D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

Sunday, March 15, 2009 10:59 PM

I should be sitting in the Denver airport right now waiting for my connecting flight to Tucson, but I’m not. Instead I’m here in Winnipeg trying to make sense of my experience with the U.S. CBP (Customs and Border Protection) representatives.

So first, some background: For those of you that don’t know what it is, NAFTA stands for the North American Free Trade Act. This act was intended to help make trade between Canada, the US, and Mexico easier and its been in existence since 1994.

Part of NAFTA is allowing professionals to work in another NAFTA country under certain guidelines and regulations. These professionals need to provide sufficient documentation and can then receive a TN visa which allows them temporary access to the US for the purpose of conducting business. The documentation includes a letter from the employer, proof of education, professional experience summary, etc.

Ok…so back to me not sitting in Denver…

I was scheduled to fly down to record some sessions for a virtual conference to air later this year. Part of the speaking deal was that I’d be given an honorarium for each session that I presented. When I hit customs at the airport, I was up front that I was going down for business, and I was directed to an office for further discussion.

From here I interacted with two CBP officers who asked a tonne of questions:

- What are you doing there?
- Who do you work for?
- What do you do for your employer?
- Why are they bringing you down and not giving this position to an American?
- What qualifications do you have for this position?
- What is your professional experience?
- What is your schooling?

There was also some confusion with the answers I gave. For instance, I mentioned that I’ve spoken before but this was the first time I’d be getting paid for it. This got the response of “Why would you speak without getting paid?” For anyone not in the IT industry, I can see how this would be a perfectly valid question. After all, I’m sure there’s no Border Crossing Camps the same way we have Code Camps.

On the point of professional experience, I mentioned that I’ve been in the industry for 8 years. This prompted going through a listing of all my professional history and how long I had been at each. Suggestion: Bring a copy of your resume with you.

After much discussion, the verdict was returned that the work I would have performed wouldn’t fall under NAFTA or a TN visa. Now…here’s where things do get a bit confusing for me…

The reason I was given was that a Canadian cannot get paid to speak in the US. I made sure to clarify with the CBP officers that agnostic of the industry or position, the issue was the getting-paid-to-speak and not anything to do with my profession or industry. They confirmed that.

The actual wording was along the lines of: What you’re doing doesn’t fit within the list of accepted professional occupations. As I’ve been thinking about this, it doesn’t make sense. I would fall under the Computer Systems Analyst, and I’m acting under that professional designation as part of my speaking role. However, that’s how *I* see it.

When I was asked what I did at my company, I responded “Software Developer”. If the CBP officers are trained to allow *only* those professions on the official list, then perhaps unless you identify yourself as one of those professions you’re automatically stricken?

One frustration was that I was told if I recorded the sessions up here and simply *sold* them to the operators of the client, that would be fine. Yet, there’s no real difference between that and what I was going to do other than I was going to travel to the conference studios to record my sessions.

One thing I do want to make clear: the CBP officers that I dealt with were all cordial, patient (I asked a LOT of questions and for copies of documents I was signing), and helpful. I was even given a number I could call if I had further questions.

And I do…mainly around whether its true that a Canadian, regardless of experience or profession, can NOT speak at a conference in the US and get paid for doing it. But even more, I’m curious about the do’s/don’ts that go into acquiring the TN visa and being given the go ahead for getting in to the US to work under NAFTA regulations (and no, I don’t suspect I’ll be given that information during my phone call tomorrow ;) ).

Here are some thoughts from my experience (some I already mentioned, but repeating here for summary):

- Show up extra early at the airport. My experience took about 45 minutes to the point I was told I wouldn’t be flying, and another 15 or 20 minutes to complete paperwork. Even if the result had been a go-ahead, this process is still an hour long.

- Bring your resume. You will be asked about your professional background. Instead of pulling dates and names out of your head, just hand over your resume.

- Identify yourself within the appropriate NAFTA professional occupation. I’m not sure if this had any bearing on the decision, but it can’t hurt to play cautious.

- Bring any supporting letters or documents that validate you in your profession. For us in the MVP program, remember that letter of validation we have access to? This would be a good place to use it!

- Ask questions and ask for copies of any documents you sign. This is just common sense I would think, but some people might be intimidated. Don’t be…ask. The officers I dealt with were more than happy to oblige.

I’m hoping to glean more info over the next few days, and I’ll do a follow up blog post in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts, questions, or experiences similar that they’d like to share, please do!



# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

Wow - thats amazing. Here is a better idea. When you cross, say the trip is personal. Not like they are really going to know or track you are speaking at a conference.

Stunning they made you go through that! 3/16/2009 1:01 AM | Aaron Erickson

# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

Bummer dude. I've been in the same boat a few times, but never refused. I think there's an exemption if you're lecturing on a profession that is covered under TN, so if you had said you're a computer analysts and that you're lecture was on that topic, then you might have been fine (that said, I'm not a lawyer). You should have a quick chat with a lawyer that specializes in this and he can draft you a letter for future trips.

Crappy how free trade applies to goods, but not people. 3/16/2009 8:27 AM | Steve Porter

# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

Dude you should have driven to the Emerson crossing and did this a couple of weeks ago, the CPB always give you a hard time when you are trying to get documents at the last minute. Plus you would have had time to get more documentation and authentication from the company in the US if needed.

Also never divulge your past experience (speaking/working in the US) and stick to point blank answers. Trust me the less information you give them (unless asked for) the less suspicious they will become. Remember their job is to make you feel uncomfortable so you will fumble the ball and contradict yourself if you are trying to lie.

This was the advise I got when I had to work in the US from someone who traveled back and forth all the time (also around 9-11).

Sorry about the trip mang..
3/16/2009 8:56 AM | William

# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

So what you're really saying, silly Canadian, is that your answer to their very first question should have been "TOURISM! Howdy Y'all!!" and left it at that. 3/16/2009 11:42 AM | Chris G. Williams

# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

A couple of years ago, I had the same experience, except I was heading into Canada. I spent three hours in the airport in Vancouver, B.C. after letting immigration know that I was going into Canada to work. I was doing a training class for a Canadian company. Luckily, I manage to get hold of a co-worker (it was Sunday), who fax the invoice to immigration. Immigration then sold me a work permit. I ran to catch my flight (my luggage did not make the flight). So I can sympathize with you, it is easier to go to the UK or Ireland to work than USA/Canada due to NAFTA. 3/16/2009 12:14 PM | Eric Holton

# re: Adventures in NAFTA: Can a Canadian Get Paid to Speak?

You are *far* more patient than I am.

I agree with Aaron and Chris: next time, you're just visiting; which as I recall I said when we first spoke on this. 3/16/2009 4:43 PM | Kent Sharkey

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