My New Book


The Canada Incident

So, I was supposed to be at the Point Pelee Festival of Birds this weekend, something I was really looking forward to doing–both as a presenter and field trip leader and as a birder to the area.  The warbler watching is legendary.

But Canada refused me entry to their country. I’ve been to a lot of places.  I’m not as well traveled as some of my professional bird guide friends, but Kazakhstan, Israel, Guatemala–no problem. The country immediately north of the state I live in?  Easy, laid back Canada? They’re the ones who have a problem with me? What the heck?

So here’s the story. I’m not putting this in to make excuses for missing a festival, but I’ve had more than one person ask about my criminal record or if I had something naughty in my vehicle.  No, it was simply a clerical error.

Swarovski Optik is a sponsor of my blog and periodically, they will send me out to bird festivals to help demonstrate product–especially for digiscoping. They are also very generous when a bird festival has a small budget and would like to bring me in as a speaker and will sometimes help cover some of my costs. For Point Pelee, Swarovski paid my travel and lodging, while the festival paid my speaking fee. And let’s be clear, I charge a livable wage, not David Allen Sibley rates.

When this was coming together, I asked if there was anything I needed to know about coming into Canada.  I asked several people, including my travel agent. Everyone felt there would be no problems with this.

My plan was to be at the Biggest Week in North American Birding and then drive up through Detroit into Canada and spend a weekend in Point Pelee National Park. The two areas are fairly close, so I spent Friday morning at the Biggest Week helping people get looks (and photos with their phones) of a hidden eastern whip-poor-will.

I took this with my iPhone through the scope, see it? If you don’t see it right away, don’t feel bad.  Taking this with my phone actually helped because I could show people this and point to exactly where they needed to look to see the whip-poor-will.  Most would exclaim, “Oh, wait, I thought that was the log.”

Kudos to whoever found this bird in the first place, it was really hidden.  I just managed to get my scope on it so everyone could have a chance to view this little nightjar.  I had to chuckle while watching it. The last time I had a whip-poor-will encounter it was on skinny dipping trip that resulted in one of the worst reactions to poison ivy I’ve ever had in my life.  Remember that night, NBB?

As you can imagine, lots of people wanted to see a whip-poor-will and since it was so hard to find, it was times easier to line up behind my scope.

Bird guide, Erick Bruhnke got a photo of my solution to my claustrophobia on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when birders would crowd together: perching up on the railing.  I wanted everyone to have a chance at the whip but I also kept my eye on the time because I needed to head north to Canada.  Eventually, I got a friend to set his scope up in my place and I headed out to Canada with the knowledge that if traffic wasn’t bad, I could do some lovely evening birding before leading a trip the next morning at 7am.

I got to the border and as I pulled my car up, the first customs agent had some questions:

Customs: Is this your first visit to Canada?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Why are you here?

Me: Bird watching.

Customs: Where?

Me: Point Pelee

Customs: Why there?

Me: There’s a bird festival.

Customs: What will you be doing at the festival?

Me: Leading field trips and giving a photography workshop.

Customs: Is that what you do for a living?

Me: More or less.

Customs: Are you getting paid?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Who is paying you?

Me: The festival.

Customs: Since this is your first trip to Canada, please pull into the parking area and step inside.

Inside I had another customs agent question me more thoroughly and then she said, “You need a work visa, you have to go back to the US.”

Perplexed, I asked what she was talking about and said, “Since you are getting paid to come here, you could be taking work away from a Canadain. The festival needs to get a work permit for you and prove that no one else in Canada can do what you do. What? You’re a photographer? There could be a Canadian who could do that.”

A combination of panic at missing a field trip and a little indignation I said, “I teach a very specific technique of taking photos of birds with an iPhone and a spotting scope.”

In a very no nonsense tone she said, “Anybody could take a picture of a bird with an iPhone.”

“Not the way I do it,” I said, and my brain kicked in and said, “Back off, Shaz, don’t cause a scene.”

I asked if I could just pay the visa fee now…even though it was half my speaking fee and she said no, that it has to be applied for ahead of time.  I asked, “So, what if I don’t get paid, what I refuse the fee?”

She said, “You’ve already stated that you’re going to get paid, it’s too late.”

“What can I do so I can fulfill my duties at this festival tomorrow?”

She handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of uses numbers that the festival organizers could call to try and speed through a visa for me but since it was Friday night…no one was answering those phone lines.

Sarah Rupert tried very hard all weekend to get hold of someone but it just didn’t happen. Poor thing had her own duties with the festival and had to take over my field trips and cancel my workshops.

I think if I had a reasonable customs agent, things could have gone a different way, but I had the no nonsense, no sense of humor agent and my Jedi mind tricks would not work on her.

As I related my tale via text and Facebook to friends as the situation was going down, people suggested alternate borders and trying to get in on Saturday.  Since I was questioned so thoroughly and they had a computer record, I really didn’t want to risk any further trouble.

I ended up going back to Biggest Week but didn’t enjoy it nearly as much because I felt like I was shirking my duties at Point Pelee.  This is the first time I’ve had this kind of utter failure with a festival.  I feel especially bad because I met so many people at Biggest Week who were coming to the digiscoping workshop in Point Pelee.  One woman said she had signed up for one at a different festival and when she arrived the organizers told her that the instructor just didn’t show up.  I tried to explain that there may have been mitigating circumstances for the instructor like illness or family emergency.  She seemed dubious and said she looked forward to mine…wonder what she thought when I didn’t show up on Sunday?

Again, I apologize for any inconvenience for people who showed up to the festival.  We’re going to try and make it happen again in the future.


12 comments to The Canada Incident

  • Never, EVER try to go through Windsor into Canada. Not sure why it’s such a difficult border crossing — but I’ve heard so many horror stories from there.

    We used to cross through NY State at the Peace Bridge.

    Sorry you missed Pelee’s festival this year. I hope you waved to them from the other side of Lake Erie.

  • I was curious about this, and found this page on working temporarily in Canada:
    It seems to me that there are a couple of areas here in which the official could have placed you to allow entry. The big mystery is why be so obstructionist?

  • Tammy Brown

    I ran into the same problem a number of years ago going from Canada to the US for a workshop. I made the mistake of saying that I was going there “for work”. I made it through after being questioned for an hour after they determined that I was not getting paid by anyone in the US , just doing it as part of my job in Canada. Sorry about you missing the festival. I work here at Pelee and was looking forward to meeting you. Hopefully next year!

  • klia

    I’m sorry you had to miss the festival! I have to say, though, the people arranging your travel should’ve known better, especially your travel agent — it’s their job, after all. Anytime you enter another country, the rules can be very complicated about what you are and aren’t allowed to do, as far as what amounts to doing your job there. Most countries require a temporary resident or work visa. Even if those trips to Kazakhstan, Israel, and Guatemala were partially or fully subsidized by Swarovski, I think you were just a tour member, and not acting as a professional guide? If so, that was why you didn’t run into the same issue when entering those countries.

    I know you feel crappy about it all now, but at least you’ll know to check ahead before your next trip abroad.

  • I had to chuckle. My daughter, at the invitation of a Canadian university, had the same experience but after an hour or two could prove by making them look her up on the web, that, since she was teaching what she had discovered, she could not possibly be taking a job away from a Canadian.
    After this welcoming experience, she has taken Canada off her list and only teaches, lectures and exhibits in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. She happens to like being welcome.

    I am sorry you had to go through the inquisition, it does tend to spoil one’s travel experience.

  • Good Luck Shaz. Many art-quilt teachers don’t come to Cali. any longer for this exact problem. It goes both ways.

  • Any chances that you will be doing an iPhone Digiscoping workshop here in the Cities this summer? I have tried with mine and it nearly brings be to tears.

  • Some ancient, but similar, history…

    Back in the old days of the American Birding Association, ABA, there was a small ABA convention at Point Pelee. I think it was 1975 and that it was ABA’s second convention ever. Jim Tucker, ABA Executive Director at the time, had driven across the border into Canada at Windsor, with his car’s trunk full of ABA books and supplies. No problem.

    After setting up most of the motel meeting room a day in advance near Pelee, Jim drove back to Detroit to pick up Benton Basham at the airport. Jim had NOT emptied his car of supplies, and THIS time, returning to Canada with Benton in his car, Jim was prevented from crossing the border with these goods to sell. I forgot how it was finally resolved. I think Jim had to leave the contents of the car at some ABA member’s home in the Detroit area.

  • anonymous

    I’ve had issues three separate times at various Canadian border crossings (Toronto airport; Detroit; and somewhere between Washington and B.C.). The third time going across, I was with my dissertation advisor and told him (a person with a very extensive international travel background) that I get stopped at the border. He just gave me a strange look. Then we were asked to go inside . . .

    Given my current location, I do get across the border more often. Given the questions that were asked, your response to “What will you be doing at the festival?” should have been a little different, emphasizing going on field trips (not leading them), and attending festival workshops. The minute they think you’re working, or attending school, the questions about visas come up. The first time I was questioned I was attending a one week workshop at a university. The issue of a student visa came up. The last time involved attending a professional conference. The question of a work visa came up (the only funds exchaning hands involved my costs to attend). The stop at Detroit, well, one of the people I was traveling with was from the Netherlands. No visa questions. Just a search of my car.

    The border game can be silly some time. You don’t want the hassle. Hopefully you will be able to make it across next time.

  • Rob Parsons

    Sharon, as a Canadian, I am embarrassed! Yes, some of the border guards are positively Nazis. It varies, depending on which official you get–sometimes you get lucky. I am happy to hear you are thinking of trying to make it happen on a future occasion. Some would say “duck hit” (or something that sounds kinda like that) and simply not try again.

    My best wishes,
    Rob in Winnipeg, MB

  • Oh, man. What a hassle. I’m going to Canada this summer for a wedding and realized I could do some research for a future Birder Murder. After reading your story, though, I will be sure to NOT mention in any way that any part of my trip is work-related. Those mean Canadians…

  • Robert Alexander

    I was also signed up for both of your sessions and was dissapointed. But now that I know why, it is such a shame you didn’t have a better Canadian agent. We are not all bad up here and please try again, but at least tell them you are coming for free.