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Finding hope, freedom, and power in Canada’s humble passport

 

Written by Miroslav Tomoski

Illustration by Alexander Grahovsky

Weaving through the bustling souvenir shops, perfume vendors, and traditional ice cream stands, travellers are met with the multilingual hum of passengers steering their way through Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. The eager smiles of a remarkably well-versed staff are obliging, since I’m about to be asked to choose between two lines: one of which offers free and unfettered access to the beautiful sights, sounds, and flavours of the city, while the other is a winding labyrinth of formal interrogation, also known as the visa application process.

Standing at this crossroad for the first time since I had given my oath of citizenship, I was forced to hide my Canadian passport away. Being fortunate enough to hold a dual citizenship, I would declare myself a Macedonian because—after seven flights through five countries—I had finally arrived in one of the few places in the world where Canadians have to apply to enter.

Though many of us may give scarce thought to that little blue book, the Canadian passport is the world’s sixth most powerful, according to Henley & Partners, an international citizenship and residency advisory firm.

Henley & Partners release an annual Visa Restrictions Index, which is a global ranking of countries according to the travel freedom that their citizens enjoy. The index examines 219 destination countries in total and ranks them by the number of visa waiver countries, for which Canada has consistently broken the top ten since the study was first published in 2003.

In fact, that could be the reason why we think so little of that gateway to the world we hold in our pockets. With visa-free access to 171 countries, Canadians are only a stamp and a nod away from exploring nearly every corner of the world.

It's a power that few on the index are able to enjoy as freely as Canadians do. Among those in the bottom ten, the highest number of countries that accept their citizens with visa-free access is 37. For citizens of Afghanistan, who experience the most restrictions, that number is just 25.

While the biggest obstacle to travel for Canadians may be finding affordable air fare and the most picturesque destinations, others experience a side of travel we rarely see. Even among those who restrict access to Canadians, like Turkey, the visa application process could be as simple as paying a fee.

But for others around the world, the process of applying for a visa—including travel as a tourist—can be a month-long process of paperwork, application fees, and embassy interviews that could still result in rejection.

When a country’s visa restrictions are lifted, other formalities brought on by disagreements between governments and poor international relations can cause nightmares when crossing borders.

“Visa requirements, or the lack thereof, are an indication of the relationship between individual nations and the status of a country within the international community of nations,” says Andrew Taylor, Vice Chairman of Henley & Partners.

Among these restrictions are the routine stops at the border between Macedonia and Greece, where a dispute over the use of the name Macedonia leaves citizens of that country having to cross-over with a separate form that is recognized as an official travel document.

It was this contrast between the two borders which left me thinking of the careless way in which I zipped from one country to another. That open access to a majority of destinations around the world is owed, in large part, to the reputation Canada has established with the international community. But it also has a lot to do with Canada's wealth and standard of living.

In its most recent rankings, Germany holds the number one spot with a total of 176 visa-free destinations. According to Taylor, it's that country’s economic success and stability that has placed it at the top.

“Germany is a stable and safe country, both politically and economically, with an excellent quality of life,” he says. “The country has good relationships with most other countries around the world. As a result, German citizens have no need to immigrate to a foreign country illegally.”

Germany's freedom to move is also accompanied by it's freedom to work and live throughou Europe. Thanks to a 26-member open borders agreement known as the Schengen Area, Germans have unrestricted access to 22 of the 28 European Union (EU) countries, as well as four others, including Switzerland and Norway. But while Canada lags behind the Germans in free access to the world, that gap is significantly smaller when we turn our eyes to our own neighborhood.

Power to Work

Perhaps the most familiar international relationship for Canadians is the one we have with our only immediate neighbor, the United States. With an estimated 90 percent of Canadians living within 160km of the US border, according to CBC, it hardly comes as a surprise that the relationship between the US and Canada is one of the closest in the world.

“Canada has the number one trade relationship with the US, over any country in the world, even surpassing China,” says Lorraine D’Alessio, of the Los Angeles- and Toronto-based immigration law firm, D’Alessio Law Group.

In fact, Canada’s freedom to travel and work in the US even gives the Europe’s Schengen Area a run for its money. According to D’Alessio, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) gives Canadians of certain professions an exemption from quota required for work visas known as H1B. “There is a bit of a preference to how Canadians are treated. They trigger their status by the things that they say to the [customs] officer.” D'Alessio pointed out that while Mexico is also a signatory to the agreement, they do not receive the same privilege.

For reporters, this process was explained to me as the sandwich rule, “You can gather all the ingredients and make your sandwich here," the customs officer said, "as long as you wait until you’re back in Canada to eat it.”

While the current limit for foreign work visas in the US is an annual 65,000, Canadians are exempt from both the quota and the application process. For skilled workers, particularly graduates of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs (STEM), the US border can be just as porous as those within the Schengen. “They can apply right at the border,” says D’Alessio, pointing out that this is a level of freedom which very few are afforded. “That’s huge for Canadians and it opens up a whole new market.”

“Canadians are the only foreign citizens that do not have to visit an embassy prior to their entry into the U.S.,” adds D’Alessio’s colleague, Liz Profumo. “I have many clients from both South America and Europe who all have to go through embassy screenings.”

Meanwhile for Americans, who currently find themselves in third place on the H&P index with 174 restriction-free destinations, their ability to move freely around the world may become far more limited in years to come.

In March of 2017, the European Parliament voted to end visa-free travel for Americans to the EU in response to President Donald Trump’s failure to meet the deadline to lift visa restrictions on five EU countries. The decision would drop 28 countries from America’s list of visa-free destinations and would “see America fall out of the top ten on the Visa Restrictions Index for the first time since it was published,” according to Taylor.

“There has definitely been backlash to the current administration and the positions they’ve taken toward certain countries,” adds D’Alessio, who worries that the new policies taken by the Trump administration could also affect Canada. If the United States intends to launch a renegotiation of NAFTA, as president Trump has indicated, Canadian travellers and workers could be left hanging.

“We’re seeing a lot more scrutiny across the board than ever before,” Profumo says, but she still believes that Canada is far better off than most. “We are seeing some embassies that are more difficult than others,” she says, noting that even nationalities that might be thought of as getting a free pass—such as the UK—are experiencing delays. “Some of them are minor,” she says. “And some of them take months to be processed. That’s true for immigrants, workers, or even tourists.”

A More Open World

But while others continue to close their doors, Canadians have remained the champions of an open world. Among these champions is Leen Al Zaibak of Lifeline Syria, which helps refugees resettle in Canada.

The organization has been presented with the 2017 Canadian of the Year Award for its work with newcomers who have been forced from their homes. This, Al Zaibak says, is the major difference between the ways in which Canadians think of travel, and those who have come here to consider their journeys.

“Migrants and immigrants share the same experience in that they both have a choice,” Al Zaibak explains. “They both have a choice to leave their country in pursuit of a better economic opportunity. Whereas refugees have no choice. They’re fleeing persecution, torture, and death. They’re not leaving for better economic opportunities, but leaving in order to simply survive.”

As immigrants to Canada, Al Zaibak’s family is aware of the struggles that come with moving to a new country. But she admits that, as a Canadian, she had never considered that her travel might be restricted until she studied abroad in England and realized that others suffered a lengthy process to get to where they are. “Traveling opens our eyes to these realities and makes us more aware,” she says.

Lifeline Syria provides simple, yet crucial, advice to newcomers connecting them to the resources that they may not be familiar with. It’s a courtesy that any Canadian traveller who has been lost in a new place can identify with.

“Even such a small task as showing someone around on the subway can help so much more than we realize,” says Al Zaibak. In addition to simple daily tasks, Lifeline Syria also connects newcomer families with their sponsors who can assist with everything from resume skills, employment, language, and enrolling children in schools. In many ways, the sponsors play the role of family or friends to help them establish a comfortable life.

Such a warm welcome leaves newcomers with a sense of community and a desire to count themselves as Canadians, which is something that Al Zaibak believes we can all learn from.

“I think we can learn a lot from the newcomers who have had to overcome such huge obstacles just to come to Canada,” Al Zaibak says.

From the experiences of those who have come to begin a new life, Canadian travellers can also learn to explore the world in a more conscious way. It can change the way we see those who welcome us to their countries, and the ways in which we treat our own.

“When you’re travelling the world in countries that have large refugee populations or very high rates of poverty, you see that the average person is really struggling to survive but is less likely to take things for granted because of the situation they’re in,” Al Zaibak says. “We also see these problems in our very own backyard, which hopefully raises our sense of responsibility to not only take care of our fellow citizens but also those newcomers who are struggling.”

Much more than an opportunity to relax and return with some choice souvenirs, the ability to explore the world is a privilege which Canadians enjoy far more freely than most. It's a freedom that when recognized for its true value can be an opportunity to broaden our perspective, both internationally and at home. It can be a chance to grow and a reason to approach the world with an open mind. Or as Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” In other words, it’s a gateway to another state of mind.