OTTAWA - Canadian snowbirds may soon be able to spend an extra two months nesting in their favourite sunshine state each year.
U.S. legislation winding its way through Congress would allow Canadians aged 55 and older to spend up to 240 days — about eight months — in the country without a visa, 58 days longer than the current 182-day annual limit.
The provision is not yet law, but it has the backing of powerful New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who was recently one of the leading voices to speak out against a rejected proposal to impose a border crossing fee on Canadians.
In a New York Times article published over the weekend, a spokesman for Schumer is quoted as supporting the Canadian proposal, along with relaxing visa requirements on nationals from several other countries.
"Each of these provisions makes individual sense on the merits," the spokesman is quoted as saying. "They each solve inequities in the existing immigration law."
The Canadian Snowbird Association says it has been pushing for the change for years. A previous bill died in committee, but association researcher Evan Rachkovsky said he believes the latest proposal stands a good chance of passage. The Senate version of the bill could be voted on this summer.
Rachkovsky said his organization has talked to more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — and has found wide support for the proposal.
"That it's attached to comprehensive immigration reform, I think that increases the likelihood of it becoming law," he said. "We definitely remain optimistic."
Some stumbling blocks to the practicality of spending eight months of the year in the U.S. remain, however.
Health coverage from Ontario and British Columbia permits a maximum of seven months per year outside the country, meaning snowbirds would only likely get another month's pass. In many other provinces, including Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, the limit is the equivalent of six months.
But some provinces have introduced some flexibility. Quebec, for instance, permits residents to have short stays outside the province beyond the six-month limit, Rachkovsky said.
It is unclear how provinces would react if the U.S. limit were expanded.
Canadians represent a major boost to the economy in the U.S., particularly southern states such as Florida. Recently the state dropped a provision requiring an annual international drivers permit after objections raised from the strong Canadian lobby.
In 2011, more than 44 million Canadians travelled to the U.S., spending more than $16.5 billion.
As well, Canadians are by far the largest foreign buyers of residential real estate in the U.S., purchasing an estimated $20 billion of housing in 2012 alone.
Rachkovsky said a major reason for seeking the change is that Canadians who spend the winter in the southern U.S. often complain to his association that after exhausting the 182 days for any calendar year, they were precluded from shorter trips to visit relatives and friends in border states.
"Having an extra two months will give them greater flexibility," he said.
The proposal does appear to have the general backing of the federal government.
"We always monitor legislation impacting Canada very closely, and we support any efforts to increase trade and tourism between our two countries," a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said in response to an email query.
Canada also has a rule that allows Americans to spend a maximum of six months north of the border.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A version published May 13 gave incorrect information on the maximum period Manitobans can spend outside the country and remain eligible for health coverage.
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