Some Canadians driving cars with U.S. licence plates say they’ve endured vandalism, harassment and even a minor assault from fellow Canadians convinced that they’re Americans illegally in Canada.
Lisa Watt said she was harassed twice in Calgary last month — she believes because of her Texas licence plates.
In one incident, she said a driver stopped right behind her car in a parking lot and glared at her, and in another situation, a driver tailgated her car for several kilometres before pulling up beside her and flipping her the finger.
“It made me angry,” said Watt, a Canadian citizen who moved to Houston in 2000 for work. She drove to Calgary in June to visit her 84-year-old mother, who was feeling isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m here to help my mother. I have every right to be here.”
To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, the Canada-U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential traffic. As a result, some Canadians are alarmed when they spot cars with U.S. licence plates, especially as COVID-19 cases south of the border escalate.
There is reason for concern. Alberta RCMP said that since mid-June, they have fined 10 Americans $1,200 each after they sneaked in to Banff National Park.
Americans are allowed to drive straight through Canada to Alaska for work or to return home, but they can’t stop in Banff — or anywhere else — to see the sights.
However, not all drivers of cars with U.S. plates in Canada are breaking the rules. They could be Americans who are essential workers or have immediate family in Canada, or Canadian citizens — all of whom can enter the country legally.
Watt wants Albertans to know she’s a patriotic Canadian who’s taking every precaution while in Canada. She self-quarantined for 14 days when arriving in Calgary and wears a face mask in stores.
She said both incidents of harassment happened on June 21, the day she finished her quarantine and headed to town to run errands.
‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’
As a result of her experiences, Watt started driving her mother’s car — which has Alberta plates.
“I’m a little afraid to leave my car parked anywhere for fear somebody does something to it,” she said. “I’d like people to understand that people with U.S. licence plates have legitimate reasons for being here.”
Mayor Phil Harding of the Township of Muskoka Lakes also wants to spread that message.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” said Harding, whose township is part of the Muskoka region, a vacation hot spot in Ontario.
The mayor said he recently heard from several Canadians with U.S.-plated cars in the region, who claimed they were accused of being Americans unlawfully in Canada.
“‘You shouldn’t be here. Americans aren’t allowed. How did you get across the border?'” said Harding, about the types of accusations the drivers have fielded from local residents.
Car keyed at marina
In one case, a woman reported that her husband’s car — which has Michigan plates — was scratched with a key, said the mayor.
CBC News confirmed the incident with the woman who said the approximately metre-long scratch appeared after the car had been parked at a marina on June 6.
The woman said she and her husband are Canadian but that her husband works for an American company and drives a company car with U.S. plates. The woman asked that their names be kept confidential because her husband doesn’t want his workplace associated with this story.
“We think it’s terrible and are really aware that we are a target with our U.S.-plated company vehicle,” said the woman about the incident in an email. “This makes you aware that the cross-border tension is building.”
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In another incident in Huntsville, also in the Muskoka region, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) said a Canadian filed a police report after he was allegedly accosted by two men upset over the Florida plates on his car.
OPP spokesperson Jason Folz said the incident happened on June 12 at a car wash.
“They harassed him, and the assault was they poked him in the chest, demanding to know why he was in Canada.”
Folz said the man is a snowbird who spends winters in Florida and owns a car with Florida plates.
“People are stressed [about COVID-19], and it comes out in strange ways. This is perhaps one of those ways,” said Folz about the incident.
Lawyer avoids crossing border
U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders said several of his clients — who are dual Canadian-U.S. citizens or essential workers — have complained of mean looks when driving their U.S.-plated car in Canada.
As a result, Saunders said he avoids crossing the border, even though he can as an essential worker and a dual citizen.
“I’m concerned about being socially shamed up there in B.C., driving a U.S.-plated car because I’ve heard from multiple clients, stories of dirty looks,” said Saunders, whose office sits close to the British Columbia border in Blaine, Wash.
He said he can understand why some Canadians get upset when spotting U.S. licence plates in the country, considering COVID-19 cases are spiking in some U.S. states.
But they must remember that many people driving U.S.-plated cars in Canada are there for a valid reason, Saunders said.
“They really have to look at the big picture before they pass judgment.”