Northern Exposure

On moving to a place we considered home.

Image: Bill Gracey

This summer my husband and I moved to Canada. Most people who heard this news thought that we were choosing to leave behind the America that candidate Trump was promising his followers. You know, the one where millions of immigrants would be deported, poor people would lose health care, the middle-class would be taxed to cover the refusal of the rich to participate, and global efforts to end greenhouse gas emissions would be derailed.

Our friends assumed that we wanted to avoid the disastrous changes that the rise of Trump had created in America — a volatile blend of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia — and abscond to the majestic country that had elevated Trump’s polar opposite to power.

We told them that we were not escaping. Instead, we were moving toward one of the places we consider home.

Like most people, we didn’t anticipate that Trump would actually win, for all of the reasons that thinking people already know. Then November 8th happened and everything changed. The Canadian immigration website crashed as the returns came in, and the liberal nation to the north started to look more freedom-loving than ever.

When we came to Canada we knew we would be returning to some of its most wonderful qualities — tolerance, non-violence, respectful discourse. We’d grown up in Canada — he as a citizen, and me as a landed immigrant from the era of Pierre Trudeau. After twenty-five years exploring what was great about America — its innovation, diversity, and opportunity — we had a desire to slow things down.

My husband was a physical therapist whose corporate owners demanded less patient time, more billings, and a grueling load of paperwork. He’d been able to return to work after a brain injury, but the cumulative effects of outlandish goals, weekend training, and staff turnover (mostly due to poor pay,) had an impact on his aging body. In his late fifties, he wanted a small-town life, and a chance to restore himself.

I was in love with the Canadian Rockies. We’d lived there when our children were babies, and I’d hiked there nearly every summer for the last ten years. The mountains were compelling to both of us in a way we’d only been able to tell each other late at night, when we dreamed about how we’d live, if we could. There were pristine lakes and rivers, giant mountains at the end of the street, and trails that took you away from civilization in fifteen minutes. Even more compelling to us was the notion of who we’d become if we re-oriented to the wilderness, and made nature the center of our lives.

For most of our American life, we had made home in Seattle, which we called “the most Canadian of the US cities.” Progressive, environmentally-conscious, an early adopter of LGBT marriage and marijuana legalization, Seattle was literate and book-loving. I was so bonded to its literary and activist community that I knew I couldn’t really leave.

I’d have to settle for a change that allowed one foot in each country.

The first time I crossed the border into the US, declaring that my husband had a home in Canada but I worked in the States, the guard screwed his face up, looked at me like I’d gone crazy and said, “That sounds complicated.” Until he said that, I didn’t once think that what I envisioned was problematic.

America needs us more than it ever has. That’s why Americans should not move to Canada. Unless you’re from a vulnerable group that requires safety — Muslim, LGBTQ, a person of color — please stay and fight. Resistance is more necessary than ever before.We need to build a revolutionary movement at the global, national, state, and local levels. We must create diverse coalitions. We must transform the Democratic Party into a party of the people, including providing funding to groups that are diverse and beyond the base. We must develop goals that are focused on political power for all, through the movements that are very much alive, including the Bernie Sanders millennials, and movements of the Black Lives Matter, immigration justice, and Indigenous peoples.

If you’re white, maybe, like me, you may be waking up to the incredible privilege of which you’ve been unconscious, including not having to reckon with the new reality that you’re at peril in your homeland. For although people of color and LGBTQ and Muslim people and women are most at risk, anyone deemed a ‘loser’ will do. Maybe you think the USA is immune to fascism, and that if we could survive the Reagan/Bush eras, we can live through anything. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a situation so potentially damaging to the earth than Trump as President, as the news from around the world is now confirming.

But I understand if you have to leave America, believe me. Several of my ancestors were stowaways, out of Ireland, France, and Germany, and in the family stories passed down to me, they were prayed over at the dinner table, but mostly considered outliers. No one that stayed imagined they might not survive genocides, famines, the collapse of nations.

If you do come to Canada, you’ll encounter compassion first. In the days since the election, my Canadian friends ask “Do they know how dangerous Trump is? Do they know the United States can fracture?” Largely an empathic nation — they’re educated to be tolerant as a function of their constitution and school system — they feel worried for our peaceful prosperity. They also feel afraid for all of their targeted friends south of the border. They’re interested in restoring the balance for the collective good. Theirs is a country more willing to face income inequality, a willingness which we feel is the very basis of democracy. And they’re a land more open to immigration, targeting 23% more newcomers this year, and as the Canadian Malcolm Gladwell has said, “We do know… that immigrants tend to be highly entrepreneurial as a group, so any country that allows a lot of immigrants is going to have a kind of entrepreneurial edge.”

These are such significant traits that they are palpable. This nation has not perfectly achieved them. The country above the 49th parallel has its own denial of inequity. Canada is only now launching an inquiry into its missing and murdered Indigenous women, and coming to terms with the legacy of the residential schools. The Liberals have yet to jump-start the economy after oil prices collapsed. Alberta is pushing for a tax on carbon, a cap on oil sands emissions, a phasing out of coal-fired electricity and an emphasis on wind power, but nationwide, there isn’t yet enough consideration to alternative energies.

Still, innovation is flourishing here.

America after Trump isn’t a place that I fear. My participation in the nation of my birth will not change because there are people who want to preserve their status quo through a racist agitator. Canada has often been the neighbor that America knows little about, but now, perhaps The Great White North has something to teach America about survival, about tolerance in the midst of chaos, about shouldering inconveniences, living with fear, and permitting mistakes — the very ground from which transformation might spring.

On the days after the election, I remembered that real change often comes from envisioning notions that make people uncomfortable. The primary task as an artist is to trust uncertainty. To envision past the fearful brain, and live inside an unrealized possibility. Revolutions aren’t just revolt against — they’re born out of the best ways we can imagine, and confinement often helps, not hinders our creativity.

There’s no way around it — you have to take risks to create change, you have to trick the brain to go against expectations, to invite in potential failure. We know that our work must be to bring respite to those who will suffer under this dangerous form of American intolerance. We’ll be bringing friends from vulnerable groups to take a breath of fresh air, see how things can be different, to spend some time re-imagining under the prospect of a terrifying four years under Trump.

No matter whether you choose to go or stay, know that most Americans did not vote for white supremacy, and millions of us are committed to providing a safe haven to those suffering under this horrifying moment in our democracy.

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