Dorian Geiger, Al Jazeera, December 20, 2016
Lola Al-Uqdah won’t soon forget the morning of November 9.
A mother of three and psychology professor who lives in Camden, New Jersey, Al-Uqdah was in the midst of her usual pre-work routine when she learned that Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States. It was the morning after the US election and her husband had delivered the message through the bathroom door.
“It felt like someone knocked the wind out of me,” Al-Uqdah recalled. “I felt like doomsday was coming. I just felt like, ‘Wow, what are we going to do?’ And I felt concerned about my safety, the safety of my family.”
Her American Dream was dead. There was only one thing left to do: plan her move to Canada.
Al-Uqdah is one of hundreds, if not thousands of Americans who, during the election, contemplated moving to Canada if Trump won. But unlike the vast majority of liberal anti-Trumpers who flip-flopped on Canada once the billionaire real estate mogul pulled off a stunning victory, Al-Uqdah was serious.
For Al-Uqdah, a Muslim woman, a Trump presidency wasn’t just an inconvenience – it was a terrifying reality.
In the past year, hate crimes against Muslims in the US have skyrocketed to the highest levels since post-9/11. Mosques have been vandalised and letters threatening to “cleanse” America of Muslims were sent to mosques in six states shortly after Trump was elected.
Politicians, too, have been implicated in this rise of hate. Earlier this month, a staffer of former Florida congressman Allen West posted an Islamophobic meme of Trump’s pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, that stated: “Fired by Obama to please Muslims. Hired by Trump to exterminate them.”
“I feel for the safety of Muslim women,” Al-Uqdah explained.
“I’ve never been fearful of being Muslim or dressing any kind of way but it’s real. It has a potential to be a real problem now. I listen to other women who’ve had inappropriate comments made at them – people who have actually confronted them – and that’s a real concern. I know Muslim women that stopped covering [their hair].”
An FBI report showed an increasing trend of hate crimes committed against Muslims. Of the total number of hate crimes committed in the US, those against Muslims rose to 22.2 percent in 2015 from 16.3 percent in 2014. Although anti-Muslim hate crimes had been on the rise before the election, Trump’s rhetoric on radical Islamic terrorism and his promises to enact a database to monitor Muslims are widely suspected to have given validation to the president-elect’s most radical supporters, who have increasingly chosen to act out their prejudice and discrimination.
“[Canadians] seem to be very open to people of other religions and other cultures,” Al-Uqdah explained. “[Racism] doesn’t seem to be prevalent and it doesn’t seem to be condoned by the government. I haven’t heard political figures saying things like that in Canada but they definitely do here in America. It seems to be a more welcoming environment.”
However, there are rising instances of hate crimes against Muslims in Canada as well. These have more than doubled in recent years. In 2012, police recorded 45 religiously motivated hate crimes. In 2014, that number shot up to 99.
Al-Uqdah has visited Canada several times and during each visit, she felt a sense of welcome and inclusivity. She said she’s eying both Quebec and Ontario as potential places to resettle. She, like many liberal Americans, is also drawn by Canada’s universal healthcare system.
“I love Canada – I love Canadians,” Al-Uqdah explained. “My only apprehension is that it’s a bit cold.”
History of Americans moving to Canada
However, this latest push to relocate to Canada is by no means a new phenomenon. Americans leaving for Canada dates back all the way back to the Revolutionary War when 100,000 British loyalists fled the 13 colonies. Then there was the Underground Railroad, which brought thousands of black slaves to Canada in the 1800s.
More recently, during the Vietnam War period between 1966 and 1975, 240,000 Americans went to Canada, according to Statistics Canada. George Bush’s 2004 re-election gave way to the biggest influx of Americans moving to Canada since the 1970s. In 2006, tens of thousands of Americans reportedly moved to Canada, the highest number in 30 years.
Danyell Williams, an African-American woman who has lived in Philadelphia her entire life, is another US citizen who wants to abandon her homeland for Canada.
“Trump’s presidency definitely pushed me over the edge,” said Williams, 44, who teaches inmates at a women’s prison in Philadelphia, and who used to be a prison doula. She assisted incarcerated, expecting mothers in delivering their newborn children.
Williams, who is also a PhD student at Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences and is studying health policy, said she was already looking at moving to Canada to further her career and research, where she believes the correctional system has better conditions for pregnant women, as well as improved prison nursery programs. Williams is hoping to move to Alberta or Ontario. With Trump winning the presidency and the Republicans controlling all the branches of government, she said she has “No intention or desire to remain in this country.”
“I thought, ‘I got to get […] out of here.’ You know I was reading people say, ‘No, we need to stay and fight, and I understand that and I get that argument, but I was thinking, ‘What could I really do?’ It isn’t worth it,” she added.
Williams is not only fearful of Trump, but is also equally frightened by his incoming administration. Instead, she’s now looking north for a political leader who better reflects her values: Canada’s young Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
“I don’t think you’re going to get any more progressive than what he is,” she said of Trudeau, 44, who, in his first year in office, has allowed the resettlement of more than 30,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, become the country’s first prime minister to march in a gay pride parade, and who has installed a gender-equal administration.
“I think his age, his outlook, you know already the changes that he made. His cabinet is so diverse and he just seems to really want to take the country to another level. I think he’s great. Nobody is as good as Obama, but he’s as cool as it gets,” Williams said.
Colleen Buchanan, a 61-year-old retired nurse and hospital manager from Bend, Oregon, also said the Trump presidency has “hastened [her] dual citizenship process”.
Buchanan, who is now seeking out an immigration attorney, is still weighing her options.
“We baby boomers are struggling with the dilemma of staying for one last fight to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community, people of colour, and women, to safeguard the environment, to maintain the Affordable Care Act, and to promote compassionate relationships with our world neighbours – or retreating to a haven of safety that reflects our values to rest, recover, contribute, and watch it all play out.”
How to move to Canada?
In March, Google announced that search interest in the term “move to Canada” reached its highest peak in the search engine’s history. The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s website reported similar traffic in November and made international headlines when it crashed on the evening of the American election owing to “a significant increase in the volume of traffic and technical difficulties”, according to Lindsay Wemp, spokesperson for the immigration site.
Wemp noted that there were “more than 200,000 users accessing the site,” when it crashed, of which American IP addresses accounted for roughly 50 percent. At the same time the previous week there were just 17,000 users, she said.
But will all this curiosity actually translate to Canadian residencies?
Whether Trump’s presidency triggers an immigration wave on a par with Vietnam or post-9/11 eras migrations remains to be seen. David Cohen, a Montreal-based immigration attorney, said he has seen a jump in Americans inquiring about his services since November 8.
“The increase is significant – it’s twelvefold,” said Cohen, who has be practising immigration law for 40 years.
However, Cohen is skeptical that many will follow through on their applications for work permits or visas.
“There’s a big difference between questions and people actually moving to Canada. Americans are extremely loyal, patriotic and at the end of the day, I will be surprised if the numbers [of people immigrating] are significantly higher. This initial worry – freakout, if you will – I’m not sure that this will materialise into actual movement across the border. This isn’t an impulse buy on Amazon – this is a major move.”
Cohen noted that many of his American clients are surprised to learn it’s much more difficult than they expected to pick up and settle in Canada. Each year, he said, anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 Americans pack their bags for Canada.
“Often when Americans call us they’re surprised to learn that, for example, if they have a DUI, that’s going to help prevent them from setting up in Canada or may prevent them. That they actually do require a specific work permit to come to Canada. Do all Americans think that? No. But a good portion of Americans believe that it is easier to come to Canada than it actually is.”
Getting a work permit, Cohen explained, is likely to be the quickest option for Americans hoping to move to Canada quickly. A range of 66 occupations under the North American Free Trade Agreement could allow a US citizen to move and begin working in Canada within a matter of weeks if they have an official job offer.
But, the work permit is a temporary solution, Cohen said. “In order to apply for permanent residence in Canada, it’s not as simple and straightforward as just having that job because Americans then are competing with people from all over the world.”
Without a job, Americans could also apply for permanent residency through Canada’s express-entry, points-based qualification system, which has a median processing time of about six months. Having a college or university degree, and speaking English boost the odds of acceptance.
Americans wishing to move to Canada could also enrol for university or college, or marry a Canadian. There’s even a mobile app to get the ball rolling on the latter. Maple Match, an iPhone app launched just days before the election, is designed to romantically set up Trump-despising Americans with Canadians.
“I have Muslim friends, I have Latino friends, I have Mexican friends; I’m gay, so I have trans friends, and for me thinking about a Donald Trump presidency creates a lot of problems for a lot of groups in the United States,” said Joe Goldman, a Texas native and Maple Match’s founder.
“A lot of the anxieties that Americans are feeling about the next four years just really don’t exist in Canada.”
Goldman, a long-time and self-described lover of Canada, said that since Trump has been elected, he has seen an explosive surge in users, which total around 30,000. Maple Match soon plans to expand their platform to Android users.
A cold Canadian welcome
Canadians, for the most part, are welcoming of an American influx. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for example, a sleepy, scenic island in eastern Canada, has built an entire tourism marketing approach around attracting Yanks seeking refuge from a Trump presidency.
But like the US, Canada appears to have its own share of borderline xenophobic conservatives, who are annoyed with the idea.
“I personally find it obnoxious because it plays into this trope that I think a lot of liberal Americans have, which is this idea that Canada is this perfectly progressive utopia,” said J J McCullough, a Toronto-based cartoonist and political commentator.
“[It’s] very disrespectful of a great gift that they’ve been given in life, which is to be born in the United States, to have all the opportunities that that entails and to give all of that up for, you know, because you’re a bit of a sore loser in an election that didn’t go your way? I just have a very, very hard time sympathising with that,” added McCullough.
Matt Cruz, a 34-year-old Ontario retail worker, also agreed.
“It bothers me,” Cruz explained. “Americans as a whole are self-centred and ignorant when it comes to the world around them. They want to come to Canada to flee from what they feel is a bad situation, yet they don’t want others coming into their country because of the same thing. And they think that we’re just their ‘younger brother’ up north and that just because we’re nice, we’ll accept them.”
This type of attitude was prevalent on social media during and after the election and troves of Canucks voiced – often laden with sarcasm – that it should be their government building a wall.
“We don’t want y’all Americans here in Canada, a few years down the road you’ll probably be voting for Justin Bieber as our prime minister,” tweeted Jarin Fullerton, a 19-year-old mechanic from the coastal Maritimes town of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.
“They screwed themselves over, and now they’re talking about coming here?” He added. “You’ve got enough people to crash the Canadian immigration website, but not enough to vote in a good president? Why should we let Americans into our country because of the mistakes they made as a nation? They made the final decision, so now they should stick to it.”
Anywhere but the US
Al-Uqdah, though, the Muslim woman from New Jersey, isn’t deterred by any anti-American sentiments and is unyielding in pursuing her Canadian dream.
“I do think Canadians would be welcoming of me because I’m not coming with a handout. I’m coming as a credentialed, qualified individual who will contribute to their society. I’m not going to cause any detriment. I’m coming and I’m going to help them improve. So why wouldn’t they welcome me with open arms?”
Although she has not yet consulted an immigration lawyer or made concrete plans to facilitate the move, Al-Uqdah’s husband, an insurance salesman, has been applying for jobs.
Al-Uqdah is not able to uproot immediately, however. She’s in the final stages of wrapping up her PhD in health policy but plans to make the move in early 2018. Although one of her children is in college and another will soon graduate, her youngest teenage daughter would also have to emigrate with them. She also has a mortgage, but plans to rent her house out in her absence.
If Canada doesn’t work out, Al-Uqdah is still determined to cross oceans and continents to escape Trump’s America. Her second option for a new home, after Canada, is Dubai, where she once lived for five weeks.
“The question isn’t whether we’re moving – it’s where we’re moving,” Al-Uqdah added.
“Canada is our number-one choice and the difference between me and someone who’s talking [about moving out of the US] is my belief that my children’s lives are in danger.”