An immigrant’s tale

People keep asking me why I moved to Canada. This is my response. It first appeared here. It’s really chapter one of a book – but the rest of the book remains, as yet, unwritten…


Boldly going

We started to talk openly about our emigration in early 2007 when it became clear that we were definitely going. There were a range of reactions but one of the more common was “Aren’t you brave?”.

No, we were not brave. Bravery involves putting your life at risk for someone else or facing doing something that terrifies you and doing it anyway. Emigrating did not feel like something that was brave. Almost the opposite in some ways, as the move was partially an admission of defeat: a cowardly retreat from the realities of living in England in the early twenty-first century. The country seemed crowded, the roads constantly congested and the people increasingly rude and bad-tempered.

The word brave also brought back strong memories of the long-running 1980s sitcom Yes Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby would suggest that Jim Hacker was being courageous whenever he was about to do something that was likely to damage his career:

Sir Humphrey: If you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn’t accept it, you must say the decision is “courageous”.

Bernard: And that’s worse than “controversial”?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes! “Controversial” only means “this will lose you votes”; “courageous” means “this will lose you the election”.

Other friends described our planned move as bold and this was a word I felt happier with. It made the step seem life-affirming and positive. We were planning to find a quiet place where we would be able  to live a more self-sufficient life and spend more time together as a family.

Our first serious thoughts about emigration were triggered by a conversation on a train. I was on my way from Edinburgh to York in October 2003 and fell into conversation with the woman next to me. She told me that she was the wife of a Berwick butcher. She chatted about her family: her daughter in Canada and the grand-daughter who might be coming to England or Scotland to go to university. I heard a lot about the lifestyle of the daughter, who lived somewhere near Toronto, but in quite a rural area.

When I got home, I repeated this conversation (well, not all of it) to my husband.

“Why don’t we do that?” he asked, as casually as if I’d suggested a holiday in Malta. The suggestion jolted me, but I soon began to think ‘well, why not?’.

I had been to Canada only once and Mike, my husband, had never been there but this idea started to take hold of both of us. My trip had been to Ottawa for a conference in the May of that same year. The Museum of Civilization was the highlight. I spent about four footsore hours wandering around it and learnt a huge amount about Canadian history and geography. I am convinced that part of the motivation for our move came from that one museum experience, proof, if any were needed, that museums can change lives.

That trip to Ottawa was a first date with Canada. It wasn’t on its best behaviour all the time, though. After seeing all the exhibits about the First Nations peoples at the museum, I walked back over the bridge from Gatineau and encountered two Indians. One was sitting on the bridge, begging and inebriated. The other, a younger man, was more troublesome: he kept pestering me for my phone number as I got back to the Ottawa side of the river. We parted company amicably enough (he shook my hand), when I explained that I lived in England.

At the next set of traffic lights two Canadian men who had been in front of me on the bridge turned to me and smiled. “So you got rid of him then?” one asked.

“Yes, no thanks to you!” I said, jokingly.

“We were keeping an eye on the situation,” they assured me. Willing to intervene when necessary, in other words. In retrospect, this was typically Canadian behaviour.

The two Indians on the bridge between Quebec and Ontario seemed to be telling a different story from the one that had been related to me at the museum. I was intrigued: there was more to this country than the official interpretation was willing to admit.

Winters. That’s what goes through the mind of a British person when you mention the word Canada. It was the first thing that we thought of as a possible barrier to our enjoyment of living in the country. We therefore planned to take our first trip to Canada as a family in February 2004. At that time, we were thinking of settling in Calgary, as the house prices there were reasonable and we thought that we would be able to find work easily. We took the children out of school for a week and stayed in a bed and breakfast on the southern side of the city.

Our host was proud of the age of her house. It had been built in 1901. We nodded and tried to look impressed but this drove home one of the problems for me with the western half of Canada: its built environment is not terribly historic. We enjoyed ourselves, nevertheless, and found that getting around in the snow and ice was not as bad as we had feared. When we got home we started the serious business of applying to emigrate.

We could have got jobs first and then emigrated on work permits but this is risky: if you lose your job, you lose the right to stay in the country. Not much fun for anyone, but worse if you have to disrupt the lives of your children, too. We chose to apply under the skilled worker program instead, as at that time my profession was on the ‘desirable’ list. It isn’t now, so we were lucky. A lot of paperwork was involved, followed by a lot of waiting. Over two years of waiting and making (and changing) plans.

Changing plans

A lot happened in those two years. We did another fact-finding visit to Canada in May and June 2006. It was a three-week road trip from Calgary to Vancouver Island: the longest holiday any of us has ever had. We stayed in Golden, Jasper, Kelowna and Tofino, as well as Calgary and Vancouver. We saw bears, a glacier, moose, acrobats, mountains, waterfalls, wolves and city streets. I prepared meals in a variety of kitchens, some better equipped than others. We had a wonderful time; becoming increasingly sure that we were making the right decision.

During the holiday we were frequently on the phone to my husband’s mother as his father was ill and undergoing tests to identify the problem.. As we waited for the ferry back to Vancouver from Nanaimo, we heard that he had been transferred to a specialist hospital in London. Searching the internet from our laptop in our rental apartment in Vancouver we guessed that his symptoms were those of pancreatic cancer. Our plans seemed temporarily shaken up: life expectancy for victims of this cancer was limited. How could we break the news of our planned departure to Mike’s parents on top of this?

Our trip to Albert and British Columbia had partly been to identify a place for us to move to. Canada is BIG: with three and a half million square miles (nine million square kilometres) to choose from, how on earth do you decide where to settle? We had thought of Calgary first, but by 2006 the house prices there had risen so high that it was no longer a sensible place to be. We were beginning to think about getting some land on which to grow our own food and Calgary’s small city lots were not going to be big enough for that. The climate there was not ideal for growing fruit and vegetables, either.

“You’ll love Vancouver!” people told us before that 2006 trip. We arrived on a Thursday evening in heavy rain and missed the turning for the Lions Gate Bridge. We were then lost in heavy traffic and running low on fuel. We did not immediately love Vancouver (although we did come to at least like it over the next few days). House prices there were as bad as they were in Calgary, so that was another place crossed off the list.

Once back in England we had long discussions about where we should go. Living in British Columbia would require us to take a driving test in order to get a licence, which was unappealing. We were also concerned about the risk of earthquakes. Alberta’s climate and house prices were offputting, so we started to look east. Of all the eastern provinces, Ontario looked the most promising. We would be able to swap our UK driving licences for Ontario ones without having to take a test and another important factor was the way that the province was encouraging the production and sale of green energy. By late 2006 we were thinking that as well as growing our own food, we might also want to be generating our own power.

Ontario is pretty big, too: at four hundred thousand square miles (more than a million square kilometres) it is eight times larger than England. Again, we had to do some work to narrow down our options. If we were going to be generating electricity from wind and then it made sense to be near one of the Great Lakes. For growing fruit and vegetables, we needed to be in as warm a climate as possible. The Niagara area looked expensive, so we turned our attention to the northern side of Lake Ontario.

Prince Edward County gets its fair share of wind and sunshine. It also does a good job of marketing itself on the internet. Sandy beaches, good local food, a burgeoning wine-making industry and reasonable house prices. It was first settled by Europeans in the period after 1784: there are a lot of buildings in the area which were constructed in the nineteenth century, which satisfied my yearning for historic surroundings. Based solely on what we read online, we decided that this was the area in which we would buy a house. We planned to emigrate in June 2007 and turn up in the County (as it is known locally) to find a home.

By February 2007 this plan was looking a little too bold. I began to worry that we were making a huge decision without even having seen the area. This might be like using one of those dating sites where people upload only their most artfully-shot self-portraits, resulting in photographs that little resemble their true selves. We decided to go through the official immigration landing procedure in the April, instead of June, and combine it with a house-hunting trip to the County.

In the meantime, my father-in-law’s condition was confirmed as pancreatic cancer. He died just after Christmas in 2006. We never told him of our plans to emigrate, although we did explain them to my mother-in-law before he died. There was never going to be a good time to tell her, but she took the news remarkably well. Her husband would never have come to see us in Canada (he hated flying and didn’t even have a passport), but my mother-in-law comes out twice a year and is even thinking about coming out permanently. The process of sponsoring a family member is a lengthy one, but we have made a start on it.

Love at first sight

The landing procedure at Pearson International Airport in Toronto was speedy. We were through immigration before our luggage arrived on the carousel. By nine o’clock at night we were in Prince Edward County, where it was very dark, cold and snowing. The owners of the lake-side cottage we were renting were warm and welcoming, emptying their fridge so that we would have something to cook for the next day’s breakfast and presenting us with our first bottle of Prince Edward County wine.

The next day, the children came rushing into our bedroom in great excitement to tell us that “Lake Ontario is in our back garden!”. We spent two weeks exploring the area, getting ourselves social insurance numbers, opening bank accounts, starting to sort out a car and looking at potential homes.

We wanted a house with four bedrooms. To be able to set up a wind turbine, we also needed a certain amount of land of a particular zone type. We had been poring over the MLS website for months, looking for the perfect property, so it was a huge relief to be able to get to explore the area and start to look at some of these places. House-hunting in Canada was very different from the process in England and Scotland. It was like having our own personal home shopper. Sharon the real estate agent drove around the County with us tailing along behind her, wondering why she was driving in the middle of the small County roads all the time.

Sharon worked hard to understand what we were looking for and came up with a perfect house on the first day. It was situated on a gentle, south-facing slope, with two barns, and a hayfield. Much of the land was covered with a mixture of red cedar (eastern juniper) and ash trees. The farm had previously been used to rear beef cattle, which had left as their legacy a rich dark brown soil in the barnyard (perfect for my planned vegetable garden and orchard). The house had the requisite number of bedrooms but was going to need some work. It wasn’t historic either, having been built in the early 1970s.

The wood-burning stove in the kitchen was alight when we entered the house, making us feel instantly warmed and welcome on that wet, windy and cold April day. We went back again three days later, when the sun was shining and took dozens of photographs and explored the woodland behind the house. We knew that it was going to be perfect for us, with a bit of work.

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