Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Entering Canada with a Guitar is a Red Flag

Stuck in Niagara Falls after being denied entry into Canada
Being declined crossing a border is like being declined for credit. Once you are declined, you keep getting declined. In fact, one of the standard questions at the border is "Have you even been denied entry into Canada before?". Like with bad credit, the gatekeeper doesn't view your circumstance from a fresh perspective but rather, from a lens that is tainted.

And so now I've been declined entry three times in three days, each time given a new checklist of what I need to do to get permission to cross.

My itinerary started to fall apart a few days ago, during the last leg of my train journey, heading into Canada on the Amtrak into Montreal. I had a few informal shows booked, and because of the nature of the shows and varied advice from other musicians, I didn't think that a work visa was necessary. I was wrong. In Canada, even if a gig is unpaid, if it is in a bar or restaurant, a work visa is needed. This isn't so for street performers. One is allowed to busk on the streets without a work permit, or play house concerts and festivals where performers are exempt from needing work visas.

This first attempt, I was turned away after a 10 hour train ride from New York City to Montreal. After an escort back to the USA side, there was a Greyhound bus waiting there heading back to New York City and the border agent suggested that I jump on it. I didn't know what else to do, so I did. It was an 8 hour bus ride back to NYC. And so it was 18 hours of travel to get from New York City to New York City. After talking with a good friend in Canada who works for the Cirque de Soleil in the immigration department for performers, and also the American Federation for Musicians, the consensus was that I shouldn't have been turned away and should try again from another border entry after I cancel my shows. I had one more segment allowed on my train pass and so I decided to hop on the train to Toronto, another 10 hour train ride.

I figured that they would have the resources and technology to verify that my shows were canceled, such as calling them on the phone, but they told me that I needed to provide proof. After rejecting me a 2nd time, and also searching me for narcotics and frisking me, they gave me a new checklist of what I needed to do to gain entry: Letters from the venues confirming that my shows were canceled, proof of self-employment, my bank statement, a letter from a utility provider proving residency in Texas, proof of my flight home, and names and addresses of friends and family in Canada. The agent also suggested that it would help if I were to leave my guitar in America. I reminded her that I was flying out of Montreal and didn't have any logistics worked out for getting my guitar back to Texas from Niagara Falls. She understood and agreed.

Today, I went back to the gatekeepers with all of the documentation that they requested after spending the entire day gathering it all. I was turned away a 3rd time. The agent said that because I am still carrying my guitar, I am a musician by profession with my tools in hand, and thus can find work in Canada. I reminded him that I had canceled my shows, and have proof, and that it is virtually impossible for a musician to book a gig in a venue with less than two months notice, and that I am only here until July 7th with proof that I am leaving the country. I just wanted to fulfill my travel plans, visit relatives in Toronto, explore Montreal and the Montreal Jazz Festival where a good friend is performing, and take up my good friend's offer in Montreal for a free ticket to the Cirque de Soleil. Oh, and also catch my flight back home out of Montreal. He said that he is not confident that I won't be working. I asked for a supervisor. She explained that each agent makes their own determination and that she doesn't want to override him. It is a quick stamp of rejection from them after many many hours on my end of extra travel and meeting their requests for documentation. He recommended that I go home, wait a couple of months, and try again. Or I can leave my guitar in the USA and try again  tomorrow.

I found out that I can fly home out of Buffalo tomorrow with only a $25 change fee. Or I can leave my guitar with a friend of a friend in Buffalo (with a ride to Texas in a couple of weeks) and try to cross again tomorrow. But there is no guarantee that they won't just deny me again. Especially since I've been declined 3 times already.

Part of me doesn't want to accept defeat and fulfill my travel plans in Canada after getting all this way from Texas. Part of me just wants to go home and forget that Canada exists.
The Red Lounge Hostel on the American side of Niagara Falls is a budget traveler's oasis
in a town of uncountable tourist traps. 
Halfway in between Canada and the USA on the rainbow immigration bridge with Niagara Falls in the Distance.

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