Four years ago, as the results of the 2016 United States presidential election were still rolling in, American comedian Raven-Symoné revisited an earlier promise that, “If any Republican gets elected [president], I’m going to relocate my entire family to Canada.” As the update ticker showed Donald Trump taking Ohio and Florida, Raven-Symoné, appearing on ABC TV, faced up to the reality of her vow. A pre-recorded skit showed her flying to Vancouver, dressing up like a Mountie and throwing axes with a flannel-wearing lumberjack. “I knew if I wanted to connect with the Canucks, I had to be down with the stuff that they hold sacred,” she declared in mock stage tones.
Shortly after stepping onto the ice for some obligatory wobbly-ankle hockey antics, however, she received a call from a Disney executive asking her to reprise her well-known role as teen psychic Raven Baxter. Would she give up on her Canadian Dream and head back to Hollywood despite the cataclysmic results of the presidential election? You betcha. “I’m coming home! That’s right, I’m coming back to America!” she cries, as patriotic American music swells in the background and the election tracker ticks towards Trump’s triumph.
Sound familiar? Raven-Symoné was certainly not alone in her plans to flee her homeland if Trump won. In 2016 an astounding 28 percent of Americans told pollsters they would consider a move to “another country such as Canada” if the grisly orange entrepreneur from Queens barged into the White House. News articles on the purported phenomenon were legion, with the Hollywood Reporter offering step-by-step advice. Spotify created a music playlist dubbed “Moving up to Canada” especially for disenchanted American liberals on their way out the door. And after Trump’s surprising victory, Canada’s Immigration and Citizenship website crashed after apparently being inundated by Democrats desperate to escape their Republican Hellscape.
Now they’re at it again. In September, Google data revealed that the search term “how to apply for Canadian citizenship” spiked during the first presidential debate; liberal enclaves such as Massachusetts and Washington state reportedly registered the highest interest. Over the summer YouGov polling showed a third of all Americans – and 41 percent of Democrats – were “somewhat or very interested” in moving to Canada if their candidate didn’t win. This was even higher than the 2016 figures. And there are once again plenty of media stories on the phenomenon. If Trump pulls off another shocker, as he did in 2016, should Canadians brace themselves for another round of celebrity escape plans and goofy hockey lessons? Based on past performance, it’s entirely likely. But whatever happens on election day, we should consider these proclamations to be essentially meaningless. As with Raven-Symoné, very few Americans actually carry through on their moving plans. So what are these phony vows really telling us?
“I find it amusing when all these people from the United States say they are thinking of moving to Canada” because of the election results, says Chantal Desloges in an interview. A well-known Toronto-based immigration lawyer who has often appeared as an expert witness before parliamentary committees, Desloges says that many Americans used to the privilege of (pre-pandemic) visa-free world travel have a misconception that immigrating to Canada is as easy as booking a cruise.
“If it was that simple, we’d have many more millions of people in this country than we already do,” Desloges notes. “You can’t just move to Canada because you want to.” While Canada’s immigration process is still operational despite the border restrictions, Americans hoping to jump to the front of the line because their preferred candidate didn’t win on November 3 are unlikely to find satisfaction. Then again, the genuine number of political refugees from the U.S. is much, much lower than the attention they attract.
Back in 2015 when Trump’s presidential designs were a still a modest secret, approximately 6,800 Americans applied to move to Canada. Two years later, that figure was up to 9,000. A noticeable uptick, but hardly a deluge. And keep in mind, those are applications, not actual arrivals. Based on long-term trends, the observable increase in permanent residents arriving from America in the wake of the Trump election has been estimated by Global TV at about 2,000 total in the 18 months following his inauguration. Given that Canada accepted over 350,000 immigrants during that period, this flight of worried liberals amounts to little more than a rounding error. The vast majority of Americans who claim they’re going to move to Canada for political reasons never even pack, let alone show up. If U-Haul or Penske staked their long-haul rental business on this market, they’d have gone out of business long ago.
Celebrities are particularly well-represented among this all-hat, no-cattle group. Prior to the 2016 election, actor Bryan Cranston said he would “definitely move” north if Trump won. He never did. Barbra Streisand was somewhat less specific but no less determined. She said she “must” move to Australia or Canada if Trump was victorious. In 2018 she even renewed this vow. Perhaps she’s still packing. Rapper Snoop Dogg called Toronto “my new home” in an Instagram post, asking his Canadian counterpart Drake for “the hookup on some property.” And yet somehow he’s still in California. Similarly, Guelph-born actress Neve Campbell claimed she would “move back to Canada” in the event of a Trump victory. Afterwards she lamely posted that she was “still very proud to have the honor of living in America.” (Note how she spelled “honor” in the American fashion.)
More recently, former Fleetwood Mac lead singer Stevie Nicks has outdone her confreres by musing aloud that she is thinking of moving to “another planet” in the event of a Trump win. Until all the bugs are ironed out of Elon Musk’s Starship rocket, however, even the wealthiest celebs will have to settle for Canada.
Actress and writer Lena Dunham has called out her colleagues for their numerous empty vows. “I know a lot of people have been threatening to do this, but I really will,” she stated firmly. And then she didn’t. “It’s easy to joke about moving to Canada,” Dunham later wrote on Instagram, “It’s harder to live, fully and painfully aware of the injustice surrounding us, to cherish and fear your country all at once. But I’m willing to try. Will you try with me?” Dunham’s reasoning is reminiscent of the old “limousine communists” during the Cold War, who ostensibly dreamed of moving to the Soviet paradise but decided they’d better “tough it out” in the capitalist dystopia. Of course breaking a commitment when your values are tested isn’t the “harder” choice – it’s plain old hypocrisy. Like the proverbial rebound girlfriend, Canada has plenty of experience with Americans professing their commitment, only to watch them slink back to their old lover once reality stares them in the face. So is it us? Or is it them?
A Few Complications
While Canada may exist in the American liberal mind as an idealized state of political bliss just across the border – how come they never fantasize about escaping to Mexico? – certain realities inevitably intrude. “Not everyone loves to pay taxes,” says Desloges wryly about one of the biggest obstacles to celebrity arrivals. “Even when you show them the benefits [of Canadian citizenship]…not everybody is in love with wealth redistribution.” According to our immigration expert, people “who make these sorts of knee-jerk, emotional reactions to their political situation often don’t end up following through. They’re upset, but then when they actually sit down and start thinking about it…they realize they’re going to go back to the polls after a few years. This too shall pass.”
Besides our higher taxes, there’s also our much colder weather. Equally problematic, at least for wealthy Americans who can afford to move, is Canada’s universal health care. “People in the United States have a distorted picture of Canada that they get from reports about our single-payer healthcare system,” says Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary. “Left-wing intellectuals in the United States like to portray [Canada] as a health-care utopia, and they are always shocked when they learn about the reality of waiting lists.”
Flanagan, a long-time advisor to the Reform and Conservative parties, knows of what he speaks; he was born in Illinois and came to Canada in 1968 as a young academic. It should be noted that all of the prominent voices periodically vowing to move to Canada can afford the best that American healthcare has to offer – either through gold-plated private insurance or simply by paying cash. Whether it’s for cancer care or cosmetic enhancements, there’s no waiting for them.
At certain times in our shared history, Americans have in fact migrated to Canada in sizeable numbers. But the underlying reasons have always been about more than mere politics. Finding safety was the motivation for United Empire Loyalists fleeing the aftermath of the American Revolution, as well as for American slaves on the run from the slaveholding South via the Underground Railroad. Nearly two centuries later, a similar motivation propelled young military-aged males seeking to avoid the Vietnam War draft. An estimated 125,000 American draft dodgers moved to Canada between 1966 and 1975, about double the level of immigration during the previous decade. Of these, it is believed half stayed in Canada permanently, even after President Jimmy Carter pardoned them all in 1977.
These days, the key issue is hardly life-or-death. More often than not the deciding factor is economic opportunity. Raven-Symoné’s reason for dropping her jokey escape plan – a job offer from Hollywood – wasn’t just a comedic beat. It’s likely the single biggest factor behind all those failed celebrity promises. Money talks, even for lifelong Democrats. To pick a non-celebrity example, in 2016 The Guardian profiled Americans Mark Nykanen and Lucinda Taylor who moved to Canada in 2003 after President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. They then moved back to Oregon “when Taylor was offered a healthcare position that she couldn’t refuse.” By 2017 they were in Canada once more, presumably until a better opportunity comes along.
Regardless of who resides in the White House, the U.S. remains the world’s economic powerhouse and innovation leader. And no flannel-wearing lumberjack is going to change that. “Americans mostly come to Canada for the same reason I did: because they have an attractive job offer,” says Flanagan. “This is the same reason Canadians will often move to the United States – because they see better prospects.” Indeed, historically the flow of immigrants has been vastly greater in the southerly direction. In 1900, for example, there were over one million Canadian-born Americans. This should be considered particularly significant, given the historically tiny population of Canada and what was previously called British North America.
We’re Just as Ugly, Honest
Americans’ interest in Canada is fleeting, contingent and quickly swamped by more practical matters. Still, you might think being seen, at least temporarily, as an attractive refuge would offer a welcome boost to Canadian self-esteem. Not these days. Faced with evidence that American liberals consider Canada a shelter from the alleged racism and division of the U.S., the response from many sympathetic Canadian liberals has been to make the exact same claims about their own home. “Canadians are racist, too” declared Globe & Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti following the reported surge in Google searches on how to move to Canada in September. Renzetti tried mightily to equate American street riots and racial tension with the Canadian penchant for commissioning reports on Indigenous matters. It’s not a convincing argument. Some Canadians just can’t seem to bear the thought that their country might be worth moving to.
“This is a drama that plays out over and over,” says Flanagan, author of several books on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. “On the one hand, Canadian intellectuals like to denigrate the U.S. for real or perceived failings, but on the other hand they like to imitate the U.S., so American trends come across the border. Right now, it’s fashionable for them to paint Canada as a racist country. They want to condemn the U.S. for being racist, but then pretend Canada has the same racial difficulties. In fact, they’re not even close.”
More significant than this urge to national self-loathing, however, is the broader, underlying instinct of many voters to respond to electoral disappointment with plans to pack up and leave. Such a thing should be considered highly corrosive to the democratic process, and deserves to be condemned as such. Democracy only works when all participants agree to abide by the rules. And recognizing the legitimacy of a victory by your opponent is the single biggest rule. There can be no functioning democracy if the only acceptable outcome is that your preferred candidate must win. Whether a third of American voters intend to carry out their threat to move or not, the fact these claims are so frequently made, and regularly celebrated by the media, works to delegitimize the entire electoral system. Democracy is hard work and maintaining the peaceful transfer of power is one of democracy’s essential elements. Running away is never a solution.
Equally noteworthy is evidence that such petulance appears to be unequally distributed across the political spectrum. Recall the YouGov poll from this summer showing 41 percent of Democrat voters were prepared to contemplate a move to Canada if their candidate didn’t win; only 19 percent of Republicans made the same claim. This particular character flaw, it seems, is more of a problem for American progressives than conservatives.
Are conservatives more committed to the democratic process? More patriotic? More willing to tough things out and work for a better tomorrow? Perhaps. Then again, maybe the poll result simply reflects the range of options on offer. “Where would American conservatives go to find a more conservative country?” Flanagan asks bluntly. Whatever the reason, if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the U.S. Presidency next Tuesday, Canadians can expect to be spared further empty threats from Americans planning to move here for political reasons – at least for another four years. Consider it a small mercy.
Aaron Nava is a writer and social media and political manager who lives in Ottawa.