As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the second of seven parts.
“What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?” asked the border guard.
“I’m moving here,” I said.
“May I see your immigration papers, please.”
I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the only document UPI had given me, a couple of lines typed on company letterhead.
To whom it may concern:
Please be advised that Kenneth Becker is the new bureau manager for United Press International in Vancouver, Canada.
“Where is your work permit?” asked the customs’ man.
“This is all I got,” I said, flapping the letter in his face.
“You’ll have to pull over there,” he said, pointing to a few parking slots beside a small one-story building. “Go inside to talk to an immigration officer.”
It was January 1973. I’d been on the road for a week, driving from New York to Los Angeles, then up the coast to Washington state-B.C. border.
My transfer from New York to Vancouver had come about with remarkable speed. My colleague Emil Sveilis – we’d been pals at UPI-New York – had become Canadian news editor based in Montreal. We’d kept in touch. He ended each conversation with, “When are you coming up to work in Canada?”
I’d laugh and say, “Who the hell wants to live in Canada?”
But when he had called in late November 1972, asking the question again and saying there was an opening in the Vancouver bureau, I replied, “Where’s Vancouver?”
“Near Seattle,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
Before I left New York, my ex-wife-in-waiting, Anita, bought me a genuine U.S. Air Force Arctic Parka, guaranteed to keep me toasty in temperatures down to 30-below.
I didn’t yet know the weather in Vancouver, year-round, was 58 degrees and drizzling, more like San Francisco than Ice Station Zebra.
At least my Fiat 124 wasn’t packed with snowshoes, ice-fishing gear and big-game-hunting rifles when I pulled up to the Canada Customs’ inspection station in Surrey, B.C., to talk to the immigration officer.
I was pretty steamed, thinking these Canadians had some nerve deciding who could work in their country. I’d visited Canada twice before: once driving to Halifax to see Anita’s aunt and uncle and cousins, another spending a weekend in Montreal. Neither time had anyone questioned my right to enter the country.
But now some snooty Canadian was telling me I couldn’t go to my new job.
“You need a permit to work in Canada,” the immigration officer said.
“Okay,” I said, “give me one.”
“I can’t just write a permit for anybody who drives up to the border,” he said.
“Why not? You let any draft-dodger into the country.”
“Are you evading the draft?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I’m here to work, as you can see.”
He retreated to an inner office.
Evening dragged into night. I suggested he call my boss in Montreal, who’d confirm my employment. He finally agreed and, after scolding my boss on the phone, wrote me out a work permit, good for one year.
I was traveling with a guy I worked with in New York – the road trip was his vacation – and two American hippie chicks we’d picked up hitchhiking in a rainstorm outside Portland.
The women, who said they were joining a commune in the B.C. mountains, waited in the car throughout my interrogation. They had no trouble crossing the border since they’d lied, saying they were tourists planning to spend only a few days in Canada.
By the time we drove into Vancouver, it was after midnight. The two hitchhikers disappeared into the night when we arrived at my hotel, the Ritz, which failed to live up to its name.
I’d been in Vancouver about three weeks when, one day, in the cafeteria of the Pacific Press Building, I stood dumbstruck at the north-facing picture windows.
“Where the hell did they come from?” I shouted to no one in particular.
I was talking about the mountains. I hadn’t seen them before in the rain and gloom of my new hometown – did not know they were there.
And while I would come to believe Vancouver was the ugliest city in the most beautiful setting in the world, those mountains would always beckon.
Tomorrow: Booze and bears
This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.