Canada did not want us

I am writing this letter in response to the article “New Dawn Pushes for new immigration strategy” which appeared in the November 15 edition of The Reporter.

I read your article to my childhood sweetheart of 56 years. Christina didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. Why? Get yourself a cup a tea, sit down somewhere quiet, and read the following.

I grew up on a ranch in the great Owens River Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains. I met my wife in high school. She was 15 and I had just turned 16. We promised to be together forever. Four years later, we were married and have been together, uninterrupted, ever since.


We started our own ranch from scratch in the Aliso Canyon area near the town of Santa Paula in 1986. It was on land that my ancestors had settled when they came from Ireland. We built a log cabin, doused and had a well dug. Built and improved roads, built corrals, sheds, and storage facilities. We started a horse training operation and a feed business. I also purchased a local used bookstore to help bring in extra money. Christina was working to become a senior vice-president with a major TV studio. I was 10 years away from retiring from working as the senior manufacturing engineer on the Space Station. In 2007 the property reverted back to family ownership amongst brother and sisters and a trust was established. We were told that the property would be put up for sale. In 2004, anticipating the possible sale of our ranch, we looked for property elsewhere.

At that time, we attended a concert by a young lady named Natalie MacMaster at the University of California Santa Barbara. I was a musician and my wife and I both loved Bluegrass and Folk music. Words cannot explain the feelings that swept over us when we saw Mrs. MacMaster perform. We fell in love with Cape Breton music. We saw it as sign showing us the way. I researched Cape Breton Island and we immediately fell in love with the place, sight unseen. A week later, I was sitting at our local Barnes and Noble bookstore reading a Mother Earth News magazine when I came across a flyer stuck inside advertising Canadian tax sale land from H. M. Dignam. It jumped out at me and metaphorically gave me a good shaking. I showed it to my wife and we took it as another sign that we were on the right path.

I ordered the H.M. Dignam Catalogue. I, at once, got cold feet but my wife encouraged me to continue. We made a plan that we would need at least 100 acres to rebuild a farm and a horse-training centre. Well wouldn’t you know it? Three months went by and sure enough there was some property up for tax sale.

On Cape Breton Island no less! It was an abused and abandoned piece of forest land near the Town of Port Hawkesbury in the amount of 270 acres with a series of Nova Scotia Power lines running through the north end of it. I purchased it sight unseen. In February, 2005, my son and I caught a plane from LAX to Halifax and then drove to the property out by Barberton Road. We drove the Cabot Trail and then flew back home. We were really excited about the possibilities.

I showed my wife the videos we took and she was ready to go, but didn’t want to wait to build a place. She said, “Let’s find a little place somewhere nearby so that we can go to Nova Scotia right away.” I went on-line and, again, the signs were all there. Up popped a small farm with corrals, horse barn, and land around it. There were a couple of photos. I emailed them to my wife. She emailed back, “Buy it, now!” I called the realtor, Ralph Neil, and made an offer. I called a local Port Hawkesbury bank and began setting up a loan.

Before you could say, “gle mhath!” we had bought the farm. In April of 2005, my wife and I flew to Nova Scotia and drove out to Cape Breton Island to see, for the first time, the little farm we had purchased. It was isolated. Took us all day to find it. When we did, we stopped the car, got out, barely breathing, hugged, and with tears flowing down our cheeks we giggled with childish delight at our good fortune at being home on Cape Breton Island.

As soon as I had purchased the original 270 acres, I had gone on-line and downloaded an application for Permanent Residency with the Canadian Government. I realized that we were older, I was 58 years old at the time, and must prove our worth as entrepreneurs who could contribute to Canada. I put together pages and pages of backup describing, in detail, our capabilities and what we would be bringing to Canada. In the meantime, we set out a schedule that would allow us to spread the 180-day visitor’s allotment over the whole year by staying one month at our farm in Sugar Camp and then returning to the states for one month. It was a grueling schedule, but we wanted to stay within Canadian immigration guidelines no matter what the cost to us.

After returning back to the states, we began settling our affairs. Then I received a troubling call from the gentlemen who was to be our caretaker at the Sugar Camp farm. Local vandals had attacked our little farm. I immediately flew back to our Cape Breton farm in July to find that windows had been broken in the house and the horse barn. Paint had been spread through every room in the house and “Murder You” had been painted on the wall of one of the bedrooms. I did some investigation and found out that the culprits were kids who lived locally and were known. I took the information to the RCMP, but they did nothing. I worked all month renovating the house and barn on my own. I didn’t want my wife to see our dreams so thrashed. When she did return, I had completely renovated the house better than it ever was.

We both fell in love with the place all over again. Neighbours had heard of our plight and came out in our support. Such beautiful people, they made us all but forget the tragedy that had befallen us.

I continued communicating with Canadian immigration through their New York office and filled out any additional documents they needed and provided any additional back up they needed. We set our move date to the end of July 2008. I had already retired from the aerospace business where I had been a senior electrical manufacturing engineer. My wife was on the cusp of retiring from a major motion picture studio in Burbank, California as a senior vice president. On August 1, 2008, we pulled out of Ventura, California with everything we owned in a large trailer behind our flatbed Chevy truck. We had closed our winery, placed our horses elsewhere, stored the books from our bookstore, and bid our families fare-thee-well.

Eight days later, we pulled into our new life at Sugar Camp farm. However, no matter how hard we tried, Canadian immigration would not move on our application. Not only that, they refused all our inquiries.

Concerned, but undaunted, we continued our schedule of one month in Canada, the other in the states, and worked hard to improve the farm. Everything to our name was now on that farm. We hired all local help for roofing, electrical, plumbing, and a local farmer to assist with land preparation. Folks took to us and we took to them. I knew how to play Appalachian fiddle, but I began getting tutored in the Cape Breton style. My wife and joined the local Gaelic language club. My wife and I became volunteers at a local museum. My wife joined a quilting club. We both joined a Gaelic choir. I began volunteering with troubled horses in the area and training new starts.

A local bookstore closed down and I went to the mall manager, Barbara, and offered to take over the bookstore once our permanent residency was granted. The owners of the mall offered me four months free rent to start up a new bookstore. I added that bit of information to our residency application, yet still no response from Canadian immigration.

My wife and I met with a local business start-up organization to seek help with our immigration issue. We were told, basically, they didn’t think we had a chance due to our age, but perhaps we could get help from local politicians. As it turned out at the time; the premier of Nova Scotia was a local politician so I began a letter writing campaign to his office explaining our situation and requesting assistance. It was all for naught. We were ignored. I then wrote to our local government representative, Mr. MacMaster, and after a number of attempts, he finally offered, and I quote; “…that’s why we have bureaucracies, to deal with people like you.” With “people like you” meaning, us? What kind of response was that?

People like us? Again, our hearts sunk. All our new Canadian friends were as heart broke as us. They were just absolutely positive that the “local boy” would come to our aid. Nonetheless, not to be dissuaded, we marched on. Encouraged by our Gaelic language tutor, we both sought to go back to college. It had always been on our list of things to do once we retired. We applied to and were accepted to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. I was accepted into the Celtic Studies program and my wife into a Creative Arts program. We enrolled as International Students as to not do anything against immigration rules. We purchased school insurance and we applied for a student visa.

After nearly two months as students, we received a letter from Canadian Immigration, and again, I quote…”We don’t believe people your age would go back to college.” With that tart remark, Canadian immigration had turned down our student visa requests and we were forced to abandon StFX.

It was becoming clear, after five years of living, on and off, for 180 days a year on our Sugar Camp farm, that something was definitely amiss with Canadian immigration. Then the letter we regretted finally showed up. We had been denied permanent residency. We had encouraged my son and his family to join us on our farm and had laid out a place to build a home for him and his family. By now our son and his family were established in Nova Scotia as well. They had followed us. They were on their way to permanent residency as we were being given the boot.

Our lawyer attempted to find a way to keep us under the “no family left behind” ruling, but time would still be against us and what we really needed was a right to do business and continue as responsible, working adults and residents of Canada. I tried to get back to Canadian immigration and their response was that, “we had failed to back up any of our entrepreneurial claims for residency.” I was shocked. Further research revealed that the Canadian immigration Office in New York mailed our application back to their California office, but had failed to send, what had now become an almost two-inch thick file of documents, justifications, and qualifications to support our entrepreneurial claims. Once I found that out, I put together another file and rushed it off to Canadian immigration in California. To this date I have never received a response although I have proof that their California office did receive the documents.

We had no choice but to sell our beloved Sugar Camp farm, all the thousands of dollars of equipment, all our tens of thousands of dollars of antique furniture that we had collected over the years, and gave away most of clothing, and all our cutlery. We basically drove away with the clothes on our back. It was the year 2010.

Our kids and grand kids still reside, very successfully, in Nova Scotia. My wife and I try to make the 14-hour trip every month from Eastport, Maine (where we’ve settled) to visit them. We had to completely start over again. I’ve opened an on-line bookstore. My wife opened her own art gallery. We started a renovation company. We still dream of our beautiful life at Sugar Camp Farm and all the wonderful folks we came to love.

Oh Canada?


John Hylas

Christina Ann Smith

Eastport Maine