Three Things They Don’t Tell You About Moving to Canada

It’s taken six months, but I’m finally here, in Canada, for the long term.

Immigrating, even from the United States, is no joke. Things have gone relatively smoothly for me, but even so, there’s been a few surprises along the way. Since they’re things that folks usually don’t tell you when you’re thinking of immigrating, I thought I’d set them down here, so future immigrants can come better prepared.

So here are the top three things I wish I’d known before moving:

No Health Care

I know, Canada’s a single-payer system. Universal health care, and all that jazz.

That’s true, but what’s also true is that Canada’s system is really 10 different systems, because each province handles health care on their own. There’s no single, federal system you can carry with you from province to province.

Instead, when you first move to a province (waves) you have to sign up for their health care system. Does immigration tell you this? No. I had to learn from a co-worker.

To sign up, you’ll need a SIN. What’s a SIN? It’s a Social Insurance Number. That you get from the federal government, at a Service Canada station. You can’t get it till you arrive, work permit in hand, though. Good luck getting an appointment; they’re backed up 4-6 weeks, depending on where you land. For mine, I had to go stand in line for four and a half hours in downtown Vancouver, and I only got in because I showed up right when the Service Canada centre opened (even so, I was in the back of a line that stretched out their door and around the corner).

Ok, you’ve got your SIN. You’ve submitted your application to your province. You even did it online, because you and your province are fancy like that.

Now you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

…you see, the provinces are all backed up. So they straight up tell you it can take 3-6 months for you to get onto the province’s health care program. And even if you do get on, if you leave the province for “too long” (say, to take care of a family member back home), they’re drop you, and you have to start the process all over again.

Till then, you’re in legal limbo.

Wait, you say. This is Canada, how can they do this to people and call themselves a free country? Well, you see, it’s because you have:

No Power

That’s right. You can’t vote. You can’t run for office. You’re a person that works and pays taxes but has absolutely no input into the political system. You basically have no rights, save what they dole out to you.

This was brought home to me when I was waiting in line to go through Immigration at the airport. It was a large room with bad lighting, and chairs arranged in four rows, all facing a set of raised, plexiglass-enclosed cubicles. There was no signage, and no one said anything to me as I entered. I sat in the chairs, because everyone else was sitting in the chairs. I didn’t know what else to do.

Every so often, the figures behind the plexiglass would call out a name. Someone from the front of the line would stand, excitement on their face, and present their papers, to see if they would get through. We’d shift forward a few chairs, and settle back into waiting for our own turn.

It quickly became apparent to me that most of the would-be immigrants in line with me did not speak English as their first language. They seemed to have a language in common — they appeared to be from East Asia, but I don’t know enough about those languages to guess which one they spoke — as I saw multiple unrelated groups chatting with each other or asking questions.

It also became apparent that the Immigration officials had no translator, and no patience for those who did not speak English fluently.

I heard them yelling at people to get out. I saw them throwing translation cards at people. They taunted them, made fun of them, and generally verbally abused anyone that didn’t have a simple, up/down, fluent-English case.

It was terrifying.

They didn’t physically assault anyone, while I was there. But I realized they could have, and then what would I do? I felt rooted to my chair, afraid to speak out or help, because it would threaten my own ability to immigrate.

So no, the province doesn’t have to help you get your paperwork in order. And no, they don’t have to give you health care when you arrive. You have no political power, so they can write you off.

No Credit

Speaking of power, you don’t have any credit power, either. Because your credit history, back in your home country? Doesn’t matter here. They can’t access it, so you effectively start over from zero.

This might not seem like a big deal, until you try to get a bank account, or rent an apartment.

(I say rent because if you try to buy you’ll pay upwards of 20% extra as a straight-up tax when the sale closes. If that doesn’t discourage you from buying, then you’re probably rich enough you can smooth over the difficulties I’m outlining here)

Here’s the catch-22: You can’t rent an apartment without a bank account. Your landlord is going to want to know you can afford to rent the place. Without a credit history, your only recourse is to show funds in a Canadian bank that can pay for it (and also be used for automatic withdrawals every month). They’ll also likely want a secured bank draft for any deposits, once again drawn on a Canadian bank.

But you can’t get a Canadian bank account without a residence. Naturally enough, the banks want to be sure they’re only opening accounts for folks that are actually Canadian residents.

And even once you manage to solve that problem, if you’re thinking of maybe buying a car or getting a nice, points-based credit card, think again. You don’t have any credit history, so you don’t qualify for anything. In some cases, you not only won’t qualify, you can’t even apply without a Canadian phone number (oh, did I mention that? you’re going to want to swap out your home cell for a Canadian one. what’s that? you’re not ready to tell everyone and every account your new number? too bad)

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry I moved. Vancouver Island is absolutely beautiful, the folks who live here are quite welcoming and friendly, and it’s nice to be living in a place with reliable public transport again (because I don’t have a car, you see).

But immigrating hasn’t been easy, and I’m still working through the kinks. I’m still waiting on access to the province’s health system, for example, and I just now got a Canadian cell.

So to others thinking of moving to Canada: Go for it. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride if you do.

Beware the Thirsty Bees: First Time Camping in Joshua Tree

We went camping in Joshua Tree for the first time this weekend.

My last camping trip was over thirty years ago. I was seven or eight, and I spent the entire three days refusing to use the filthy communal restrooms and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

It was not a good trip. I never really thought I’d ever try camping again.

But the pandemic has shifted things there, as it has in so many others.

My wife and I love to travel, but there’s no way we can risk staying in a hotel or taking a plane anymore. She has a clotting disorder, and I have asthma, two of those “co-morbidities” they blame when someone dies of Covid-19. We’ve been social distancing since March: No friends, no family, no exposure. We can’t risk our health staying indoors with other people for any length of time.

But camping’s not indoors! So long as we’re able to drive there — buying gas while masked up and wrapping our hands in a waste-disposal bag before touching anything — we can stay, outside, and keep other people at a distance. Low risk of exposure, high risk of hearing coyotes howl at night (but more on that later).

Beyond wanting to travel, though, we have an emergency waiting to happen, in the form of my wife’s mother. She’s in her upper 70s, and lives 1,500 miles away, in Arkansas. If she has an accident, or any kind of health incident, it’s up to us to get there and take care of her and my brother-in-law (who has special needs). We can’t fly anymore, so we’ll have to drive. And neither of us want to try to drive that whole distance without sleeping.

So camping is the only safe way for us to travel, for any reason.

Being proper nerds, we did a lot of research first. Read blog posts about camping with pups (we have two), how big of a tent to get, where to go for your first trip (close to home, which is why we chose Joshua Tree), even what pants to wear. We bought everything that was recommended, we loaded it all into the car, and we set off.

Ah, what fools we were!

And still, we were not prepared.

Not prepared for how loud the campground gets at night, when everyone returns from hiking and sets about drinking and smoking and cutting up. Long past midnight, we’d hear people singing and carrying on. Both nights we were there, I finally broke down and asked people to keep it down till morning, so we could sleep.

Not prepared for how long it really takes to setup camp. At home, when we practiced, we had everything up and ready in 30 minutes. But out there, at night (once), or in the heat of the day (the second time), it takes longer, and it feels much much longer. Between getting there, setting up the first night, then deciding to switching campgrounds the next day, then packing up for good the last day, I think we spent most of our time just setting up and tearing down.

Not prepared for the, um, toilet situation. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we couldn’t use the communal toilets, so we brought our own. And…let’s just say “leaving no trace” is good for the environment but not enjoyable in any shape or form.

And not prepared for the bees! Those thirsty, thirsty, bees.

They swarmed our water jug. They swarmed our food while we were cooking. They swarmed our toilet (I told you it wasn’t fun). And they were aggressive, too, the little buggers, as if we owed them something. Sometimes the only way to get them off was to run by the water jug, whose sweet smells of moisture would pull them away.

Our campsite, before the bees descended on us.

So after coming back, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I haven’t slept well in two days, and any buzzing makes me clench.

But we’re going back in two weeks! Why?

One, because we have to. We simply have to get better at camping if we’re going to be able to come to my wife’s mother’s aid when she needs us.

Two, because this was just our first trip! We were bound to mess it up, no matter how much we prepared.

And we can fix a lot of what went wrong!

Choosing the right campground from the start (we’ve already reserved it) means we won’t have to waste time breaking down and setting up twice.

The backdrop for our second and final campsite. Unbeatable, right?

Making meals ahead of time and bringing them along (rather than cooking) will mean less water exposed for the bees to swarm on (and less fuss setting up camp).

Taking a pavilion with us will mean we have some shade from the sun, no matter what time of day it is.

Using the rain fly on the tent will keep out smoke at night, so we can breathe.

Packing less ice in the cooler will make it lighter, and easier to find things we pack in there. And that means more room for things like water and soda; we packed water bottles, but left them out of the cooler, which is a thing so foolish in hindsight I want to reach back in time and slap myself for it. No soda meant that my wife’s headache from sun exposure and dehydration joined forces with caffeine withdrawal to take her out for the latter half of our last full day there.

And leaving the pups at their “camp” (an outdoor boarder) will mean we can explore the park this time, taking trails and hikes that they aren’t allowed on (which is all of them, I mean they want to keep it wild and let the animals that live there feel safe, so dogs aren’t allowed anywhere except roads and campsites).

The trail starts just outside our camp, but we can’t go…

So we’re doing it again! Wish us luck; or better yet: Got any tips to share for two tenderfoots who are trying to get this right?

Quarantine Dreams

I’m having trouble sleeping.

I wake up multiple times in the night, thinking I’ve heard our dog bark or someone move in the house beneath our bedroom.

Sometimes I fall right back to sleep, but often I’ll just lay there, my brain chewing over some problem from the day, unable to rest.

When I do sleep, I dream. But nothing comforting: I dream of the world we’ve lost.

I dream of going to a pub for dinner. Of going on a trip at the airport. Seeing a movie.

Mundane things. Well, mundane before.

Even there, the pandemic intrudes. I go to a pub, intending to meet friends like normal, but my wife and I take masks with us, and sit 6 feet apart. The airport we go to is mostly deserted, and the planes never arrive. On our way to the movie theatre, someone yells at us for being outside.

So my dreams bring no comfort. No escape from reality.

In truth, I know I’m lucky. Both my wife and I have been healthy so far. We’ve had enough food and toilet paper (though it was touch and go the first two weeks). And our current house is new enough that nothing major has broken on us (yet).

I just…I wish I could relax enough to rest, and sleep, again. And dream of something else.

41

Weird to have a birthday during a pandemic. To have a day when I’m supposed to gather my friends together and celebrate. Now there can be no gathering, and any celebration feels macabre.

People have been asking me, what are you doing for your birthday? And the honest answer is the worst one:

  • First thing in the morning, I’m going to check the LA Times page for updates on the spread of Covid-19 in California, paying particular attention to the shape of the curve for San Diego. Today: it’s bending down, and has moved to doubling only every 3 days (last week it was doubling every two).
  • Next I’m going to check the latest news from The Economist and The Atlantic. The Economist because they’re going to put things in a global perspective. The Atlantic because they employ Ed Yong.
  • After dumping all that in my brain, I’m going to try to write. I may fail.
  • Later I’ll go to work, where everything is normal since we were all working remotely before the virus. Except we all know it isn’t, and it can’t be.
  • At some point I will probably take thirty minutes — alone, in my office, where no one, including my wife, can see — and just grieve. For what’s been lost, and how much more we will probably lose before this is over.

None of which is really something you can confess to someone who just casually asks that question.

So instead I try to smile, and just say “We’ll think of something.”

And who knows? Maybe we will.

Happy Post-St Patrick’s Day!

Me, all dolled up for the celebration

Since moving to San Diego, my wife and I have had a tradition: On St Patrick’s Day, we go celebrate at a Mexican restaurant, and on Cinco de Mayo, we celebrate at an Irish pub. We’ve discovered that both kinds of restaurants celebrate both holidays, but while the Irish pubs are standing room only on St Patrick’s Day, the Mexican places are empty (and vice-versa for Cinco de Mayo). We call it St Pedro’s Day (in March) and The Fifth of Mayo (in May). We usually rope a few of our friends in, too, and always have a blast.

Well. Going out this year was off the table. But we still did St Pedro’s right, mixing margaritas at home and joining a group video chat so our friends and we could all hang out virtually.

And it was still fun! (photographic evidence offered above).

Hope you and yours are safe and well, and that if you celebrated yesterday, you found a way to connect with those you love.

Sláinte!

Choosing the President: A Modest Proposal

The Problem

The way we choose Presidents in the United States is flawed.

It’s too easy for someone with little or no experience to be elected. Requiring just an age and citizenship worked fine when the job was just the implementer of Congress’ will, but the role has expanded, and the requirements should expand with it.

It’s also too easy for a President to win office with a minority of the vote. For a position that is supposed to represent the direct choice of the voters, this is unbearable.

Proposed Solution

I think a few small tweaks to the process of choosing the President would fix these two issues:

  1. Abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election
  2. Require experience in Congress before being eligible to run for President

The Electoral College

The first is something that’s been called for before, and needs to happen soon. The role of the President has evolved over time to one that claims to speak for the country as a whole. That claim cannot be made (though it has been) if the President is not in fact elected by a majority of the population.

To go one step further, I think we should require a President to win more than 50% of the vote in order to take office. If, after the initial ballot, no one has more than 50% of the vote, the top-two vote-getters should participate in a run-off election.

Congressional Experience

Getting to the Presidency should be a multi-stage process. In order to serve as President, you have to have first served at least one full term as a Senator. In order to serve as a Senator, you have to have served at least one full term in the House of Representatives.

Notice that experience on the state level doesn’t count. And it shouldn’t: working at the federal level of government is a completely different thing. The responsibilities are greater. The choices are tougher. And the impact of the decisions made is wider.

In a parliamentary system, the kind of experience I’m advocating happens automatically. No one gets to be Prime Minister without first getting elected to the legislature, and then spending time writing national laws and seeing their impacts.

A presidential candidate with two terms of experience has a record, one that voters can use to evaluate how well they’d do the job. Did they compromise when they could in order to make progress? Did they object to everything and do nothing? Did they fulfill their promises? Did they promise too much?

And a President that’s worked in Congress knows its rules and methods. They’ll have allies (and enemies) in the legislature, people to work with in running the government. They’ll have seen laws they wrote interpreted by the courts. They’ll be more successful, in other words, because they’ll know how to get along with the other major branches.

Objections

“If we remove the Electoral College, it’ll deprive the smaller states of some of their power in presidential elections.”

True. But when we elect governors of states, we don’t worry about disenfranchising the smaller counties. It’s because the governor has to be in charge of the executive branch for the whole state, not just a portion of it.

Similarly, the President has to serve the country as a whole, not be tied to any one state or region. Thus giving any weight to the votes of one state versus another doesn’t make sense.

“Voters should decide if someone is qualified. Anything else is undemocratic.”

This one I struggle with. Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days of deals made in smoke-filled rooms, with the will of the populace a small consideration, if any. And I don’t want to give the individual political parties more control over who runs and who doesn’t.

But I think in terms of goals. What is the goal of representative democracy? Is it to reduce our reps to mere pass-through entities, automatically doing whatever the majority says to do?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no point in having representatives, if those representatives aren’t supposed to use their judgement. Think of the rep that constantly updates their opinions based on the latest poll, and how we view them with contempt. Rightly so, in my view; if they don’t stand for anything except the exercise of power, they don’t deserve to wield it.

And I think republics aren’t born in a vaccum; we didn’t all come together (all 350 million of us) and decide to create a federal system with elected representatives. Instead, a republic is a compromise between the powerful and the people. We give our consent to their use of power, so long as that power is constrained by both law and elections.

In that sense, the most democratic thing is for us to set constraints on who among the powerful can run for office. We, the people, want the best candidates, not just the best speakers or the richest or the ones with the most fervent supporters. Leaving the field wide open puts us at the mercy of demogogues. Narrowing the scope of possible candidates puts constraints on their power, not on ours. We still have the final say, on Election Day.

Conclusion

Will these changes fix our democracy? No. There’s too much that needs fixing, from gerrymandered districts to the Imperial Presidency to the outsize influence of money in elections.

But they will give us better candidates for the Presidency. And they will ensure no one holds that office that doesn’t command the consent of a majority of voters.

Those two changes will make other changes easier. Better candidates will mean better Presidents, and better Presidents will mean better government.

And that’s something we can all, right and left alike, agree we need.