Canada, here they come...

They threatened to run for the border if Bush was re-elected. But how many did? Today, as the President is sworn in on the steps of the Capitol, Andrew Buncombe meets the Americans who are choosing to begin new lives in self-imposed exile
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The Independent US

At their home in a comfortable, quiet Seattle suburb, Mike Teller and his partner Bob Vesely will not be cheering today. Indeed, while the celebratory thousands line the streets for the presidential inauguration 3,000 miles away in Washington DC, Teller and Vesely will think of their future and the greener pastures they believe await them. They'll be thinking of escape.

At their home in a comfortable, quiet Seattle suburb, Mike Teller and his partner Bob Vesely will not be cheering today. Indeed, while the celebratory thousands line the streets for the presidential inauguration 3,000 miles away in Washington DC, Teller and Vesely will think of their future and the greener pastures they believe await them. They'll be thinking of escape.

The clue to their getaway destination flies from a pole in front of their house - a Canadian flag. "We used to fly the US flag, but we changed it to a Canadian flag at the start of the Iraq war," says Vesely, 45, an IT manager. "It was our protest."

If the couple get their way, before too long they will be swapping the Stars and Stripes for the red and white maple-leaf pennant - formally known as the National Flag of Canada - that now flutters in the breeze outside their home. Having toyed with the idea for many months, Teller and Vesely recently decided to leave the US and move to Canada. They made their decision on the morning of 3 November, the day after the American presidential election that ensured that George Bush, rather than the Democratic candidate John Kerry, would be taking the oath of office on the western edge of the Capitol building later today.

And they are not alone. Even before the election, there were many people vowing that they would leave the country if President Bush was re-elected. In the aftermath of November's result, which many Democrats and progressives can still barely believe, large numbers of disgruntled, disaffected and simply fed-up Americans began focusing in earnest on a better, brighter life north of the border. Teller and Vesely have hired an immigration lawyer and sent off their applications.

The process of becoming a Canadian citizen takes at least two years, and at the moment the authorities in Ottawa say it is impossible to estimate how many US citizens are currently applying. What is certain is that the re-election of George Bush, along with what many perceive as an attendant shift to the right in America's cultural and political environment, has led many desperate Americans to enquire as to how they might get out of Dodge.

"It's a little early to say how many people have applied, but we do know there was a lot of interest in our internet site," says Maria Iadinardi of Canada's office of Citizenship and Immigration. "On 3 November, there were 115,628 visits from the US, and the day after there were half that number. We usually get 20,000 a day. It was three weeks before it went back down."

This isn't the first time Canada has emerged as a refuge for Americans who find themselves out of step with the direction their country is taking. Between 1970 and 1976, when the US was riven by disagreements over the Vietnam War, between 16,000 and 25,000 US citizens moved to Canada every year. The average, in more normal times, is between 5,000 and 6,000. Iadinardi points out that a click on a website is not the same as actually moving to Canada, and her office usually sees increased interest whenever a country undergoes a shift. "Now, after the tsunami in Asia, we have seen an increase in visits to our site," she says.

Still, there is certainly a feeling - if only based on anecdotal evidence - that a considerable northward migration is under way. Newspaper columnists in Canada are beckoning to disgruntled Americans; websites have been set up to help people thinking of moving; law firms are holding "Move to Canada" seminars in big cities; and even the smallest, dot-on-the-map places north of the border are anticipating an influx of US citizens. An advert placed in alternative US weekly newspapers by a development group based in the South Kootenay region of British Columbia is typical of the mood. It says: "Escape the Madness. Visit. Relocate. Immigrate."

People are heading north for different, often specific reasons. Teller and Vesely say the Bush administration's opposition to gay marriage, and the President's support of a constitutional amendment to ban formal recognition of such relationships, have made them feel like "outcasts". Also, they oppose the war in Iraq and don't support Bush's environmental policies, his go-it-alone approach to foreign affairs, or his snubbing of the United Nations.

Charles Key, a 56-year-old Vietnam veteran from Bellingham, whose ancestor Francis Scott Key wrote the words of the US national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner", says he's leaving because his country is no longer tolerant. "The land of the free and the home of the brave always meant to me that America was supposed to stand for freedom and diversity and tolerance. I don't think it does that any more," he told a reporter.

Some planning to move highlight the increasing spread of Christianity in US society, eroding the traditional separation of church and state. Others are concerned about a general drift towards conservatism and away from liberal, progressive ideas. The one thing that appears to unite them is the shared belief that, in the second term of President George Bush, things are only going to get worse.

Another Seattle couple who won't celebrate today are Professor Frederick Neymeyer and his wife Goebel. Neymeyer is the acting head of linguistics at the University of Washington, but this week he and his wife are househunting in Vancouver, a couple of hundred miles to the north in British Columbia. They, too, have spoken to lawyers, and are due to meet an accountant to find out how they can transfer their money to Canada.

"We are at the point of retirement and we want to move to a large, cosmopolitan city. Vancouver is more interesting than Seattle," says Neymeyer, 60. "Also, Canada appears to be moving in the opposite direction to the US. It is becoming more progressive, more tolerant. We're prepared to become Canadians."

Greg Pallas, 42, from Redwood City in California, has reasons other than politics to move north. His girlfriend Mariette is Canadian and the couple had always thought they would move to her home country. For Pallas, however, that desire greatly increased with Bush's re-election.

"It was 2 November that I decided," says Pallas, a financial analyst who has already sent off his paperwork to the Canadian authorities. "I can just see this country becoming more conservative. It's the religion thing. The country is moving to the right and becoming less tolerant."

For most people considering a life in Canada, the biggest uncertainty is whether they will find comparable jobs and lifestyles. Mike Teller is a zoologist at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle: whether he will be able to find such a position in Canada is unclear. Greg Pallas, a financial analyst, doubts that he will be able to find a similar post in Canada, with the same pay and benefits. "The job is the main thing I think I will miss," he says. "My girlfriend is a teacher and should be able to get work. At the moment, we are saving money and I'm hoping it won't be so bad."

All this talk of a new future in Canada, which recognised gay marriage in December, and where there is a healthy suspicion of the Bush administration, implies that the good folk there are ready to welcome a flood of disgruntled Yanks. That might not be true - at least, not everywhere.

In November, when the talk of a mass migration to the north was at its height, disaffected Democrats who had just seen their man lose were given plenty to think about by Ian Robinson, a columnist with The Calgary Sun, who wrote: "I hope I'm not alone in gently suggesting to those considering coming to Canada: stay home, you pathetic whining maggots."

For the most part, however, the signs are more welcoming. Jason Mogus, director of a company called Communicopia, set up a website to help people considering the move and to point out that Canada has universal healthcare and no troops in Iraq, signed the Kyoto protocol on the environment and permits gay marriage - and that its senate recently recommended legalising cannabis.

The site, CanadianAlternative.com, adds: "We invite you to get to know Canada. Explore the richness and diversity of our regions. And find out why Canada is the perfect alternative for conscientious, forward-thinking Americans."

Most Americans who have already made the move to Canada - and there are up to one million now living there - appear to have only good things to say about their new home. The internet blogger Inspector Lohmann dedicates much of his website to details of his emigration from San Francisco to Toronto, a move he made last year. The inspector, who prefers to use his blog name, works in the film industry.

Lohmann, from New England, has no regrets. In one blog entry, he wrote: "When I crossed the border into Canada to begin a new life in a new country, I felt a tremendous weight lift from me. I felt free in a way I had never felt before. And I never looked back. I have not felt a single pang of regret, nor do I ever expect to. When I visit America now, I feel like a visitor in some alien land, and it's a great feeling."

Asked to sum up what is best about his new home, he says: "The best things about the move: leaving Murka [the US], loving Canada, loving Toronto, loving the change of seasons. No matter how bad my day is, I think to myself, 'I'm in Canada!' and suddenly I'm not so miserable anymore."

Of course, the road north isn't entirely straightforward. On top of the headaches of paperwork, and finding new homes, jobs and friends and all the rest, there is the sniping from proud red-state US citizens who cannot believe that any true American could conceive of leaving.

The vociferous, increasingly intolerant right-wing commentator Ann Coulter said recently on Fox News: "It's always the worst Americans who end up going [to Canada] - the Tories after the Revolutionary War, the Vietnam draft-dodgers after Vietnam. And now, after this election, you have the blue-state people moving up there. They better hope the United States doesn't roll over one night and crush them. They are lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent."

To many people planning their move, such comments are merely another reason to get packing. As soon as they can.

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