Returning to Canada after three decades has been instructive. After nine years in Tokyo in a high-pressure job, life in the heart of Ontario's Mennonite farming community is a pleasure and a joy. Greener pastures indeed.
The smugness of many Canadians - who have much to be smug about - may be due to using their great and powerful neighbour as the benchmark for evaluating themselves. In some respects, Canada may be better than the equivalent on offer south of the border yet not compare favourably to the prevailing situation in Europe or Asia. For example, the ubiquitous automated, computer voice telephone answering here is the worst I have encountered anywhere in the world: the U.S., Europe, Australasia, India and other developing countries. It is profoundly alienating.
The one recurring irritant is a bureaucratic culture that may surpass even the famed Japanese. Trying to re-establish Canadian identity has proven interesting: the vast maw of bureaucracy has a difficulty for every solution. The courtesy and helpfulness of the people one deals with may ease but does not eliminate the frustrations of the rigid regulations.
With three current driver's licences and an expired but intact Ontario licence (plus expired ones from India and Fiji), not to mention four decades of unblemished driving record (okay, one speeding and parking ticket each), an Ontario licence should be routine, right?
Wrong. We don't have reciprocal exchange agreements with Australia and New Zealand. So licences issued by their competent authorities do not actually prove driving ability. The expired Ontario licence has, well, expired. We do have a mutual recognition agreement with Japan. As the Japanese licence is not in English, could I please have an official statement from the consulate in Toronto certifying that the document is what I claim?
At this point I asked if it would be simpler to go through the process of being tested and getting a fresh licence. Possible, yes. Simpler, no. I would be treated like novice 16-19 year-old learner-drivers, the process would take up to a year, including several months with a learner's permit, and the insurance premiums would be correspondingly higher by several factor-fold.
Phone the Japanese consulate. No problem. Please come in person, present your Japanese licence, pay the necessary administrative fee, and collect the official statement.
Back I go to the driver's licence office, armed with all the documents, and this time, after a vision test, success and an Ontario licence once again - the very same number I had three decades ago. I had not the heart to inform them that the Japanese licence was issued on the strength of my Australian.
To add to the absurdity, I could not buy a car without an Ontario licence. In the meantime I was driving - a rental car. I wonder how generously the rental car companies donate to the ruling party.
The health card proved trickier. There is a Catch-22 conundrum: once you have one official document, getting others is easier. But not too easy. It brought to mind the law that when two vehicles come simultaneously to an intersection, both shall stop, and neither shall proceed until the other has passed. A contribution to slowing global warming perhaps, but not to efficient flow of traffic.
The health card does not take effect until three months after taking up residence in Ontario. Because I arrived at the Toronto airport as a Canadian citizen, the passport was not stamped. How then to prove date of arrival? Would copes of airline ticket and boarding pass do? No, originals are required. (Requiring original documents, masses of them, instead of copies, seems to be a particular Canadian fetish.) Of course, people paying for them insist on taking the original tickets when the journey is completed. Fortunately, I was able to "borrow" it back for this purpose.
That still does not establish residence in Ontario. I offered agreement to purchase a house along with deposit, dated January. Sorry: that was before arrival in March. The purchase being completed after arrival was not relevant. I was reminded of the law governing payment of pensions in Kolkata when I lived there. If there is a break in collection, the pensioner must supply a medical certificate testifying that he is alive and well; his physical presence in the office does not constitute documentary proof. And there must be a separate certificate for each month's back pension claim; a certificate proving being alive on May 1 is sufficient for claiming pension for April but not for the preceding March, February or January.
After a couple of months, with statements from utility companies and banks addressed to our Ontario house, we managed to convince the health ministry of our residential status.
The absurd passport regulations have mercifully just been changed. An existing passport - accepted as proof of Canadian identity all over the world for five years - was not sufficient proof of nationality for a new passport; the original birth or citizenship certificate is required. (The social insurance number process will still not accept passport as proof of Canadian identity, "to protect against identity theft.") Do these presumably intelligent people not realise that that very claim invalidates their procedure, in that it is an admission of failure? All they do is inconvenience the innocents without stopping the thieves. But then, the whole airport security industry is making big money worldwide out of similar stupidity.
A restricted category of professions had to attest on passport application forms and photos, but could not be paid for the purpose. The physician in Tokyo flatly refused to provide, in effect and understandably, professional service for free on the order of a foreign government. I had to find someone else. Restricting each passport to five years maximum is insane, especially when most countries refuse entry on a passport with less than six months' validity. Of my three passports (three oaths of allegiance to the Queen: does Her Majesty have a more loyal subject?), the Canadian was the most bureaucratic to get and the only one that does not last for 10 years.
Indians applying for tourist visas to Canada experience something similar. For some family members, I submitted a statement accepting full responsibility for all expenses during their stay and against overstaying. They asked for my scanned photo page in the Canadian passport. I was travelling at the time, and replied that (a) surely Indians are not required to have a Canadian citizen, relation or not, sponsor their trip to be eligible for a tourist visa; and (b) as I was on the road without access to scanning equipment, I was sending all passport details (name, number, place and date of issue and expiry). All these details could be cross-checked and verified from the central database, whereas it is a simple matter to forge a scanned document. Not good enough. The application was rejected and had to be resubmitted. Their experience with the U.S. embassy was more efficient and less stressful (smug Canadians: please take note). This still does not compare with the bizarre decision to refuse admission to Sikhs named Singh and Kaur! Which names will be banned next - Smith and Jones from the U.K.?
No credit history over the last five years in Canada creates complications with private sector firms. Many are not awake to the reality of a high income international elite that moves freely between several countries. Having injected a million dollars into the local economy before getting my first Canadian pay, at least I am free to take my money to firms happy to accept it. A good consumer is a ruthless one.
How much choice do I have with Air Canada? Of the half dozen airline frequent flyer programmes I belong to, this is the worst. It just doesn't have the right balance between delivering on service and breathlessly marketing new awards and promotional campaigns. Presumably to protect the airline rather than promote consumers' interests, airfares are sky high.
The same Air Canada flights used to cost me about half flying Tokyo-Toronto compared to Toronto-Tokyo return. The result: two-thirds of my business class international trips, paid for by foreign institutions, have been booked by foreign travel agents at between one-third to one-half the costs on offer locally. The loser is the Canadian travel industry.
The goal of rules framed and administered by civil servants should be to facilitate and enable agreed tasks. Too many take it as their mission to frustrate and obstruct. Incentives are structured not to reward the facilitators and punish the obstructionist but the reverse. Governments should appoint anti-bureaucracy czar, and at least one end user or client to governing boards.
Conservative governments should have a comparative advantage over political opponents in slashing red tape. Does this one have? Or is it the case that while governments are in office in Canada, power lies with the bureaucracy? Governments reign but bureaucrats rule?