mountie repellent
September 8, 2009 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Do American musicians need a special work permit to play two shows in Canada?

I've found some information that says we do, mostly from musician's unions that want lots of money to send you letters to give to border guards. I can't find any official word from either country or musicians informally saying what to do.

Experiences? I know, YANML, but what actually happens when we show up at the border in a van with some musical equipment?

(Would have posted this in the last touring advice thread but this seems mighty important and obscure to append to an old question.)

Thanks greatly MetaFilter of the Gods.
posted by Potomac Avenue to Law & Government (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdote but yes, I do know some musicians that were turned away at the border. But it seems like any reason can get your turned away - I don't bother to go to shows with US musicians because so many can't get through the border (some of those I know are because of criminal records though) and word usually doesn't get out till an hour before the set. You would probably have more luck shipping the equipment/luggage separately and just crossing as tourists.
posted by saucysault at 2:20 PM on September 8, 2009

If you're getting paid for the show: sadly, yes you do need a work permit. It's illegal for Americans to work in Canada without visas. It's illegal for Canadians to work in the US without visas.

See, eg:

Lots of bands, I believe, lie at the border in various ways. Sometimes they get caught.
posted by ManInSuit at 2:23 PM on September 8, 2009

And this stillepost (Toronto indie music forum) indicates even Canadians have trouble getting into Canada with gear. Maybe post your question there?
posted by saucysault at 2:24 PM on September 8, 2009

Yes, you need a permit (or work visa).

This is one of those things that a manager does to earn his pay.
posted by rokusan at 2:25 PM on September 8, 2009

what actually happens when we show up at the border in a van with some musical equipment?

If they catch wind of it, or even just harbor a strong suspicion:

(1) They don't let you in.
(2) They flag your identity so that you'll get pulled for secondary inspection, grilled intensely, have your shit rifled through, and delayed interminably just about every time you try to enter Canada from now until the day you die.
(3) Maybe, they just bar you from entering Canada period, for some period of years.
(4) When you get sent back to the US and have to explain that you were denied entry into Canada, I would not be surprised if your identity gets flagged by ICE too, because you've already been caught trying to be sneaky around borders once, so that you frequently get secondary inspection when you come back to the US from wherever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:27 PM on September 8, 2009

My band (Americans) played a show at the Pop Montreal Festival last year. In terms of documentation I think we brought a letter from the booker, stating our gig date and time. We had his number handy, too, in case they wanted to call. We also brought copies of our hotel receipts, just in case we had to prove that we had a place to stay. We gave that stuff to the border guards along with our passports.

We ended up being surprised at how long the border crossing took and it seems like they did pretty extensive background checks on us. We actually saw the singer from another band get denied entrance because he had a recent criminal conviction for (he claimed) misdemeanor trespassing. We spent about three hours just sitting at border control until they let us go and almost missed our show time. They never actually looked through our vehicle though, which seemed strange given the other scrutiny.

I really don't know if our supporting documents ended up being helpful or not, but we did eventually get through. You might try calling Canadian Border Control and asking.
posted by otolith at 2:34 PM on September 8, 2009

I have heard also of people being turned away at the border for trying to bring in CDs to sell at their gigs. Please check in on what exactly you can/cannot bring with you, merch-wise.
posted by SassHat at 2:38 PM on September 8, 2009

Huh, from other responses here it seems like it could have been much worse for us. Maybe around the festival times they see so many little bands just trying to play one or two little gigs that they had mercy on us. We never tried to hide that we were there to play. I just reached out to my other band members who had more to do with the logistics than I did, in case there is some big thing we had to do that I am forgetting.
posted by otolith at 2:50 PM on September 8, 2009

Best answer: If you're being paid for your two gigs, you will most probably need a Temporary Employment Authorization (IMM-1102). I'm sure you've poked around on the internet for this information yourself, but here's a basic intro to how this works. Keep in mind that you need to be a member of AFM in order to get this permit, and that you should budget a couple of months for processing time. Even with a permit, it's useful to have as much documentation about where you'll be staying, venue arrangements, etc., etc. as possible.

To see why otolith's band was able to play the Pop Montreal Festival without a permit, have a peek at page 6 of this document. Essentially, "recognized music festivals" and some "large venues" are considered exempt from the work permit requirement. Those festivals and venues would have explained this to you/your manager by now, so I'm guessing that's not your situation.

If you're not being paid to play these shows, get letters from your venues confirming this fact, and have as much documentation about where you're staying as possible. You want to be able to account for all of the time you're planning to spend in Canada.

When you show up at the border with a van full of musical equipment, the border guards will want to know why. They will ask many, many questions. They will google your names, so make sure your story matches your myspace page. I cannot emphasize this enough.
posted by Hellgirl at 2:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, band members confirm that Hellgirl's exemption info is correct. We had a letter from one of the festival organizers and the booker claiming exemption due to the whole festival thing.
posted by otolith at 3:05 PM on September 8, 2009

When we did it we said we said we were recording and brought a letter to that effect and stated that we didn't have any merch. We had a little trouble at the border on account of our drummer's birth certificate says he's born in 1858 and that, when asked the license plate of the van, our singer replied, "I don't know. Some letters and numbers?" and, when asked if any of us were carrying weapons, *turned around to see if anyone was nodding.*

We got away with it, wouldn't recommend it. YMMV. Oh, and for the love of christ NO DRUGS IN THE VAN!
posted by stet at 3:36 PM on September 8, 2009

Response by poster: Good stuff thanks!...Hellgirl's marked as best so far leading me to this utterly perfect and useless line from her link:

Unfortunately, it appears that the different and various Canadian borders and officers can all interpret the exemption code differently.

That from the most definitive document I've seen anywhere.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:46 PM on September 8, 2009

the different and various Canadian borders and officers can all interpret the exemption code differently

This is a normal and inevitable part of having actual people administer the law, not a WTF CANADA.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:01 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

HA! Potomac Avenue, if it's any consolation, it's just as bad (if not worse) to travel as a Canadian musician across the border into the U.S.

This is a WTF-is-with-penalizing-small-time-musicians-for-trying-to-make-a-living-on-this-frikking-continent situation, really.
posted by Hellgirl at 4:51 PM on September 8, 2009

That from the most definitive document I've seen anywhere.

Dude, it's not *Canada*, it's *border guards*. I once had a US border guard try to tell me I wasn't American anymore because I hadn't lived in America for "enough time".

I don't have much to say about the specifics: cover your ass as best you can with your documents, etc. But attitude-wise, I suggest a polite, helpful, and forthright demeanour. Definitely let go of the frustrations of this process before you get there.
posted by carmen at 6:23 AM on September 9, 2009

Best answer: I help book small to medium size punk/hardcore bands in Montreal Canada. We often book american bands. These bands do not get work permits/visas because they are at a scale where it is simply not worth the cost given the size of the shows. They usually come and play 3-5 shows in Canada.

How we get them into the country is using the exempt venue status mentioned above. We send documentation to the border showing that the venues the shows are booked at would not be open if there was not a show there (ie, they are a concert hall, or 'large venue' mentioned above) and that they are not open before or after the show. Any space that is only open to host the concert, and perhaps fits some other requirements is exempted under the laws mentioned above, as I understand it. This document contains the names and contact information of the venue owner, the promoter in the city, the 'booking agent', etc etc so the border can call to verify the venue's status.

Whether or not this is all legally correct, the point it IT ALWAYS WORKS assuming the documentation is correct and someone is there to answer the phone at the venue and confirm all the details. So in terms of the border guard's average interpretation of the law (at Ontario/Quebec to US border crossings) this approach appears to work.

This is something the promoter of the shows should take care of, assuming the venues your shows could indeed be exempt. Certain bookers (for example, the folks who book the Pop Montreal festival, have good reputations and are trusted at the border, and almost any exemption request they receive from those promoters is accepted. If your booker is not experienced with these kinds of things, you should ask them to contact a bigger promoter in their city to help out as they probably have experience with this and may even help out with the paperwork.
posted by The Wig at 9:30 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I knew it. I knew this union permit thing wasn't necessary. I contacted both the AFM-canada who said they would write us a letter of exemption immediately (once we pay 40 dollars) and the concert halls where we are playing to find out if we're covered. They havent gotten back to me yet but I found this on one of their sites: Letter of Exemption. Apparently it's not just festivals, if bands do their research they never really have to pay or get hassled for just a couple of gigs.

I apologize to canada for WTFing it. Clearly this overly complicated and stringent rule had to have a backdoor, and I think that is it.

Thanks The Wig!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:02 AM on September 9, 2009

Despite the visa thing, do watch out for the merch thing someone mentioned above. Bands are often required to declare and pay taxes or duties or tariffs on all the merch they bring into the country. They can then get back the duty on anything they don't sell and take back out of the country again, but it's a hassle in both directions. Quite a few low-level American bands simply don't bring any merch to Canadian shows, which, of course, makes those shows a lot less worth playing, which is why we often don't get bands, even if they're already touring to upstate NY and could hit Toronto easily. Quite a few other low-level American bands have someone else smuggle it across the border in a car that doesn't contain a band and all their gear and is thus less likely to be searched (this is obviously illegal, but it soooo happens).
posted by jacquilynne at 3:34 PM on September 9, 2009

Oh yay! I love happy endings. I'll add one more voice to the "watch your merch situation" chorus. Hope your shows go really well!
posted by Hellgirl at 8:07 PM on September 15, 2009

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