Special Canada Day dawns for neuroscientist

Adela Talbot // Western NewsThis year, Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen will celebrate Canada Day, for the first time, as a permanent resident of Canada. “I decided quite early on that I was going to stay. It was science that brought me to Canada – but it’s much more that keeps me here.”

The sheer, glorious space of the country. Beaches in summer; snow sports in winter. The research opportunities and academic atmosphere. For years, Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen has set his heart on making Canada his home and adopted land.

This year, he will celebrate Canada Day, for the first time, as a permanent resident of Canada.

While the decision was easy for Owen, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute, the logistics of getting permanent residency were anything but. Along the long-and-winding process towards residency, his passport expired; he needed to renew his visa in an airport terminal and he ‘flagpoled’ twice at the Canada-U.S. border to keep himself legal.

“There are some amusing parts to this,” he said with a chuckle. “Of course, they were frustrating at the time.”

In 2011, Owen, already conducting ground-breaking work on cognition and awareness, made headlines by accepting a position at Western and moving his research lab from Cambridge in the U.K. “I decided quite early on I was going to stay. It was science that brought me to Canada – but it’s much more that keeps me here,” he said.

One of the first signals Canada was different from the U.K. was during his first recruitment visit, when he was welcomed at the airport by Ravi Menon, Canada Research Chair in Functional and Molecular Imaging at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and scientist at Robarts Research Institute.

“That’s another thing that’s very different about Western. Coming from Cambridge, nobody would send a big-shot scientist to pick somebody up. It’s just not the way things would be done in Britain. People would be sent instructions on how to get the bus from the airport.

“Here’s Ravi, senior scientist, big-shot here at Western, turning up in his own car to pick me up and he said, ‘Hey let’s go to the beach.’

“He drove me up towards Bayfield and Grand Bend and it was wonderful. I never realized you actually have beaches in the middle of Canada. It was Labour Day, the sun was shining, people were wandering around the circle at Grand Bend and I just instantly thought, ‘This is just a different type of life than the one that I’ve had in the U.K.’”

Western has offered “amazing opportunities” to cognitive neuroscientists, Owen added, and the university’s senior administration has offered a degree of support he would not have thought possible.

With a $66-million Canada First Excellence Research grant that enabled the start of BrainsCAN (Menon is now its co-scientific director with Lisa Saksida), the neuroscience story at Western “has been success building on success,” Owen said.

Travelling coast to coast, Owen has been awed by the vastness of the open spaces in Canada, the ability to walk to work or sit in the backyard and have a barbecue. “I love the outdoors. I love winter, snow, snow sports. I love the fact you actually have seasons, the fact you actually have a proper summer.”

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The commitment, then, to become a permanent resident, wasn’t difficult.

He hadn’t counted on the years-long journey of stops-and-starts he finds amusing only in retrospect.

Owen first applied for permanent residency in 2013 and, after he paid his fee by credit card, his application slowly churned through the system. Part-way through the process, his passport expired and he made a quick visit to Britain to renew it. But in Heathrow Airport, while he prepared to board a return flight home, officials flagged him at the departure gate to say he needed a new visa because the one he had was tied to the information on his old, expired passport.

His young son in hand, Owen managed to secure a new visa online and the pair caught their intended flight.

Arriving in Canada, however, he learned his new visa information had made him a ‘tourist.’ He would have to re-activate his work permit by leaving the country and re-entering – again. Owen then drove to Sarnia/Port Huron.

“I did what they call ‘flagpoling’ – a quick run to the border and back again.”

At some point, officials lost his application. Then the credit-card number officials had on file expired, so the ‘unpaid’ fee stalled his application a little longer.

Advocacy by the university and by Peter Fragiskatos, Member of Parliament for London North Centre, got things moving again. Finally, this spring, he learned he had received all approvals; all he had to do was leave the country and declare himself a permanent resident upon his return.

Eager to make it official, he drove to Niagara Falls on a Saturday night, and drove across the border to Niagara Falls, N.Y. Sunday morning.

“I got up 7 a.m., drove across the Rainbow Bridge. The guy said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m flagpoling, I’m going straight back to Canada and I’m landing as a Canadian.’ I was very proud of this. So, he said, ‘Fine, back you go!’

“I turned around, went back across the bridge got to the Canadian border patrol and the guy said, ‘Ah, sorry, you can only do that on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can’t land on a Sunday morning, only Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Rainbow Bridge,’” he said with a long laugh.

His status became official when he flew back in May from a neuroscience conference in Texas.

“Finally, I flew into Pearson and announced I was landing as a Canadian and they were very nice, very polite and gracious.”

At long last, he is officially as at home as he has felt all along.

Canada’s great outdoors really is great, in his view. He can sit on his deck and watch squirrels and rabbits root through his garden. He can walk to work in all seasons. And he marvels that, while his research has taken him across the nation, he has seen only a small part of it.

“From Vancouver to St. John’s, there’s just such beautiful countryside.”

Owen’s next step is to apply to become a full Canadian citizen, like his son, and then be able to have his say as a voter.

“I’d like to have some role in decisions about who runs the place.”