) and one of the guys in the car mentioned--oh by the way--that he'd actually run in to some trouble with the Canadian government before. Some kind of weed-related incident in high school. And then the other guy dropped that he had a sticky charge on his record, too. Something to do with illegal explosives in Utah. "Yeah," he said. "I think it's maybe technically a felony." Maybe? Technically? "I can usually get out of the country," he said. "Canada is tough sometimes."

No cars had rolled up behind us, but our friendly patrol lady was taking a long time. We were unwittingly participating in a skiing rite of passage: getting hung up at our country's northern border.

Canada is home to some of the genuinely nicest people I've ever met. They will offer to feed and house you before they know your last name. They will show you their secret stashes and then all but thank you for dropping in on them. Sometimes they're so nice it makes me nervous. I like a little irony in my national identity. But maybe--and this is conjecture--some of that niceness comes from a countrywide sense of playing by the rules. That means that, depending on your record, crossing the border to Canada can be tougher than getting into Bhutan. They are not to be messed with when it comes to getting into their country.

In a lot of ski towns there's an adage about DUIs and how you're not a local until you get one. It's a shitty one, but it seems to prove itself true a lot. And, in addition to the fines and the general stupidity of a DUI, it means you can't go skiing in Canada. Once you've got one on your record, kiss Whitewater trips goodbye, they won't let you into the country. The Canadian government offers up this unhelpful and nebulous piece of information, "In general, people are considered to be inadmissible to Canada due to past criminal activity if they were convicted of an offence in Canada or were convicted of an offence outside of Canada that is considered a crime in Canada." That can mean a lot of things. My friend Becca saved a summer season's worth of tips to go to Kicking Horse, only to get turned around at the border because of a 10-year-old DUI. Another guy I know can never get back in because he violated some rules about working in Canada. Those both seemed mellow compared to this "maybe" felony charge. I've heard plenty of horror stories about being sent home at the Vancouver airport, or getting ditched at the Maine/Quebec border because someone has a dark spot on their record. Canadians don't even take kindly to driving violations. Or, as I was learning first hand, charges of possession and past criminal activity.

Friendly border patrol lady came out, looking slightly less friendly, and told us to park the car and come inside. In the waiting room, Queen Elizabeth glared down from the wall. There were only two hard plastic chairs for the four of us, so we took turns sitting down. She pulled the guys into the back room, one by one. An hour ticked by, and then another. It was starting to look like we were going to miss the last ferry in Galena. If they let us in to the country at all. We started hashing a plan. Maybe we could drive back to Spokane and drop them off? But it was already dumping in Revy. Maybe someone would be coming the other way who could give them a ride. Were you allowed to ditch people you didn't really know at the border?

After hours of waiting and sweating she let us go. Nothing was bad enough to keep us out of Canada and away from the mountains. Eventually, one at a time, she let them back out into the waiting room with the admonishment that, next time, they were to say what was on their record right off the bat. Turns out the Utah fireworks incident wasn't a felony in Canada, but they should have been honest up front. And to have known that even if you get busted for smoking pot when you're 17, it's still in your file.