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I Drove Through Canada With U.S. Licence Plates. It Didn't Go Well.

America's pandemic response has left its reputation in tatters among Canadians and around the world.

A man walking his dog eyed the U.S. plates on our car. “You people shouldn’t be here,” he sneered.

My husband, children and I were in the midst of a socially distanced reunion with my father outside the AirBnB we were quarantined in, blocks away from where I was born in North Toronto. We had travelled from Montclair, N.J. to visit my family, who we hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Wait … I’m one of you, I thought. I may live in America, but I am Canadian. If I don’t belong here, then I don’t belong anywhere.

The writer, right, and her husband.
Jenny Leon
The writer, right, and her husband.

Under the Quarantine Act, my children and I were allowed to enter Canada under the right of re-entry for all Canadian citizens. My American husband, as an immediate family member of a Canadian citizen, was also permitted entry under an exemption to the Act. We were prohibited from leaving the AirBnB property during our 14-day quarantine.

Before the passerby’s comment, I imagined that my temporary Canadian neighbours would instantly recognize me as one of their own. But instead I felt hurt and unfairly shamed.

The festive mood of the reunion was soured. My dad sped away, leaving me to wonder if I should have told the man he had the wrong person.

The border crossing between Buffalo, N.Y. and Fort Erie, Ont.
Jenny Leon
The border crossing between Buffalo, N.Y. and Fort Erie, Ont.

The decision to journey to Canada was not entered into lightly. We were not looking for an end-of-summer vacation spot. I had recently finished treatment for breast cancer, and my brother and sister-in-law had lost a baby. Our family had been through a lot in the past year (even pre-pandemic). I needed to see them again.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, we doubled down on precautions even though I tested positive for antibodies against COVID-19. We avoided grocery stores, play dates, unnecessary doctor’s appointments and other risks.

We drove for 10 hours, winding through picturesque Upstate New York until we hit Buffalo. Through our windows, we saw how the nation had responded to the pandemic: Joe Biden campaign signs littering the side of a highway, maskless folks in coffee shops, take-out eateries that had seen better economic times.

The lines at the U.S.-Canada border were much shorter than I remembered. Most of the traffic appeared to be semi-trucks exporting goods. The Canadian border patrol officer was friendly, but clearly took his responsibilities seriously. He asked about our plans for quarantine, the purpose of our trip and whether we were experiencing any symptoms. We swore an oath that we’d self-isolate.

Finally, the officer signalled that we were free to enter. We sped off before he changed his mind.

The drive took 10 hours.
Jenny Leon
The drive took 10 hours.

I had previously dismissed accounts of increased hostility between Canadians and American visitors. This summer, out-of-towners in Muskoka Lakes, Ont., had been targeted, confronted and had their cars keyed. Mayor Phil Harding had to remind Ontario cottagers that “just because somebody is driving a U.S. vehicle doesn’t make them a bad person or carrier of the virus.”

But after the “incident” in our driveway, I spent the rest of my quarantine overwhelmed with paranoia. I anxiously peered at every passing car that appeared to slow down in front of my house, trying to determine if they were examining my plates. I feared being reported to Public Health if one of my toddlers dared take a step off the property.

When I recounted my experience to Canadian friends, I expected sympathy. Instead, they stared awkwardly at their feet. Finally, one friend broke the silence. “You understand why there is so much hatred against Americans right now, don’t you?”

She described how another friend, a Canadian expat, had recently visited from the U.S. She defied the 14-day self-isolation order and stayed at her mom’s, although the Quarantine Act prohibits contact with people over 65 during the isolation period.

“I can’t really blame my friend for her view of American visitors as potentially harmful to Canadians.”

My friend viewed this as yet another example of Americans’ dangerous arrogance and defiance during this pandemic. There’s the Alaskan who vacationed in Banff, Alta., with a woman he had met online, the Kentucky man who was arrested sightseeing in Alberta, and the American family that told border officers they were going to Alaska (when they were really visiting Vancouver).

U.S. infection and death rates are soaring; there is minimal regulation, and even less enforcement; and too many doubt the pandemic’s very existence. In short, I can’t really blame my friend for her view of American visitors as potentially harmful to Canadians.

The writer's family was obligated to quarantine for 14 days upon entering Canada from the U.S.
Jenny Leon
The writer's family was obligated to quarantine for 14 days upon entering Canada from the U.S.

I didn’t always think of Americans this way.

When I moved to New York in 2009, Barack Obama had just been elected president. Like many Canadians I know, I thought that America was headed in the right direction. The country was the cool next-door neighbour, the exciting international mover and shaker to Canada’s shrinking violet.

When The Donald was elected, I watched New Yorkers literally sob in the streets for the country they loved. People went from joking that I was marrying my husband for a green card to kidding that perhaps the reverse was true.

Trump’s inauguration coincided with our wedding weekend. By the time we returned from our honeymoon, I feared that I would not be able to re-enter the country due to Trump’s immigration ban: his first act as president, and a sign of things to come. America’s image is now at an all-time low among Canadians and the rest of the world.

While many Canadians have deplored the effect the U.S. political situation has had on Canada, I can assure you that those of us who are living here feel even worse. The vast majority of people I know in America — admittedly, mostly northeastern liberals — are also angry with Americans. We wear our masks, we social distance and we’re rightfully scared, in contrast to the anti-maskers we read about in the news, many people in red states and, of course, Trump and the other Rose Garden attendees.

“He is not my president,” I find myself reminding my husband. “He’s your president.”

It is a crisp, late September day in Toronto that reminds me of my childhood. Our quarantine period was over. As I push my children on the swings in the park behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, a mother appears to shoo her child away from us when I mention living in New Jersey. But maybe I’m just being paranoid.

When it’s time to leave, we retrieve the car from my mom’s garage where we had hidden it from streetside scrutiny. I feel sad and a little scared. It is frightening to leave your family when you don’t know when or how you will see them again, and not least to say goodbye to Canada’s relative stability.

After hours of backcountry roads, we arrive at the Peace Bridge. The U.S. border officer asks us if we have anything to declare. He doesn’t ask if we’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Upon my return to New Jersey, I realized that I had always assumed Canada would be my safe haven. I thought I had an escape plan if things went further awry in the States. But perhaps Americans have gone too far this time, and even Canada the Good has had enough.

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