Tag Archives: travel

Closed Border, closed economy, closing opportunities

The other day Tim O’Reilly tweeted about this New York Times article. Entitled – Chicago’s Loss: Is Passport Control to Blame? – the piece struck a chord with me since my last two efforts to cross into the United States from Canada have been dramatically unpleasant experiences. Turns out that others – including IOC selection committee members – feel the same way:

Among the toughest questions posed to the Chicago bid team this week in Copenhagen was one that raised the issue of what kind of welcome foreigners would get from airport officials when they arrived in this country to attend the Games. Syed Shahid Ali, an I.O.C. member from Pakistan, in the question-and-answer session following Chicago’s official presentation, pointed out that entering the United States can be “a rather harrowing experience.”

Border-SecurityHarrowing indeed! I crossed the border two weeks ago on my way to French Lick, Indiana, to attend a bio-informatics conference. I wasn’t paid to attend, and had been invited by the founders of OpenMRS to whom I occasionally volunteer some advice and just think are all around great guys who I’d do pretty much anything for. Is a conference work or pleasure? Not really either, but to be safe, I said work. Big mistake. The border security officer said he didn’t care if I was not getting paid, work is work (don’t even bother trying to explain to him what an open source community is) and he was inclined to red flag my passport and take away my TN (work) visa. It was a terrifying experience (and frankly, on the scale of what people can be accused or suspected of at the border economic issues are important but relatively less concerning than political or criminal ones – although don’t underestimate the fear generated by seeing part of ones livelihood flash before ones eyes).

All this is made worse by the fact that there is, effectively, no appeals process. Yes, maybe you can talk to somebody higher up, but the will likely take hours (long after your flight is to depart in 90 minutes) or even days (once the conference or event you intended to attend or speak at has long since ended). You are at the mercy of the person you’re in front of.

All this may sound unfortunate but it has significant implications, political and economic implications. International travel to the United States is down 10% in the first quarter of 2009 – a big part of this is likely related to the economy, but I suspect that fewer and fewer people are choosing the United States as a destination. But vacationers are minor in comparison to the impact on innovation and economic development. Today, it is harder and harder for the best minds in the world to work for American companies and to do graduate work at American universities. This means America’s elite will interact less and less with leading thinkers from elsewhere and its companies will have to rely on American talent, and not international talent, to succeed. 

Already the cracks are showing. Google has employees who are forced to work in Canada since they can’t work in the United States. And Microsoft recently opened a software development facility in Vancouver because US immigration laws made it too difficult to bring in top talent. Indeed, I’m increasingly persuaded that the new convention centre in Vancouver was a smart investment. If you are hosting a conference with Americans and internationals in attendance there is no way you are going to host it in the United States.

Do Americans understand what is going on? Probably not. While some of the above articles have appeared in the news section of the newspaper the Olympic story appeared in the Travel section – hardly the place to raise a red flag for politicians. At least the President seems to now understand that it is an issue:

President Obama, who was there as part of the 10-person team, assured Mr. Ali that all visitors would be made to feel welcome. “One of the legacies I want to see is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world,” he said.”

I hope he’s successful since the consequences of the status quo will be ugly for the United States. A closed border is like a closed mind – over time you become less receptive to new ideas or information and begin to atrophy.

Two More Examples of Why Your Canadian Citizenship Means Nothing

A reader from the other week’s post on Why Your Canadian Citizenship Means Nothing linked to this story in the Toronto Star.

Apparently another Canadian, Suaad Mohamud Haj, who is of Somali descent has been trapped in a foreign land. However, this time around it was Canadian officials who stripped her of her passport effectively stranding her in Kenya and leaving her at risk of being deported to Somalia (not, as you can imagine, the safest country in the world).

Is she a Canadian citizen? I don’t know. However, she does have numerous other documents attesting to her citizenship as well as an ex-husband, a 12-year old son in Toronto, and former Federal Minister willing to state that she is indeed Canadian.  Still more striking, she has offered to be fingerprinted so that her prints can be matched against those she provided to the government back in 1999 when she first immigrated to Canada.

None of these facts however have prompted the Canadian government to act either swiftly or compassionately. After preventing Suaad from retuning home on May 17th, Ottawa released a statement in the last week of June stating: “Following an extensive investigation, officials at the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi have determined that the individual arrested by Kenyan authorities is not Ms. Suaad Mohamud Hagi.”

No evidence is cited, no reason is given. Apparently, if you end up in front of a Canadian official abroad and they don’t believe you are Canadian, not only should you expect to wait months before hearing why your passport was stripped from you but when you finally do get an explanation, don’t expect to hear any reasoning. To be fair, why should they have to explain themselves to you… you aren’t Canadian.

So in summary, after marooning someone who very much appears to be Canadian in a foreign country (on May 17th) our government took weeks to find confirm they hadn’t made a mistake (last week of June), then took another two weeks to accept a two month old offer the accused themselves made to submit their fingerprints to prove their identity. This is the treatment Canadians can expect from their own government. Again, if this is how our government will treat some citizens, this is how they could treat any citizen. That includes you.

Sadly, this is treatment you can expect if you are still alive. I don’t even want to begin to talk about what happens if you happen to be tortured and killed for political reasons in a foreign jail. Even if our government says it wants those responsible actively brought to justice it will do pretty much everything it can to ignore the issue, even when it has access to witnesses. Indeed, it will become more concerned about the negative press its inaction might generate then about ensuring justice and safety for Canadians abroad.

The more I read about these cases the angrier I become. One of the most basic roles of government is to protect its citizens and here we have two recent cases (I’m not even counting Arar) where our government has actually put its own citizens in grave danger, in one case tacitly encouraging their torture. And what message does this send? Why should other governments care about how they treat Canadians when our own government doesn’t seem to care. These are dark times.

It isn’t easy to say and I despise typing the words, but it is hard to draw any other conclusion: if you travel abroad your Canadian Citizenship means nothing.

Your Canadian citizenship means nothing

There have, in the past few years, been some very disturbing trends around the state of Canadians rights.

The first assault was very direct. The current conservative government has made it law that children to Canadians who were themselves were born outside the country will not be Canadian. So, if you happen to be on vacation, or visiting family, studying or working abroad when you (or your partner) give birth to a child, you’d better hope they are not also caught in the same situation when that happy moment arrives. If so, your grandchild will not be Canadian. Canadians, being an international lot due to immigration and our propensity to travel, study and work abroad, are apparently only really considered Canadians if they are born in the right place.

This assault of the notion of Canadian citizenship – that you may not be able to pass it on to your children if you happen to be out of the country – is however, relatively minor. If you happen to be a Canadian that the government of the day does not like – don’t expect to be rescued from torture and false imprisonment. Indeed, don’t even expect to be allowed to return home.

The treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik is a national scandal. In short a Canadian citizen was abandoned by his own government – the institution that is supposed to protect his rights and ensure that he receive due process if accused of a crime. It is appalling that a Federal judge had to order the Canadian government to repatriate a Canadian citizen. All this tells me is that if I do something Foreign Minister Cannon does not like and my passport is removed from my person, he can essentially prevent me from returning home. Even if the RCMP and CSIS clears me of any charges.

And the complicity of the Canadian government in ensuring that Abderlrazik remained imprisoned is still more shocking:

In a wide-ranging and sometimes chilling account of six years of imprisonment and forced exile abroad, Mr. Abdelrazik recounted stories of interrogation and alleged torture. He told of Canadian Security and Intelligence Service agents laughingly saying “Sudan will be your Guantanamo” when he begged to be allowed to return home.

Apparently, being a Canadian citizen abroad means that you are on your own. If you have the wrong colour skin, the wrong beliefs, if you do something that the Canadian government decides it doesn’t approve of, or if you are simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… you are on your own. Again, this is a shocking state of affairs. Citizenship is supposed to come with certain rights. Our physical security and right to due process are core among them. When these disappear for some citizens they disappear for ALL citizens. Every Canadian is vulnerable.

If you are not outraged, you should be. Your government has decided that certain Canadian citizens are expendable. They can be forgotten, ignored and even tortured by a foreign government with our explicit knowledge. Maybe you think it will never happen to you – maybe it won’t. But if we are willing to treat some Canadians this way, what does it say about our definition of Canadian citizenship and, more importantly, what it means to be a citizen of this country?

As I said once before, never before have Canadians cared so little about foreign policy, but perhaps it is because foreign policy has never cared so little for them. To be a Canadian abroad is to be without support, without rights, and, in some cases, without even the acknowledgement that you are Canadian.

Software for frequent flyers

For those who fly too much (and I fly WAY too much) you may find this little utility handy.

Flying Fish is a free program that calculates the air miles one will accrue on any flight. For such a small piece of software (500K!) it is jam packed with features, however, its basic functionality remains wonderfully simple: just type in the airport codes (e.g YVR=Vancouver) for a trip involving anywhere from two to 10 cities you are traveling between and it will tell you the number of status miles you will earn. You can even search for Airport codes if you don’t know them.

For example, anyone looking at my sidebar travel can see that in September my itinerary looks like this:

YVR-ORD-DCA-ORD-YVR-BOS-YYZ-YAV-YYZ-DCA-YYZ-PHL-PHX-YVR

Which, assuming I fly on Air Canada, United or US Airways will, according to Flying Fish, accrue me 13334 status miles (20001 airmiles once bonuses are factored in). Flying fish is great for learning if or when you’ll make status or to ensure that an airline is crediting you the miles you earn.

Is this a must have program? No. But it’s free and fun to play with and hey, I just felt its author, Ryan M. Yadsko, deserved the shout out.

As an aside, given how many times I’ve written about the evils of Air Canada some of you might be surprised to see how many miles a log with them. Well it is pretty much the only gig in town. But maybe that’s just an weak excuse. Richard D. believes I suffer from stockholm syndrom. I think he might be right. Yesterday, I got some more of those virtually worthless blue upgrade certificates and I still booked a flight on aircanada.ca…

Johannesburg: the good, the bad and the ugly

So I’m presently in Johannesburg – here for some negotiation work. It’s been a fascinating trip so far.

First the good: The weather is amazing (about 22 Celsius with a strong sun and no clouds – perfect for being outside, although I may have gotten burn today). Everyone is very friendly. The food in unreal. Last night I had Alligator and Ostrich carpacio – unbelievable. Alligator is like a cross between turkey and bacon, it’s delicious. I’m looking forward to a trip down to Cape Town at the end of the week to visit Mark S.

The bad: It’s been interesting following the news down here. Probably the saddest thing I’ve heard is the Health Minister’s repeated statements that people with HIV need only eat a balanced diet to be ok. I know the story has been covered endlessly but it remains shocking – even criminal – that this type of denial continues. Indeed, I’ve noticed that there is very little signage about HIV/AIDS. That which I have noticed has generally been put into place by private enterprises.

The ugly: Last couple of days have seen a spat of xenophobic riots in the Johannesburg suburb of Alexandra as clashes between black South Africans and refugees/migrants from other African countries – principally Zimbabwe – have escalated. Zimbabweans – and other Africans – are broadly blamed for stealing jobs and, more problematically, contributing to the country’s spiraling crime rate. Each evening it is surreal to feel safely ensconced in my hotel room and know that 20 4 km away roving bands of young men armed with machetes and bricks are looting stores and beating people up. No surprise that the city goes on as if nothing is amiss. Certainly the endless traffic jams that define Johannesburg’s roads don’t show any sign of nervousness.

South Africa is so many things at the same time. Its challenges are fascinating, but numerous and daunting – and yet I get the sense from the brief time I’ve been here – they are not overwhelming. This is very good news, not just for the country, but for the continent.

It's over

So over at Oxblog Taylor’s posted the video of news coveraga I wish I’d seen last night CNN.

Stick a fork in it, it is over. Barack Obama is the candidate. The only question is how long before Hilary is aware of it and how much of her personal fortune will she need to burn before figuring it out.

These are dangerous waters for the democrats… everyone is tired, weary, on edge, and of course emotions are frayed. The real question is… will Hilary demand the VP slot?

I’d guess more, but I’ve got to run for a flight to Ottawa. Next two weeks will be intense, I promise to blog about my travels to Johannesburg.

Air Canada and the failure of rewards

Yesterday I received my threshold bonus from Air Canada for flying too much.

What was it?  Two upgrade certificates to fly Business Class… if you pay for a Latitude Class ticket.

While I’ve always disliked this ‘perk’ Gayle D. recently explained to me in greater detail why this reward program is a total failure for customers.

To begin with, of her 15 or so friends (who are stuck with flying Air Canada regularly) she knows of only one that can fly Latitude class. (I don’t know anyone.)

As a result this threshold bonus is completely ineffective, both as a reward and as an incentive. It fails as a reward because I’ll never enjoy the ‘perk’ of flying business class since no organization I know of pays for Latitude class tickets. Conversely, it fails as an incentive for the same reasons. Because clients won’t pay for Latitude class, I can’t be incented to buy a Latitude class fare.

As a result, I’m willing to wager that at least 85% of Air Canada’s Latitude upgrade certificates go unused. This means that Air Canada chops down trees, send lots of mail and spends on advertising, all to flaunt a perk its customers will rarely, if ever, get to use. Frustrating? You’d better believe it.

God I hope Westjet creates a rewards program. Or that we finally adopt an open skies agreement.

For those wishing to commiserate over some more Air Canada mistreatment stories try Andrew Potter’s recanting of his experience. Of course, Beltzner’s Air Canada inspired Haikus still make me laugh. And not to be outdone, I’ve vented on the subject previously myself.