My Travels to Quebec, So Much More than a Vacation

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.

Ahhhh Quebec

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.

Stones

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.

Grasses

The Backstory

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.

Barn

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.

Rows

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.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

25 Comments

  1. Inflicting all that bureaucracy because you were going to be doing a summer job for two weeks is a bit like ticketing somebody for driving one mile per hour faster than the speed limit. Bureaucrats sometimes forget that most laws exist for practical reasons rather than being commandments from on high to be enforced to the letter in every situation.

    Did you ever find out the reason for the change in enforcement?

    Some great pictures in the video.

    • Good question Infidel. No, I never did find out. For all I know, nothing had changed. Perhaps I just encountered a more surly crew in 2019 but I tend to think that the stricter attitude had come from the top.

      Obviously, I’ve not had a chance to return. When I do, however, I expect to be stopped since they definitely have me marked as a person to track.

      I still love Canada. When I visit, I’ll do my best to make it worth their while to have me.

      Thanks for watching!

  2. Oh my goodness, what a story! I’m so sorry you had to have that experience. It sounds very anxiety-inducing. (That might just be me talking from having gone through immigration in two countries and always feeling like I was missing something or doing something wrong even though I tried to dot every i and cross every t!) But what seems really strange to me about their decision is that it sounds like you weren’t receiving any money for the work that you were doing. It was just a kind of exchange of services. So I’m surprised that there was this kind of pushback and even refused entry! That’s not actually a “job” if you’re not being paid…so, you know, not something most actual job seekers looking to support themselves would be jumping at the opportunity to apply for. Just very odd.

    But in any case, I think that’s so cool that this kind of work exchange program exists, I’d never heard of it! I’m glad that you were at least able to visit again. I hear horror stories from US immigration all the time about one little mistake meaning a ban for life, so at least Canada was more forgiving in that! Gorgeous photos and scenes in your video too — I love that frog!!

    • Glad you appreciated the bull frog!!! I must have taken at least an hour trying to capture shots of them. Did you know that “bullfrog” in French is “ouaouaron”? I love saying that word, simultaneously honing my accent and bullfrog imitation.

      The customs agents claimed that room and board constituted compensation. To be clear, I wasn’t receiving the same luxurious accommodations as the spa clients. I stayed in a small chalet with other workers, had a wonderful roommate, and shared a bathroom with several others. We dined in the evening on leftovers from the spa’s kitchen but I also bought groceries and specialty foodstuffs from local merchants.

      During both trips, I did many touristy things—visited art galleries, dined in restaurants, purchased souvenirs, visited various attractions.

      Quebec is a beautiful province. I highly recommend a visit.

      • I did NOT know that was the word for bullfrog but I’m delighted to know it now!!

        I’m just confounded by the way they handled your situation. It doesn’t make sense to me at all. I’m glad you were able to go back and enjoy some touristy things though. I would so love to visit there one day. I’ve never been to Canada!

        • Wow! I’m surprised since you’ve been to so many other countries and Canada is relatively close. I highly recommend it. I’ve traveled there many, many times and visited several provinces. The people are cool and the culture is noticeably more laid back than in the U.S. It’s a gem of a country.

          • I’ve really only been around Europe, never Canada, Mexico, even not that many places in the US! Weird, right? It does sound like a fun place to visit and I think every Canadian I’ve met has been so friendly and kind.

  3. Lemonade for sure! What a refreshingly life-affirming video! I loved the bullfrog too—and the yellowjacket…and the feet.

    Can we blame trump for your travails? He certainly soured relations between us and our neighbors to the north.

    Anyway, glad you persevered and have such fond memories of this enriching experience. Delightful post.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself despite the issues with immigration. I think very often they are too harsh about things but that’s just the way it is unfortunately.

    • You’re right Pooja. I’m glad I could come back and cross on another day. Plenty of people in the world live under much greater restrictions. I count myself lucky.

      • Yes that’s very true. I’ve been meaning to go to Quebec since I live a couple of hours away but it hasn’t been easy due to all the restrictions. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to go soon.

  5. It was tit-for-tat for Trump’s isolationist policies with both border nations. Sad.

    • I suspect you are correct masercot. Perhaps the border guards will ease up a bit. Although now with COVID, there’s a new host of restrictions. So, it may take several years to restore the goodwill.

  6. Thanks for sharing., sorry you had to go through this.
    Actually, in most countries I believe, they won’t allow you to enter if you say you are going to work (unless you have a working permit).
    And I always heard it’s encouraged to have an invitation when you cross a border. Even when I went to visit my friend in Quebec region for a week, she had given me an invitation letter. Highly recommended whatever custom you go through, under whatever political regime

  7. Canada’s restrictive work policies for those not authorized have been going on since the start of my professional career – 28 years. They don’t allow unauthorized workers or unauthorized immigration; very aggressive.

    In fact for the past 20 years I know several companies that have asked their employees to not disclose they are driving to Toronto for a day meeting (not work) but instead say just a personal visit to avoid the hassles even though meetings are allowed.

    This has nothing to do with Trump.

  8. Glad you managed to get across and see your friends. What a shame, but don’t you feel that with everything happening over the past 18 months, things have become even more tit-for-tat?
    But, on a side note, if you enjoy reading about travelling, take a look at my blog where I am beginning to document my adventures and travels from across Africa where I used to work as a safari guide.

    • You’ll see from another commenter that Canada’s policy has always been quite strict. I can’t speak to whether things have changed. During a pandemic, policies regarding borders don’t seem very stable or long-lasting.

      Your blog sounds fascinating Sam. I’m at the end of an extremely hectic summer but hope to have time soon to get back to more reading and writing. I’ll be sure to check out your posts.

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