Gemma and Brent Charlton remember the moment they agreed that, against borders and distance, they were going to stay together. It was October 2006, and they were holding hands on a busy Hong Kong street. “There were buses going by, people everywhere,” Brent, 24, remembers. “But we decided it would be just us. We would see what happens.”
The pair was on a study abroad program—she from outside Manchester, U.K., he from Springfield, Ont. They had spent six months exploring Hong Kong, travelling in China. That night, they promised their relationship wouldn’t end with the university exchange. They didn’t realize, though, how much of their life together would hinge on unromantic things like the demands of the labour market, immigration policy—and sheer luck.
For nearly two years, Gemma and Brent kept in touch, mostly over Skype or “the occasional text,” says Gemma, who is 25. “I would have to wait up until 11, 12 at night, for Brent to come home from work so we could talk.” Phone calls were rushed, sometimes exhausting. Brent jokes, “It definitely was not the honeymoon stage.” They saw each other three times before Gemma decided, in 2008, to move to Canada.
What came next was a stressful red-tape nightmare. Gemma went through four short-term visas without knowing whether she and Brent would have a future in the same country. With her British law degree, she had planned to get a skilled-immigrant visa, but the Canadian economy didn’t call for the services of a lawyer, and Gemma didn’t have the experience Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) was looking for: “Taxi cab driver, tobacco worker, or exotic dancer,” she says. “That was really what was needed then.” She’s now working as a receptionist at a Toronto law firm, waiting to find out whether she’ll be able to stay on here. Though she and Brent married last August, CIC has not processed her request for permanent residency a year after filing.
Their story isn’t uncommon today. A globalized labour market and the booming popularity of study abroad are encouraging people to cross-pollinate like never before. The number of Canadians attending U.S. universities went up 30 per cent between 1994 and 2009, and over the last seven years, the British border agency has issued over 65,000 short-term visas to Canadian nationals. Inside Canada, the number of foreign students rose from 66,000 six years ago to 96,000 last year. Similarly, there were nearly 200,000 foreign workers in 2010, twice as many as in 2004. By 2031, Statistics Canada estimates, nearly half of Canadians aged 15 or over will have at least one foreign-born parent or will have been born outside the country.
Then there’s the rise of online dating. The Canadian visa ofﬁce in Rabat, Morocco, reported that roughly half of the 977 family visas issued in 2009, for marriages between a Moroccan and a Canadian-born spouse, were the result of a relationship born on the Internet or a meeting while on holiday. The embassy at Kyiv recorded a “high proportion of Internet relationships” among those applying for family visas in Canada. Richard Kurland, a B.C.-based immigration lawyer, has been watching this trend. “With the change in technology,” he notes, “the same way you have access to goods and services globally, you have access to the heart globally.”