This week I mentioned that I had a very inconvenient run in when entering Canada on business. My trade during the day is datacenter engineering for a major tech firm. I work as part of a team rolling out new kit across our network of datacenters (or DCs) across the globe. Its the main reason why updates have been tardy even with a buffer of many weeks and when you’re in Tokyo one week and then Vancouver the next it does hamper your efforts to work on anything other than..well work.
Anyway the week for me began with a flight out to Vancouver which was via Air Canada and very pleasant. I worked on the comic on my mac and charged my phone via the USB port on the plane while watching FLASHPOINT featuring probably some of the most polite crack SWAT dudes on the planet. Ahead of me was a quick connecting flight to the sleepy town of Kelowna and checking into the local Holiday Inn before bed. A nice relaxing evening for me then or so I thought.
I went with a colleague who is a bit of a character and it was when he went through what we thought was immigration at Vancouver airport arrivals that I realised something was up. Basically the immigration officer took extra interest into why he was here, what he was doing, etc and when he finally went through and I went up as soon as he realised that I knew the person he had just served he gave me a grilling as well. Why was I here? What business was it I was doing in Canada? Who did I work for? What is a datacenter engineer? Will I get paid for this in Canada? In the end he let me through and I thought that was that. I picked up my baggage and we looked for transfers to get our connecting flight. We took a right turn just before the exit from baggage reclaim and headed straight into what we later found out to be secondary immigration.
The place was a long narrow-ish room with lots of these desks where customs guys put your baggage on to search through. We queued up thinking it was just another stage between arrivals and departures or something but when another immigration officer came out and asked the same set of questions again we realised we probably weren’t going to catch that connecting flight.
The problem was this: we were in Canada as contract work to complete a project at a Datacenter we had rented rack space from. Rack space is literally space to fit and store computer servers and other similar equipment. The reason we had flown thousands of miles from London to do this was because of the sophistication of the install meant that only experienced engineers familiar with our company’s design should be allowed to perform an install.
Now Canadian immigration’s response was “surely a Canadian could perform this work? If not couldn’t you train a Canadian to do this?” They were aware that our company, a major multinational, had a big presence in Canada and so in theory had the resources to send a team of Canadians to do the job. Another problem was that Canadian immigration wanted proof that we worked for who we said we worked for and more to the point proof we were going to Kelowna to work at a datacenter and not just vanish into the system. We needed contracts, letters of introduction from bosses and contacts at our Canadian arm.
Naturally we had none of this which baffled our tormentors in immigration. This was two hours into the ordeal and at this point they had confiscated our passports and then our blackberry phones apparently to get a contact number of the datacenter in Kelowna but because the phones lock after a minute this in theory is pretty hard without the password so our suspicions was that they were checking all the e-mails on our phones or something along those lines. At the same time we took advantage of Vancouver airport’s free wifi to get our work macs open and try and get in touch with anybody up at 3am back in the UK.
By this time it was about three and a half hours and this time two immigration guys came back with a polite but very serious threat: that while they believed we weren’t going to vanish they decided that we fitted none of the special work categories granting instant visa and work permit free travel within Canada and as such if we did not have proof of our intentions by 2pm the next day they would put us on the 6pm flight back to London. Until then they would keep our passports and issue us with stamped photocopies and give us leave to remain in Vancouver airport until that fateful 6pm the next day.
In the end we had to get a hotel room at the airport which cost us C$350 for the night of which we spent 3 hours sleeping and the rest trying to get all the documentation sorted. Once this was done we raced to immigration again at 2am and waved everything in front of a very tired and bemused Canadian immigration officer who stamped our passports and let us be on our way. We got the 7am flight out to Kelowna that day.
In all a very strange experience and one I don’t really want to repeat for a long time!