Conferences Across Borders

By Simon St. Laurent
August 20, 2008

One of the reasons I've always liked the Balisage Conference and its predecessors is location: it's in Montreal, in August. This year, though, the pros and cons of that location seemed much much clearer.

On a regular basis, several times a day, the fact that the conference wasn't in the United States kept coming up. Both Americans and others regularly talked about the ever-growing difficulties of getting into and out of the United States.

Americans focused on the recent official announcement of laptop seizures lasting as long as customs wants them to last (though this isn't new), and at least two people had actually brought different laptops than usual just in case their laptop got held for a while. (A lot of folks at this show have security clearances and are pretty used to working under intrusive inspection, so I was especially surprised by the discomfort level.)

Attendees from outside of the U.S. mentioned their relief at not having to deal with U.S. border crossings, visa applications, and general uncertainty about how the process would work. There were tales of foreign presenters at U.S.-based conferences who'd been unable to get to the shows to present for reasons no one seemed able to explain.

Overall, it sounded like conference organizers face a choice. They can have conferences inside the U.S. and dim the enthusiasm of non-U.S. attendees, or they can have conferences outside the U.S. and have Americans contemplating just how much trouble it is to get out of their own country and back in. Canada used to be a nice middle ground, but recent changes to U.S. policy have made even visiting Canada a much more involved process than it used to be.

I drove into Canada without a problem, beyond waiting for the car in front of me to have a long conversation. Coming back into the U.S. wasn't too difficult at the border crossing in Massena, but I certainly was surprised to drive through a Border Patrol check point along the St.Lawrence River - another reminder that America seems to want its borders hermetically sealed, whatever the cost.

It's hard for me to imagine that America is actually helping itself with these policies.

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