Both sides of border hope changes make Canada entry easier

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 20, 2012 - 12:14 AM

The Canadian government has loosened restrictions on U.S. citizens with law infractions. That could be good news for the tourist industry.

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Bob Simmet, left, and his brother, Pete, both of Stillwater, trolled for lake trout in Spring Lake on the Minnesota-Ontaro border last year.

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Tom Pearson has readied his Camp Narrows Lodge on the Canadian side of Rainy Lake for the influx of American anglers beginning this weekend, Ontario's fishing opener.

The cabins are cleaned, the boats gassed.

Pearson expects good fishing and good business -- as long as his customers can get across the U.S.-Canadian border at International Falls.

Which, for the past 10 years or so, hasn't been a sure thing.

Tightened border security has translated into some U.S. visitors being turned away because of misdemeanor convictions, including drunken-driving offenses.

Pearson, president of the Northwestern Ontario Tourism Association, said that has been costly for businesses like his that cater to Americans.

"We've lost hundreds of millions of dollars over 10 years," said Pearson. "I bet I've lost $1 million myself."

He is hoping changes the Canadian government made this year to entry restrictions will help. Beginning March 1, people with one misdemeanor conviction might get a one-time free temporary resident permit to enter Canada. The permits usually cost $200.

Previously, border officers often wouldn't issue one unless the offense occurred at least five years ago, said Doug Reynolds, executive director of Nature Outdoor Tourism Ontario, which represents 1,500 tourism businesses. Now they qualify even if the misdemeanor conviction was more recent.

"That's a significant change," he said.

Still, those permits are issued at the discretion of border officers.

With the summer tourism season just beginning, it's too early to tell if that change will reduce the number of Americans who are turned away at the border, or will encourage others with minor offenses to try to enter.

"We're cautiously optimistic," Pearson said. "This should definitely make it easier for people with one offense to get in."

Reynolds said the Canadian tourism industry has long pushed for its government to relax entry requirements, and while this change might appear small, he said the implications are broader. It sent a message to border officers to try to find ways to allow visitors into the country, not find ways to keep them out, Reynolds said.

"It has given border officials a customer-service mentality instead of a keep-bad-people-out mentality," he said. "I'm hearing fewer complaints. It's had a more positive impact than I thought."

And bigger changes could be coming, Reynolds believes.

"I think this is a precursor to more significant changes to come," he said, due to border-issue discussions last winter between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Obama.

Pearson agrees.

"I think the borders will loosen up."

But meanwhile, those with multiple misdemeanor convictions or more serious offenses still have difficult hurdles to clear if they want to enter Canada.

"I continue to have a steady stream of people [seeking help]," said Satveer Chaudhary, a Fridley attorney and former state legislator. People can seek "criminal rehabilitation" status by filling out numerous forms and getting an FBI background check, which can take eight weeks to receive. Fingerprints also are required. That process is lengthy, but if accepted, a person can enter Canada freely.

"People make mistakes," Chaudhary said. "Most of those mistakes shouldn't be a lifelong yoke around your neck if you want to hunt and fish."

His advice: Plan ahead.

It can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on whether a person hires an attorney or not, to acquire criminal rehabilitation status.

Ultimately, those with criminal convictions will have to decide if they're willing to pay the money and spend the time jumping through those bureaucratic hoops, Chaudhary said.

"I had that conversation with a fellow last week. He said, 'Well, I don't need to go to Canada that bad.'"

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