It was late into the night of the 2016 presidential election. Or was it technically the early hours of the morning after? Mark Nykanen was up watching what had not yet been made official, but was certain: Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States.
The next morning, he and his wife Lucinda Taylor woke up and knew it was time. Within a couple of hours, they made the decision. Within a couple of weeks, their house in The Dalles, Oregon, an hour and a half east of Portland, was on the market.
“I just made up my mind,” said Taylor, 56. “And as soon as I made the decision I felt safer.”
The couple is heading to Canada for political reasons – and not for the first time. In 2003, appalled by George W Bush’s order to invade Iraq, they abandoned their lives in the US for a new start in Nelson, British Columbia.
“I felt very strongly that the US had turned a corner from which it would never turn back,” said Nykanen, 65, recalling the earlier relocation. “We made that move not because we feared terrorists, but what the country was becoming.”
The idea of moving to Canada is regularly tossed around as a joke of an American exit strategy. Declarations leading up to Trump’s presidency became fodder for late night television hosts. Spotify created a “Moving up to Canada” playlist, featuring Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons and Carly Rae Jepsen. Maple Matchemerged in the online dating world, connecting Americans and Canadians. Its motto: “Make dating great again.”
According to records from Canadian Immigration and Citizenship, applications from Americans to acquire Canadian citizenship have more than tripled in the last 20 years. But no one can definitively say why, because the Canadian and US governments don’t track motives for immigration and emigration.
Michael Niren, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, doesn’t attribute the trend to political action. But a graph of citizenship application numbers would show definite spikes in some politically significant years: 2001, when Bush was elected president; 2003, when the US invaded Iraq; and 2007, during the US housing market crash and recession. Perhaps Trump’s tenure will cause another spike in 2017.
Regardless, many Americans are scared of losing their rights. Minority groups worried about their safety are seeking refugee status in Canada. Refugees who had made their way to the US are taking harrowing journeys north, with migration expected to rise with warmer weather.
But Canada as a symbol of social and political freedom isn’t new, and has a history that dates back to the founding of the country. Loyalists left during the revolutionary war in support of the British empire, African Americans fled slavery on the underground railroad and pioneers ventured north in search of soil-rich land. In more recent history, Canada became a place of refuge for Vietnam draft evaders, Iraq war resisters and those with left-leaning ideologies concerning gay rights, education, gun control and healthcare.
Nykanen and Taylor had flirted with the idea of moving to Canada since they began dating almost 30 years ago. They disagreed with the amount of money the US was spending on the military and felt that Christianity was too ingrained in politics.
Now married, both have resumes with political and social bullet points. He was an investigative reporter for NBC, and was California governor Jerry Brown’s press secretary during his 1992 run for the democratic nomination for president. Taylor was a counselor focusing on children and families, and assisted HIV support groups.
“We weren’t whiners. We had worked for this country,” said Nykanen, who left politics for non-fiction writing. “And we felt that this was no longer about us. It was about where we could make a home that was healthy for our daughter.”
Nykanen and Taylor had growing concerns about the country’s commercialization, objectification of women and love of guns. But the catalyst that drove them to Canada was when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.
They sold their three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Hood River, Oregon, moved their furniture into storage and on 31 August, jumped into the family’s minivan, pulling a U-Haul trailer holding the essentials, plus mountain bikes and skis.
When the family arrived at the Metaline Falls-Nelway Border Crossing at the northeast corner of Washington state, it was dark. The family, against the advice of their lawyer, arrived without residency status. But after showing paperwork and bank statements, they were granted a one-year visa.
A few kilometers from the border, Nykanen saw a Canadian flag, illuminated in the darkness. He looked at Taylor and sighed with relief. “There is a psychological burden to living in a country that is forever in a state of war,” he said. “And I don’t think even politicized Americans can appreciate it viscerally until they’re free from it.”
The family returned to Oregon in 2016, when Taylor was offered a healthcare position that she couldn’t refuse. Now, just a year later, they wish they had never returned.
For most, gaining permanent access to Canada isn’t a swift drive to the border.
Obtaining permanent residency is a six-month to two-year process that costs, on average, $4,000 to $5,000 in legal fees, says New Jersey-based immigration lawyer Veronique Malka. Applicants are evaluated on a 100-point system based on English and French language skills, education, work experience, age and employability.
Temporary residence is usually required for permanent residency. And it seems relatively easy to obtain, provided applicants show they have worked and paid taxes. Data from Canadian Immigration and Citizenship shows the approval rate for temporary resident, work and study visas in 2016 was 91%. And it has hovered around the 90th percentile for 20 years.
Perhaps the best-known Americans who migrated to Canada were Vietnam-era draft resisters. US involvement in Vietnam brought tensions to an all-time high, especially as casualties rose. At the height of the Vietnam War, as many as 40,000 men were drafted each month. Some avoided it by enrolling in college, getting married or proving to have, or sometimes faking, a medical condition.
Canada was, for some, a last ditch effort, and for others, a form of protest. John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University and author of Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, said more than 50,000 American men and women fled to Canada during the Vietnam war, making it the largest political migration from the US since the American revolution.
Tony McQuail began working as a draft counselor on Sunday afternoons in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, at 16. His job was to inform young men about how it worked and what alternatives they had.
“It was in that process that I realized how the draft really was a powerful tool for creating the appearance of support for the military that wasn’t there,” said McQuail, a Quaker who was raised to believe in pacifism. “The people who were making decisions about what was going to happen didn’t bear any of the consequences.”
In 1970, McQuail wrote a letter to the attorney general. He would not be registering for the draft, even though the law demanded that 18-year-olds sign up. That spring, an FBI agent showed up at his door, convincing McQuail to register for the lottery.
McQuail, now 64, decided he wouldn’t want to wait to see if he “won” or “lost”.
In January of 1971, McQuail landed in London, Ontario, where a sympathetic border agent granted him temporary residency on the condition that he get a job. He ended up on a dairy farm in Goderich, two and a half hours west of Toronto.
“I remember feeling very alone, very far from my family,” said McQuail, who was still a teenager when his exile began. “I didn’t know anybody, and I suddenly felt like I wasn’t 100% sure if I had made the right decision.”
About half of those who fled remain in Canada, even after Jimmy Carter’s pardon of draft dodgers in 1977. Hagan estimates 70% of those who fled were well educated, white and middle class.
Lara Campbell, chair of the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, confirms that half of the fleers were women. “And the fact that these numbers surprise you maybe tells you something about the way people remember Vietnam and the anti-war movement,” she said.
The McQuails no longer see themselves as Americans, even though Tony can return to the US without punishment. “I’m so relieved when I cross back into Canada. My adrenaline levels drop,” said Tony. “I consider Canada my home. And I’m not coming back to the States.”
While many left feeling their actions were justified, others felt guilty about their privilege. In his article “What did you do in the class war, Daddy?” author James Fallows discussed going to the draft board and lying – he said he was suicidal – to avoid the war. It was easy for him and his white, well-educated Harvard friends to find an excuse. But boys from a nearby, lower income neighborhood had few options.
Like Vietnam, the Iraq war caused similar opinions concerning validity. Unlike Vietnam, military service was voluntary. But once people signed up, there was no turning back. An estimated 200 Iraq resisters fled to Canada before their first or return deployments, and it’s believed that 15 are still living there today. None have been granted refugee status. Some were deported. Others willingly returned to the US and served jail time.
Brandon Hughey was 18 when he fled his army base in Fort Hood, Texas, the night before he was to deploy for Iraq in February 2004. He had little more than a duffle bag and $1,000, most of which would go towards gas and hotels during the four-day drive.
They told border patrol they were visiting to watch a basketball game. It worked. Hughey called his dad once he crossed the border. “That was probably the hardest phone conversation I ever had,” said Hughey.
Hughey was from middle class, conservative San Angelo, Texas. “I’d always bought into the idea of serve your country, defend your country, defend your family,” said Hughey. “I bought into the romantic notion of it, too.”
But during training, he started to question the war. He didn’t like what he said was the army’s way of dehumanizing those there to serve and the enemy they were fighting. His superiors referred to Iraqis as “camel fuckers” and “sand niggers” on a daily basis.
In Canada, he found lawyer Jeffry House, who helped him become the second Iraq war resister to apply for refugee status. After three years and several trials, Hughey was denied. “I had known that US soldiers had done this during Vietnam, so I knew it wasn’t unprecedented. But I also knew that granting me refugee status would mean that Canada would be telling the US that the war was wrong,” he said.
While Hughey fought for refugee status in court, he got a landscaping job, got married (and divorced) and had a son. It was enough to gain temporary residency status. He’s working towards permanent status now.
Hughey will probably never return to America – he’d be arrested at the border and serve a year and a half of jail time. House, who represented nearly 60 Iraq deserters, said his cases hinged on the idea that the US did not have the right to invade Iraq. The court decided that was irrelevant. “The reality is that Canada is a small country in terms of power and population,” said House. “And the United States can make life hell for Canada.”
Some people’s migrations to Canada aren’t driven by war or presidential politics. They’re drawn by its national healthcare system or strict gun policies – or the perception that Canada may be a safer place to live an alternative lifestyle.
Amy Bohigian, a 43-year-old filmmaker from Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved to Toronto for a relationship. When that romance ended, she met Jane Byers, a 50-year-old Canadian citizen. They married in 2005, when Canada legalized same-sex marriage. At the time, Massachusetts was the only US state that recognized it.
Their marriage wouldn’t have been recognized in the US, which would have made it more difficult for Byers to obtain a green card. And their family wasn’t exactly ordinary: two moms, raising two adopted Indian children.
“We knew that as a same-sex couple in the states, there was less infrastructure legally and socially to support us as a family,” said Bohigian.
Bohigian and Byers live in Nelson, British Columbia, the same town Mark Nykanen and Lucinda Taylor moved to for their first political exile. Nelson is halfway between Vancouver and Calgary, with a population of about 10,500, according to the 2016 census. The nearest major airport is three hours away. The area has a deep history of housing American expats. Vietnam resisters were first attracted to the West Kootenays because of the presence of Quakers, who fed and sheltered runaways. Of the Americans who remained after the Vietnam draft, 40% settled in British Columbia, said Kathleen Rodgers, author of Welcome to Resisterville: American Dissidents in British Columbia.
One might call Nelson the Portland of Canada, but condensed into less than three sq miles.
Nykanen and Taylor aren’t returning to Nelson this time. They’ve chosen Victoria and hope to settle by this summer. With their kid in college and dual citizenships in their pockets, the move will be easy.
“Canada is not a utopia. But it is far better poised to weather the coming century than the United States,” said Nykanen. Unless he sees money taken out of American politics, he doesn’t plan on coming back.
When asked if he gave up on America, he sours. “I don’t agree with the concept of that question. I never felt that there was a separation between my own ambitions and what I thought was best for the planet. Patriotism never struck me as healthy.”
Author: Kristin Schwab