After years of turning back Americans with drunken-driving and other misdemeanor convictions, Canadian border officials are about to relax their entry restrictions.
The move, which begins March 1, should prevent many hunters, anglers and other tourists heading to Canada from being rejected at the border when officials discover a single DWI or other misdemeanor on their records. Thousands of Americans, including many Minnesotans, have been snared by the increase in border security in recent years.
But the changes won't apply to those with multiple convictions or more serious offenses.
As issue for Americans is that drunken driving is a felony in Canada, while a single offense here often is a misdemeanor.
Canadian tourism industry officials say the tightened border restrictions have resulted in thousands of American customers being turned away at the border, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue.
"We've had hundreds of customers turned around," said Gene Halley, who runs Halley's Camps, a fishing lodge-outpost business in the Kenora, Ontario, area. "The recession hasn't hurt as much as the border crossing issue."
Often if one member of a group gets rejected at the border because of an old criminal offense, the entire group calls off the trip.
"We call them $6,000 vehicles -- if one gets turned around, the whole group goes home,'' said Mike Loewen, executive director of a regional tourist council that represents more than 200 resorts, lodges and outfitters in northwestern Ontario, a prime destination for Minnesota anglers.
"The restrictions have cost millions of dollars just in northwestern Ontario over the years," said Loewen. "People are being turned away who shouldn't be. We're not saying let criminals in, but someone who made a minor indiscretion years ago shouldn't be prevented from coming here to fish."
It was the Canadian tourism industry's continued pressure on their government that led Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) to develop the new policy, which begins Thursday. Under it, people with one minor conviction can get a free Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) to enter Canada. Previously, obtaining that permit was a lengthy, costly process.
Americans with convictions still would have to go through a "rehabilitation" process to permanently clear their record, but the TRP would prevent their rejection at the border.
A key unanswered question is whether the permit will give an American essentially one "free pass" into Canada, or whether the pass would be good for a certain period of time.
The government has yet to release the details, but a spokesperson said in a written response to questions from the Star Tribune: "It aims to facilitate the entry of those who are currently inadmissible for certain offenses, such as where the individual has served no jail time and there is no evidence of repeat behavior."
The policy apparently will apply to a DWI, if it is the only conviction on a person's record.
Loewen and other Canadian tourism officials were recently briefed about the coming changes. Though they, too, are awaiting details, they are encouraged the changes will benefit them and their American customers.
"We're hoping it's a large step in the right direction," said Halley.
Attorney Satveer Chaudhary of Fridley, a former state senator, works on immigration issues and has helped clients jump through the legal hoops necessary to enter Canada.
"I have dozens of clients either turned away or know they can't get into Canada," he said.
"I have a client who was going with a group of friends to Winnipeg for a softball tournament. He had a prior DWI from years before, and was denied entry. He spent the weekend at Pembina, N.D., waiting for his friends to return to pick him up."
For those with criminal records, the procedures to overcome inadmissibility to Canada are complex. See the Canadian government's explanations at www.startribune.com/a1086.