The Government Grinch who stole Christmas
Do you remember the old adage: ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ – a turn of phrase once lauded by parents and teachers, intent, perhaps, on making children more resilient to the effects of verbal bullying? Well, I want to tell you a story about a name and the tremendous amount of hurt that it should NEVER have caused.
This is the story of how our ‘Christmas’ unravelled in the hands of the Canadian Government, and more specifically Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, this week.
First, a little backstory. I am Canadian and normally reside in the UK. I am currently staying in Ontario with my parents while my mother awaits hip surgery. Last week I was full to the brim with excitement, contemplating the arrival of my (English) husband on Monday and how he would surprise our two young daughters for Christmas. Would he dress as Santa and knock on the door? Or, would he arrive on the doorstep under the premise of delivering a pizza? Gifts had been purchased. Packages were wrapped. Meals were planned. Food was purchased. Appropriate cold weather attire and boots had been accumulated. And of course the weather had been obsessively checked to ensure a straightforward trip down to Toronto for airport pick up. Imagining the glow — the pure delight — on the faces of our two daughters brought the biggest smile to my own face. Oh what a wonderful surprise it would be!
These dreams — the big smiles, the glow – evaporated all too quickly, however, when my husband wasn’t granted an eTA in the lead up to his departure.
An eTA is an Electronic Travel Authorization and it is a requirement for individuals without Canadian passports or citizenship who are flying into or transiting through Canada. The screening system is automated and the application straightforward. You pay your $7, answer the obligatory questions, and normally within minutes, voila — you’re good to go! At most it can take up to 72 hours. The system was introduced in 2017, taking its lead from a similar screening system in place in the USA (the ESTA). This sort of passenger-screening program is supposed to detect those who might be seeking to stay longer than they’re permitted to stay in Canada and the USA, as well as those who might pose a security risk. (I have no doubt that the program is also a good little ‘money spinner’. On a previous visit to Canada I filled out applications for my two daughters back to back, and in the span of a single minute, there had been thousands of additional applicants. I’ll leave you to do the math on that one: $7 x 1,000 per minute.)
So yes, back to my husband’s eTA. For whatever reason, the ‘pay your money and voila’ situation didn’t come to pass. Nor did it come to pass after 24 hours, nor after 36 hours, nor even the longest predicted wait time of 72 hours. Had something gone wrong with the first application, perhaps? It must have. So, after a great deal of back and forth debate, a second eTA was applied for. Besides the standard automated ‘Thank you for your payment’ and a subsequent ‘Your application is being processed/considered’ (both already familiar from the first application) we heard nothing.
Such was the beginning of the nightmare my husband and I currently find ourselves playing starring roles in – a nightmare that has involved so many consecutive sleepless nights that I’ve completely lost count; a nightmare that has resulted in complete and utter panic and despair.
Still in a fog of disbelief about the missing eTAs, we had little choice but to start considering a Plan B. If this doesn’t come through, we asked ourselves – if something has gone wrong – how can we get my husband (the girls’ dad) to Canada, as planned, for Christmas? Could he re-route through the States? Perhaps a flight to JFK in New York, an overnight, regroup in the morning and on to Buffalo, then across the border at Niagara, and onwards to Toronto by bus/train? Would that work and still enable him to use the return portion of his ticket to fly back to Britain? Did we know anyone he could stay with in the States? I dare not think about how many hours were spent mulling over the variables and which might or might not work. It was a logistical nightmare with flight timings that simply didn’t jive, to say nothing of the considerable expense of new flights, hotels and bus/train fares.
In the meantime, I began chasing MPs and Ministers in Ottawa in desperate hope of an explanation and quick resolution. Of course trying to make contact with a ‘real’ person in Government is like bashing your head against a brick wall. And yet I felt there was a glimmer of hope when I managed to make get in touch with our MP. And so began the flurry of emails that bounced back and forth so furiously that I still feel like I have whiplash. Saturday comes and goes, no eTA. Sunday: again, nothing. My husband stayed awake all night in hope that something might come through in time for his flight, but nothing arrived. The plane departed. My husband wasn’t on it.
We were now out the complete amount of our non-refundable airline ticket, a value of over $1,000. This isn’t pocket change for our family. It was a very heavy hit, to say the least, and that sum doesn’t even account for other expenses incurred. We had no choice but to regroup. By this point we’d ruled out the possibility of re-routing through the USA. It simply wasn’t feasible. I booked another flight for Wednesday (Air Canada has a 24 hour cancellation policy) hoping that an ability to ’speak to someone in Ottawa’ on Monday would resolve the situation quickly and that the eTA would shortly — surely — be in hand.
As anticipated, Monday got off to a rip-roaring start, with additional support documentation requested and emails and documents going back and forth to MPs and government portals. None of this was straightforward. The automated letter sent requesting additional information included forms that needed to be filled out, but the forms on offer were in fact dead links. When the forms were found online, they were non-functional and eventually determined to be outdated — and I don’t mean just a little out of date, 20 years out of date — from 2002. The forms also had more to do with visa applications (not what we were after at all).
Ultimately, the correct forms were sent via the MP after some chasing, but it seems astounding to me that so-called formal government correspondence is being sent without valid, and indeed up-to-date, links for relevant forms. Equally, instructional videos on how to upload information to the Government portal were completely non-functional and unusable, and to add insult to injury, it proved impossible to upload the large documents specifically requested because of limited upload capacity on the portal itself. Come on folks?!? My husband is an expert in navigating software such as this (this is what he does for a living), but how on earth is a layperson supposed to navigate all this? The bottom line is, the layperson isn’t going to be able to navigate things such as this.
In a word, the whole process — the whole procedure — was and remains utterly shambolic. Inaccurate. Sloppy. Contradictory. Sowing confusion. I could go on and on with descriptive adjectives. Surely – SURELY – the Canadian Government can, or at least aspires to, do better.
So, here’s a Dad who is just desperate to visit his girls and family for Christmas. A Dad who has travelled to Canada on numerous occasions in the past and who has travelled extensively to the US as well. A Dad who was granted the eTA equivalent for the USA (an ESTA) almost immediately when we explored the option of re-routing him through the States. What could have gone so wrong with his eTA application? Our suspicion is that my husband’s name resembles, in some form or fashion, that of someone on a red list for inappropriate activity and that he has therefore been flagged. It’s a classic case of mistaken identity. Suddenly the old adage: ‘names will never hurt me’ doesn’t ring so true, does it?
Here we are in the great (supposed) ‘multi-cultural’ nation that is Canada, touting ‘diversity and inclusion’ at every turn. One look at any advertising campaign these days yields a wonderfully diverse group of individuals: all ages, all races, all gender identities. Yes, we see diversity – even the tiny village I grew up in reveals a slightly more diverse cast these days – but are we accepting of it, or is this acceptance really only skin deep? How can I, white as the snow accumulating on the ground outside as I type, and blessed with the most popular baby name that was on offer in the mid 1970s, possibly understand what it feels like to be discriminated against because my name is different? How can most of us understand this? The answer, I think, is that most of us will never know. I imagine it cuts like a knife, however. I know this experience has cut our family like a knife.
So this week, while I should have been counting down the days on our advent calendar with my husband, children and parents beside me, I find myself instead counting the hours until Air Canada’s pre-Christmas flight prices escalate to a point beyond affordability. We’re there now. We’re completely out of pocket for the cost of our original flight, and since this ordeal kicked off, I have booked and cancelled two subsequent flights as well. Our dream of a Christmas together is now over, all at the hands of the Canadian Government and the IRCC.
We had plans in place; memories were due to be made and cherished for a lifetime, but within the span of 72 hours, those memories were snatched away. Tears are close to the surface as I recall the moment my husband told our two girls what had happened via FaceTime: relaying to them that we tried — oh how we tried — to get their daddy here.
So as you sit opening gifts with your family this Christmas, Prime Minister Trudeau, cast a thought to the gifts that will remain unopened under our family tree — gifts addressed to a Dad who wasn’t able to join his family — who will sit alone in England on Christmas day — simply because Canada was seemingly alarmed by his foreign-sounding name and closed the door all too quickly and firmly without even a means of contact; without even half-functional documents, without any explanation whatsoever. I want you to Imagine what it’s like to explain all this to a child, Justin, a child who shares a portion of the very ‘alarming’ name that has been called into question.
Last week I found myself browsing, with a smile, the website for a Canadian onesie company, a company whose long-john-style garments feature provocative Canadian-inspired slogans splashed across the ‘trap door’ on their backside – humorous slogans like, ‘Bear Essentials’, ‘Don’t Moose with me!’ and ‘O Canada!’ This week I find myself wondering whether, much as our borders, the doors of those onesies are ‘just for show’. Perhaps they too are firmly buttoned shut.
O Canada, eh? Humh …
So, am I waving my flag proudly at the moment? Most certainly not. The situation still feels entirely surreal to me — like it isn’t happening; like it can’t be happening; like it hasn’t happened. Although the girls continue to change the date, counting down the days until Christmas, for me the advent calendar froze all too suddenly on the 12th of December. I’m utterly disgusted, I’m angry, and I’m embarrassed for Canada — embarrassed that this is what our Government and the IRCC stands for. A Government employee was to the first to admit, “The IRCC? It’s messed up”. Indeed, it may be messed up and I sympathize. In this instance, it has also messed up.