Two years ago, as I beamed up at the customs agent from my driver’s seat, the thought that Canadian authorities might not approve of my travel plans was the furthest thing from my mind. I’d vacationed in Canada dozens of times and had never encountered trouble at the border. What’s more, my itinerary closely replicated one I’d undertaken in 2017. So, when the congenial sentinel leaned out of his tollbooth to run through the standard battery of questions, I enthusiastically rattled off my tried-and-true trajectory, naively intending to spread the joy. Instead, I was asked to park my car and proceed to a counter inside the main office.
A Fly in the Ointment
The thought of a small delay did little to darken my rose-colored glasses. Since Trump had taken office, there’d been a seed change at the American border, with customs agents detaining and deterring travelers to the United States at unprecedented rates. I told myself that perhaps a game of tit-for-tat was underway. The Canadian agents were making things a little more difficult but I had nothing to hide and soon would be on my way.
As I breezed through the automatic doors, the fresh morning air and cerulean atmosphere were replaced by the stuffy interior of a fluorescent-lit waiting room, bedecked in the brown, tan, and orange hues of 1972.
Dauntless, I mindlessly repeated the very details that had brought about this unforeseen detour. I was bound for a spa in Quebec, one I’d visited in 2017. There, I would be working in the spa’s garden for the next two weeks, speaking nothing but French, and improving my language skills. This time a dour guard hammered notes into a computer, asking me to pause while she presumably verified parts of my story.
An Unexpected Ruling
Deposition completed, I was asked to wait in a small interrogation room. Then, more questioning, same story, another wait for over an hour, and finally the verdict was in:
- I would not be allowed into Canada that day.
- It was illegal to enter the country and perform work without a work permit which took more than a year to obtain.
- My name was now recorded with the immigration authorities and if caught engaging in such activities again, permanent expulsion from Canada would follow.
I teetered back to my car, cast a forlorn look eastward over my shoulder, and then headed home, numbly trying to reconcile all that had just occurred.
Back in 2017, I’d wanted to travel to a French-speaking part of the world to improve my language skills. However, as a typical tourist, it’s not always easy to engage people in conversations that go much beyond asking for directions, buying a ticket, or ordering a meal. Then a friend told me about a website called Workaway, where travelers can search through online job listings that are posted by “hosts”. The jobs can be anything: paint someone’s garage, milk goats on a farm, babysit, bake cakes, clean rooms, weed flowerbeds, even wash elephants. In exchange for work performed, the host provides the traveler with room and board.
That summer, I found a spa in Quebec that was looking for people to work in their garden. They grow many fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, most of which end up, in one form or another, on the plates or in the drinking glasses of the spa’s clientele. I signed up through Workaway and had a fabulous experience which I wrote about here. I made great friends, spoke nothing but French for two weeks, explored a beautiful part of North America, and returned home fully recharged.
This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Border Patrol
But by 2019, times had changed. The Canadian authorities no longer viewed me as a tourist that was helping their economy but as an illegal alien that was stealing employment out from under the nose of hardworking Canadian citizens. They told me that I could re-enter the country on another day but that I would not be able to work. When crossing the border, I’d need to provide a detailed description of where I would be during my time in their country and who I’d be visiting—not the kind of travel restrictions we’re accustomed to in North America.
When Life Hands You Lemons
After enjoying a couple of leisurely days at home, calling various friends, and reshuffling my plans, I headed back to the same border crossing between Michigan and Ontario. As promised, my name was in their database and I was immediately flagged and vigorously questioned about my itinerary. I honestly explained that I’d changed my plans to include a stay in Montreal but that I would still be visiting my friends at the spa where I had previously worked in 2017.
This time they let me cross into Canada where I had another wonderful vacation. When I returned home, I put together a short video that includes scenes from both trips.
A Place in My Heart
Nearly every time I work in my own garden, I think about my beautiful summer days in Quebec and the people I met at the spa. Workaway absolutely delivered on its stated mission, providing me with a cultural experience that went much deeper than the average tourist can come by. I hope that such programs can continue in some form because I truly believe they help make the world a better place.
If you have any thoughts on the matter, please share them in the comments.