Ottawa is a beautiful, fascinating city. Long before I ever dreamed I would live there, I used to look at photos of Canada's picture-perfect capital and envy it:
But Tyler, how did you end up here in the first place?
The next step in the immigration process
In order to immigrate to most any country, you need to submit what are called biometrics. What are biometrics? Well, for our purposes (moving to Canada) biometrics = fingerprints.* But you should know that even though in practice "getting biometrics done" is simply having your fingerprints scanned, the definition is not universal.
Biometrics is a catch-all term for any sort of technology that examines your physical characteristics and stores it for security purposes. Facial recognition software is an example of biometrics. Having your DNA taken is as well. As you can imagine, it's a controversial science and isn't without its fair share of data privacy concerns. I don't think anybody is yelling "sign me up!" to having their fingerprints permanently stored in a government database, but alas, somebody applying to live in another country isn't in much of a position to put up a fight on that.
It should be noted that submitting biometrics is not the same as "getting fingerprinted" for something like a background check or police clearance certificate. This often leads to confusion in the immigration community, as people receive a request to submit biometrics and think, "Hey! I already did a background check!" To clarify, "getting fingerprinted" means having your fingerprints taken and checked against an existing database to make sure you aren't wanted for a crime, were previously convicted, etc. Submitting biometrics, on the other hand, is not meant to be just an indication of your history, good or bad; rather, they are a snapshot of you now, to be stored permanently and used to identify you for things in the future. For what, exactly? For crime, yes, but also, it's an identity protection tool. The main reason of interest to government authorities in immigration instances is to make sure you are who you say you are, and they do this by storing your physical characteristics (your photo and fingerprints) in case there is ever any question about someone else trying to use a visa meant for you to enter the country, obtain a passport, etc. The two might sound similar, but it's an important distinction to make.
*Until 2020, the government of Canada required you to get your photo taken at your biometrics appointment. Recall my previous posts where I talk about how every step of the immigration process requires another photo of you. Other countries still require photos for biometrics, but as of the time of writing, Canada has suspended this requirement indefinitely due to COVID-19.
So naturally, when I received the letter requesting me to go get my biometrics done, I was anxious to do so as soon as possible. The instructions say the following about where you can get your biometrics done:
You need to take this letter with you and go in person to any biometric collection service point to have your
fingerprints and photograph taken. Before you go, you need to make an appointment.
-If you are outside Canada or the United States, you may go to any Visa Application Centre (VAC) most
convenient to you.
-If you are in the United States, you may go to a United States Citizenship and Immigration
Services (USCIS), Application Support Center (ASC) or a Visa Application Centre (VAC) located in the
United States or its territories.
-If you are in Canada, you may go to a designated Service Canada location.
Canada has two very distinct streams of immigration applications that are processed differently: for those living outside of Canada and looking to move there, and for those already living there temporarily for whatever reason and wanting to become permanent residents. I fall in the former category, and so I try to err on the side of doing things for the immigration process outside of Canada, because I don't want to give whoever's looking at my application the wrong idea that I already live there.
The government website has a comprehensive list of every place in the world where you can get Canadian biometrics done, which is quite impressive, as well as a helpful tool to confirm whether you need to give biometrics.
I used it to look up where the closest places in the U.S. were to get biometrics done, and there were actually several. In New York alone, I was surprised to find four. I went to make an appointment, but unfortunately, all of these U.S. immigration offices are scheduling at least three weeks out for appointments. Remember, much like the other steps of the immigration process, you only have 30 days to respond, so 21 days is already cutting it a little too close for comfort. I went to the next closest one, still a three-week wait. And the next one, three weeks. And the next one. And the next one.
By the time I got done, I had looked for an appointment this month in every USCIS office in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and there wasn't one. At this point, I've decided that the way USCIS (that's United States Citizenship & Immigration Services) does appointments is simply always a three-week wait period.
This was not ideal, so I decided that since Ontario is closer than most of those other U.S. states, surely there will be a place there that has a sooner appointment. And I was right! Service Canada centres in Toronto and Ottawa were plentiful, and had biometrics appointments available the next day. The next day would have been nice, but that was a little too ambitious, so I opted for a week later. And a week later, I was off!
*Visa Application Centres (VACs) are centers run by a private company which process some countries' immigration applications in areas where there are no other immigration resources available, such as embassies or consulates. The company which runs VACs, VFS Global, is a controversial company with concerns related to poor administration and data privacy, so I try to avoid working with them.
An expensive detour
You should know that not every Service Canada centre offers all of the same services. The closest ones that offered immigration biometrics were in Ottawa, so that is where I scheduled.
Now, one of the unintended consequences of making weekly trips back and forth between two countries, over 100 miles/160 kilometers each way, around curves and over bridges, is that it leads to a lot of wear and tear on one's vehicle. My trip to make my biometrics appointment was one of many "red-eye drives" I've made over the past four years, but this time I was cutting it awfully close. Driving up the not-at-all scenic Ontario Highway 416, which runs from Ottawa, through the Ottawa valley roughly following the Rideau canal, to the border with New York, was something I had done a million times. I was running out of gas, and was about 40 miles away with 40 minutes left to get there. It was close, but I could make it.
Highway 416 is known for being quite desolate, and there are very few gas stations on the entire expanse of the highway. The only real town before Ottawa is Kemptville, a place Syd and I think should be called "Ontario's best kempt secret," though we're not sure why other than that it's punny, because its amenities leave much to be desired. I don't much care for the one gas station that is in Kemptville, because it's a full-service station and I didn't have cash to tip, and also because it's the kind of place where you might get a look if you're not a local. So I decided to gun it just a bit further, past the Ottawa city limits, and got off the first exit, for a non-place called Kars.
Kars exists with its own name on road signs, but that's about it. Even though it's about 30 miles away from Ottawa proper, it has been amalgamated, or absorbed, into the city government and exists as just a rural purgatory of Ottawa-but-not-Ottawa, waiting to be razed for suburban condo complexes one day. It is known for, well, nothing that I know of, other than being the site of an American going over a bump on Main Street and his exhaust system falling out last week.
That's right, folks: I was quite the spectacle when my muffler and exhaust pipe began dragging underneath and then alongside me, like a sidecar to a motorcycle. I roughed it for a mile and a half with flashers on to the one gas station/town meeting spot, and a Quebecer on a bicycle had raced me there, won, and was waiting at the station to tell me what I already knew--I appreciate Canadians' genuine concern for things like other peoples' car trouble, but with all due respect, having every single stranger you see run up to you freaking out about a situation more than you are really raises one's stress level.
So what do I do? My biometrics appointment is at 11. It is now 10:30. I am 40 minutes away. I have no idea if Service Canada centres accept late appointments. Who knows if I can reschedule it? The future of my immigration application hangs in the balance. Do I rough it for 40 miles? Certainly not. Hitchhike? I won't even make it there today. Uber? There aren't any available in this area. Out of desperation, I began calling around to taxi companies in Ottawa, asking if they had any drivers in Kars.
The Ottawa Blue Line
I grew up in the countryside. Before I went to college, I really had never considered that there was a way to get around other than by car. It simply did not exist to me. Though I had been to big cities here and there, it was not until I began spending a lot of my time in Ottawa that I came to understand the concept of things like buses and trains and taxis. I still have to wrap my head around it sometimes, and I plan to share my journeys on Canadian public transit on this blog.
But the OC Transpo buses don't come out this far, let alone the O Train. Taxis were my only option. I had never been in a taxi, and really had very little understanding of how they worked. Normally, this would be a few hours of neurotic Internet research for me, but I was in dire straits. I began calling listing after listing, The Ottawa Blue Line, a popular private taxi service licensed by the city of Ottawa as a sort of "approved livery operator" picked up, and 20 minutes later I was in the Toyota Camry of Mr. Singh, looking at this:
I was, too, because through some sheer miracle, we arrived only 20 minutes late for my appointment. It was the second most expensive ride of my life. The first most expensive was my ride back: $119 CAD/$92 USD. Nonetheless, I tipped him well for both rides (or at least I hope--I don't know what tip etiquette for taxis is), because I was so grateful for the ride to begin with, but also because he could not have been more gracious and professional. I was completely aghast when he pulled in to the destination and offered to stay and wait for me and drive me back to my car at the gas station. I told him I couldn't possibly accept and make him miss out on other fares, but he insisted, so he was right there waiting in the same spot when I came out a half hour later.
I'd love to hear your experiences if you have taken a taxi in the U.S. or Canada before. Was your experience similar? Is this normal? Is it always so expensive? I'd like to travel more to compare, but if every cab fare is this pricey, I'm not sure how many trips I can make this year.
Mesmerized by the convenience of my taxi ride, I shuffled into Service Canada to get these biometrics over with.
- the Biometrics Instruction Letter (BIL) (Form IMM 5756)
- your passport or other travel document (the same one you used in your immigration application)
Now that we have that out of the way, some of you are probably asking, "what the hell is a Service Canada centre, anyway?"
You're not alone in wondering this. A lot of Canadians seem to be confused about it as well. The official website can explain it better than I can, but basically, it's an office building where the general public can go for federal services, such as social insurance (the Canadian equivalent of U.S. Social Security), tax and pension problems, passport services, etc. Its American equivalent would be a Social Security Administration office, though Service Canada is arguably more convenient and expansive in the services it covers.
Service Canada is not to be confused with ServiceOntario, the office for provincial services in Ontario. ServiceOntario is Ontario's version of the notorious DMVs (what a terrible rapper name) which dominate American life. ServiceOntario is also inconveniently named compared to the other provinces' departments dealing with things like licenses and registrations, because with a name so close to Service Canada, it has led to confusion among Ontarians about which office to go to for which thing. While I was in line at Service Canada, I watched three people who had waited for an hour get sent away because they had a ServiceOntario issue, not a Service Canada one. (Post about the difference between the federal government and provincial governments incoming.)
Service Canada and ServiceOntario do have some things in common, though: for one thing, they are surprisingly low-tech. This particular Service Canada I went to, in suburban Ottawa, was in the middle of a small mall. It was about the size and shape of a cell phone store, and its red paint invoked Verizon vibes. So did the line down the hall.
There were no signs that suggested I wasn't allowed to take pictures, though something didn't seem right to me about taking pictures in a federal office building, no matter how unassuming it looked. (That, and there were also a bunch of other people around.) The entire center was a just a mall storefront with a single kiosk, staffed by a person about my age or maybe younger, and a few third-party security guards ("rent-a-cops") about my age as well. There were a few chairs in a waiting area, but most people were waiting in the hall due to social distancing rules. There were two lines leading to the kiosk, one for folks with appointments and one for folks without. And thank goodness I had an appointment, because I only waited about 15 minutes compared to over an hour for everyone else.
After I checked in by crossing off my name on the clipboard printout and answered a Covid questionnaire (they didn't even bat an eye that I was 20 minutes late for my appointment or that I was there for immigration), I sat in the waiting area and within 10 minutes was called into the backroom. Another gentleman, casually dressed and also about my age, wearing an official Government of Canada ID badge, sat me down at a cubicle with a fingerprint and passport scanner on it. He pretty much did nothing; just asked me to put both hands on the green glass fingerprint scanner, and then my passport. He clicked a couple buttons, then took my form and scanned the barcode on it with a hand scanner, as if it were a coupon in a Kohl's ad. He printed me a receipt, and said "All set. Your biometrics have been received by IRCC automatically." The whole process took about 3 minutes, start to finish.
I couldn't even believe it. I said, "You didn't want to take my picture?" (I had been worried since my hair and face had been a wreck from standing out in the wind and crawling under my car all morning.) He replied that they had stopped doing pictures because of Covid, which I mentioned earlier. I said, "Okay, I'll trust you." His coworker from somewhere across the office yelled "I wouldn't trust that guy!" and they shared a laugh. He walked me out through what was an otherwise unfurnished office back out to the front, and it was back out to the parking lot to meet Mr. Singh, but not before I took a nice stroll through this eclectic little shopping mall, which had a mismatch of things like a pharmacy, a bank, and two butcher shops. I find Canadian malls much more interesting and useful than American malls, which are usually nothing but rows of indistinguishable womens' fashion stores.
I should also note here: you can't really "fail" biometrics. It's more of just a task you have to do. And as soon as they receive your prints, you're done.
I swear by AAA and have been a member for years. AAA memberships are perfectly valid in Canada and roadside service calls in Canada are dispatched to their affiliates with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).
Trying to explain to the American AAA customer service reps that you're not in America is always a treat; even as a resident of a border state it takes some getting through the Amero-centric mindset that no, you don't have a zip code and no, you don't have a AAA service provider in the area. But once you get through to them, they usually dispatch the appropriate CAA towing companies.
Other than my tow truck driver stopping at Tim Hortons in the middle of towing me to get an Iced Capp--yes, that really happened--my ride "home" was relatively painless ("home" being a local service shop near Syd's house, though they are actually willing to tow your car over the border if necessary and it's not over your 160-km limit).
I will note, I was not pleased with the level of customer service I received by any of the local Canadian Tire mechanics in the Kingston area. I had a good experience with them before when I had car troubles so I decided to give them my business again. All of the people on the phone were really quite rude about my car breaking down on a Friday afternoon and were not willing to take it in until Tuesday, if at all. Tuesday! This was disappointing, but alas, it was Syd's family and I working on the car and tying up the exhaust with wire, and I made it back to New York in one piece.
On the other hand, I think there is a cultural statement to be made about Canada in that I didn't turn any heads while I was at my appointment. I was there for immigration purposes. The older couple in front of me was there to apply for pension benefits. The lady in front of them was there to change the name on her passport. We were all standing there and the kiosk attendant was announcing our business in earshot of others, but nobody was really being nosey. Nobody heard that I was an immigrant and looked at me like I had three heads, or blinked an eye when they heard that the woman in front of me had been assigned male at birth. Here, it's just life: people converge on their local Service Canada to do their own business and don't meddle in anybody else's, and I'm not sure I could say the same about any office building at home in New York. In my experience, it's always been the opposite: break down on the side of the road and you might get help, but air out your laundry at the DMV, and everyone will go home gossiping about it.
I guess from this perspective, the stereotype of Canadian "niceness" turns out to be true. I couldn't believe how unintimidating the Service Canada centre was, run like it was a small business rather than a federal office, which one would expect to be flanked by armed guards and laser beams. Despite the Canadian government being known for its vast bureaucracy, it doesn't feel that way in practice, as it would if you were in a soul-crushing quagmire with the American federal government. And for that, I am thankful. Despite all the trouble I had last weekend, dealing with the government had no part in it!
If you have ever had to have your biometrics collected for a visa or other reason, I'd be interested to hear your experience. Canadians: how do you feel about Service Canada, and what do you think about the attitudes Canadians have when, well, dealing with each other? Oh, and I'm always interested to hear your thoughts on Ottawa's seemingly endless weirdness.