A Brit’s Guide to Living in British Columbia, Canada

As a former colony of the United Kingdom and a current member of the Commonwealth, you might think that Canada and the province of British Columbia specifically is very similar to the UK in its culture and bureaucratic systems. Well, think again. If you’re planning to move to Canada’s western province, below is a large compilation of some of the main differences I’ve discovered as a Brit living in British Columbia.

Stawamus Chief in Squamish, BC

Driving

You probably all know that in Canada, you drive on the right side of the road. It makes sense to have the same system as the neighbouring USA, since a lot of trade between the countries is delivered via road. In terms of speed and distance, the metric system of kilometres is used, which differs from both the UK and USA.

Getting a driver’s license as a new driver is also a different process. Upon turning 17, people in the UK are eligible to get their provisional license, which allows them to drive on the road with a supervisor with L plates attached to the vehicle. Most drivers will learn the basics from a family member, before taking driving lessons from a qualified instructor. After a learner has passed the theory test, the instructor will ultimately determine when they are ready to take the road test. This will typically be after 40 hours of lessons.

In British Columbia, it is less common for new drivers to take formal lessons from an instructor. Before doing any driving, they must acquire their learner’s license by passing a knowledge test and vision test. This can be done on or after their 16th birthday. After a year of practice with an eligible supervisor (someone 25 or older with a Class 5 license), they can then take their first road test. Passing this gives them their Class 7 or “N” license. Certain restrictions come with this. N plates (which stand for “novice”) must be displayed on the vehicle, and they can only carry one passenger at a time (with the exception of immediate family members), unless one of the passengers is 25+ and has a full license.  After two years of safe driving with no tickets or prohibitions, they can take another road test. Passing this would give them their full Class 5 license.

Note that if you move to BC with a clean UK licence, you can switch it over to a Class 5 for free within 90 days, without having to take a road test.

When it comes to actual driving, there are some interesting differences. The ‘turn-right-on-red’ rule means drivers can make a right turn when the walking man light is on for pedestrians, so long as no pedestrians are crossing at the time. I personally don’t like this rule because of the risks it can pose to pedestrians if a driver shoots around the corner due to not seeing the pedestrian or simply not caring.

Another difference is 4-way stops. When drivers approach this type of junction, they must all come to a halt, even if the roads appear clear. The vehicle that arrives first is entitled to proceed first, and so on. If two vehicles arrive at the same time, the driver on the right has right of way. I find that when two cars from opposite directions arrive at the same time and want to turn instead of going straight, a silent interaction between drivers takes place through gestures. It goes something like this: “Oh, after you.”…”No no, you first.”…”No, please, I insist.” …”Are you sure?”… “Oh, quite sure!” ….”Okay, thank you! And sorry.”

With regards to insurance, UK insurance companies insure the driver. In BC, the vehicle is insured. This means you are more likely to see friends lending their cars to each other in BC. BC’s government-owned insurance corporation now requests that a second driver be listed on the policy if they will be using the vehicle on a regular basis.

Drinking

Each province in Canada sets its own regulations for determining legal drinking ages. In British Columbia, it’s 19. Bear this in mind if you’re visiting from the UK aged 18; you won’t be able to buy alcohol or go to clubs. Skip over a province to Alberta however and you would be fine.

Although the province of Ontario is now allowing beer to be sold in some supermarkets, in most cases alcohol can only be purchased in provincially owned or private liquor stores, or from a brewery. Anyone who looks under 30 can expect to be asked to show ID.

While there are a few differences between the countries in terms of the laws that apply to people operating a vehicle, the rule regarding drinking is one Brits should be aware of. Last summer, I was in the backseat of a car with friends driving back from a camping weekend in Hope. I asked my boyfriend to open the cooler and get me a Radler drink. He looked at me in confusion and asked why. “Because it’s hot and I’d like a refreshing drink,” I replied with an innocent shrug. I then learned that in BC, passengers are prohibited from consuming alcohol in a vehicle. The idea is that they might distract or influence the driver. No refreshing lager for me.

Banking

I quickly noticed that Visa debit cards can be used for fewer transactions in Canada than they can in the UK. I never had a credit card in England, but for the aforementioned reason I got one when I moved to BC. My chequing account (what we in the UK would call a “current account”) has a monthly fee based on how many transactions I make. It gets waived if I maintain a certain balance. My UK account doesn’t charge such fees. Something to consider if you plan to set up a Canadian bank account.

Salt Spring Island, BC

Education

In the UK, the word “school” is typically associated with primary school (elementary) and secondary school (high school). If we do A-Levels (from age 16-18) or a vocational diploma, we say we’re going to “college” or “sixth form”. If we do a degree, we tell people that we go to “university” (or “uni”). In Canada, the term “school” is used for all levels of education. I first learned this in Toronto airport several years ago, when an elderly couple queuing for check-in behind me started chatting. “Are you heading back to school?” the man asked. “To university,” I said, to indicate my age. “So, back to school?” he replied with a cheeky smile.

Indeed, it’s very common to hear someone in their thirties say “I’m going back to school.” This is because the higher (or “post-secondary”) education system of both countries is very different. In the UK, we essentially choose our major by the time we apply to university aged 17 or 18. For example, I chose to study a Bachelor of Arts in History. Such a degree is automatically considered an honours degree, meaning students must submit a dissertation (or “thesis” as North Americans call it) in their final year. Unless they are studying Medicine or another vocational profession, students must complete their undergraduate degree in three years. They have to take a certain number of courses per semester, and will automatically graduate after those three years. Anyone who requests to suspend their studies and take a semester off due to personal reasons will likely have to re-take that year. A Master’s degree is completed in one year.

Students in Canada apply to university in or after their final year of high school. Instead of applying to major in a specific subject, they can choose a general direct entry program, such as Humanities, Engineering, or Science. In their first year, they have the option of taking a few different courses from within the program and a few electives from outside it, before then deciding the subject within that program they wish to major in. Although there are differences in universities across Canada, students in BC can typically choose the number of courses they take per semester, and have more flexibility in the years they take to graduate. Most people I know here graduated after five years. Some may take six years or longer. This is because the university system allows students to take off semesters, either to work or travel. Classes can also be taken in the summer term from May to September, unlike in the UK.

There are also more structured programs available within Canadian institutions to support students with finding paid co-ops (or “internships” as we’d call them in the UK). Students must pay to be involved in this program, but it’s a useful resource I wish I’d had at my university. Some programs, such as a business program, require students to complete a minimum number of co-ops in order to graduate. If a student wishes to graduate with honours, they must apply for the program. One would typically do this if he/she intended to apply for grad school, as writing a thesis could strengthen an application. In order to graduate with a degree, students must apply and provide proof they have met the minimum criteria. It’s common for a Master degree to be completed in two years.

Taking all the above into consideration, it means that a student in BC might not finish their undergrad degree until aged 25 or older, whereas in the UK the standard age of graduates is 21 or 22. I think there are pros and cons to both systems. People with a British education will have specialized more in one subject area, and will typically have a head start in the professional workforce. However, Canadian students are likely to have less tuition debt, have had more chances to gain paid experience and try out different roles while studying, and also have more time to actually enjoy their studies. In comparison, strict timelines for completing courses and graduating sometimes made me feel I hadn’t had a chance to properly explore and understand a course I was taking.

While there are options for people in the UK older than 18/19 to enrol in university degrees, it is still a less common practice; most will attend university from their late teens to early twenties. It seems to be a more culturally accepted thing in Canada for people to either start their first post-secondary program or take a second program in their mid-twenties and above. Some people might complete an undergraduate arts degree and then later take a post-degree diploma to specialize in a specific area, such as HR. Others might work right after they finish high school, and then enrol in a post-secondary program a few years later when they have saved up to pay the tuition fees. And others might be in their early thirties but go back to school because they want to change their career.

The system for tuition fees also differs between the countries. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are home and international tuition fees. Currently in the UK, home tuition fees for an undergraduate degree are around 9000 GBP per year. (Scottish students studying in Scotland don’t have to pay!) These fees are general and not based on the degree you are studying. This means that as a History student with only 8 hours of contact with teachers per week, I paid the same as someone studying Mechanical Engineering who had more contact hours. In Canada, however, tuition fees are based on the program you take. Someone in the Humanities program will pay less for tuition than someone in Business or Engineering.

Mt. Finlayson on Vancouver Island, BC

Healthcare

Each province in Canada has its own publicly funded health insurance plan. In British Columbia it’s called the Medical Services Plan (MSP). It used to be the case that recipients were charged premiums, with employers often offering to pay the costs. In January 2020, the fees were scrapped. However, eligible residents must still enrol for the plan in order to receive free or subsidized medical assistance. Enrolled residents must get a Services Card with their photo and Personal Health Number, to prove their eligibility to access these services. This card can also be used as a form of government-issued ID for accessing other services, like opening a bank account. If you’re not registered for MSP, you must pay out of pocket for any medical assistance.

One thing to note if moving to BC from the UK is that, regardless of having MSP coverage, some medical-related services in BC incur fees that would not apply in the UK. For example, if someone in BC calls 911 and is taken to a hospital by ground or air ambulance, they will be billed $80. If an ambulance is requested and then declined, they will receive a bill for $50…so making a prank call would be even more stupid. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) is funded by tax payers and there are fewer charged services. Say a Brit suddenly develops chest pains and calls 999 for an ambulance to take them to A&E (or “ER”), they won’t pay a penny.

For this reason, I’ve always found it funny when I hear Canadians commend the country’s “free healthcare system”. For sure, the system is much more generous than that of its southern neighbour, but not as generous as the UK. Again, there are pros and cons to both systems. The NHS has strained resources and as a result, some are calling for patients to start paying for certain services. To avoid burdening the Canadian healthcare system, anyone coming to Canada on a working holiday visa is required to show proof that they have purchased medical insurance.

Something for Brits to take note of is the differences with dentistry. In the UK it’s part of the NHS, but in Canada it falls under the category of extended health. This means it’s not covered by the provincial medical services plan. For this reason, having a job that includes benefits is ideal, as these will be used to cover most of the costs of each dental visit. However, even with benefits, it’s typically still slightly cheaper to go the dentist in the UK.

In the UK, the dentist pretty much does everything, and the dental assistant helps with paperwork and equipment prep. In Canada there is a dental hygienist who does the initial assessment, x-rays and cleaning, and then the dentist will do an exam and any necessary surgery. Oh, and Canadians say “hy-gen-ist”, not “hy-geen-ist”. Weird…

Marijuana

The growth, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes became legalized in Canada in 2018. Any cannabis shops or pharmacies must be licensed and follow certain regulations. Consumers are allowed to grow up to four plants in their house. Of course, Canadians were smoking weed for a long time before it became legal. Marijuana shops are now a normal sight, and it’s not unusual to catch a whiff of weed while walking down a street. Over the past decade, use of marijuana for medical purposes has also become more common in Canada. CBD and THC (chemicals within the plant) have been used to relieve muscle spasms and treat conditions including MS and PTSD.

Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island

Tipping

While tipping bartenders or servers (aka what the UK would call “waiters/waitresses”) is not required in Canada, it basically feels like it is. A minimum tip of 15% is pretty much expected. Even if you go to a deli (also a more commonly used word in Canada, I’ve noticed) and simply order a sandwich, the option to tip will come up when you pay by card. In such cases, I don’t bother. Why would I if all the person has done is pick up a pre-made, pre-wrapped sandwich from the counter and hand it to me??

I was reminded just how different this custom is from the UK and Europe in general when my parents visited a couple of summers ago. My dad, never one afraid to be honest and express himself, asked our server how much she’d like for a tip. “That’s up to you,” she said politely while I put my head in my hands. As if thinking a negotiation was required, he asked her, “How about 10%?”. At this point I ran away to the ice cream counter. Of course, UK restaurants will now typically add a service charge to the bill in order to get around the cultural reluctance to tip.

On that note, Canadians also ask for the “bill”, and not the “check” like some people assume.

Sports

In the UK, girls in secondary school will often play hockey on grass or turf. In Canada, hockey means “ice” hockey. The less popular UK game would be referred to as “field hockey”. I still struggle not to say “ice hockey” in full, and it always seems to make people smile. If you’re watching a baseball game, prepare to hear lots of people shouting “good hustle” to players. It basically means “good effort”.

Holidays

In England and Wales, there are eight bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, the two in May, one in August, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. In Canada, public holidays are called “statutory holidays”, five of which are nationwide. The remaining holidays are determined by province. In BC there are ten holidays: New Year’s Day, Family Day (February), Good Friday, Victoria Day (May), Canada Day (July), Civic Day (August), Labour Day (September), Thanksgiving (October), Remembrance Day (November), and Christmas Day. I appreciate the even distribution!

Language 

Now we come to my favourite part. As a native English speaker in a country where English is one of the official languages, I expected I’d be pretty well understood by Canadians. Not the case.

The main issue I have is the enunciation of R’s. In England we don’t emphasize them. “Water” is “wawtuh”. “Work” is “wuuuk”. “Art” is “aaat”, and so forth. I once ordered a turkey sandwich from a deli and it took five attempts for the person to understand me. As a result, I’ve found that adapting my accent at certain times in the workplace has been necessary, particularly when speaking with people over the phone.

There are also differences in full pronunciation of words. Some common words I say that incite giggles among my peers are “yoghurt”, “vitamin”, “basil”, “tomato”, “oregano”, and “aluminium”. Meanwhile, I find the way some Canadians say “bagel”, “route”, “thorough” and “details” very odd.

Another issue is different words being to describe the same noun. Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples:
“Jumper” = “sweater”
“Trousers” = “pants”
“Trainers” = “runners” or “sneakers”
“Wellies” =”rubber boots”
“Biscuit” =”cookie”
“Handbag” =”purse”
“Purse” =”wallet”
“Cinema” =”theatre”
“Boot” =”trunk”
“Bonnet” =”hood”
“Nappy” = “diaper”
“Soother” = “dummy”
“Aubergine” =”eggplant”
“Courgette” = “zucchini”
“Rocket” = “arugula”
“Spring onion” = “scallion”

And if you say “brolly”, most will have no idea what you’re talking about. Who knew there would be such a language barrier?!

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If you’re planning to move to British Columbia for a while, I hope this article is useful resource to help you prepare yourself for the political and cultural differences you can expect to find!

8 thoughts on “A Brit’s Guide to Living in British Columbia, Canada

  1. It’s interesting to see the differences between the two countries. I also chuckle when I hear people referring to our “free” health care. It is not free by any means. In Ontario we pay an annual “contribution” when filing our income tax. The amount depends on the annual salary, but it is generally between $400 and $600.00. It also doesn’t cover a lot of things like, therapists, dentist, medicine,, etc. (P.S. I know what a brolly is lol). I hope you are getting use to our ways.

    • Oh, interesting! I’m definitely still getting used to all the differences between the provinces themselves. And you are the first Canadian to say that haha!

  2. Really interesting post! France has had such an impact on the culture of Montreal and Quebec City. It’s interesting that the British influence on the other side of Canada is not so strong. Do you know how many times I’ve seen “rocket” on a menu, even in the US and never made the connection that rocket is arugula!? I love the list that you have created, there are so subtle differences (DEE-tails vs dih-TAILS) and some really big differences (aubergine/eggplant.) Really interesting!

  3. While I realize the the UK and Canada are quite different, I’ve always considered BC to be more like the UK for some reason (probably the name). The list of English words that differ between the English Isles and North America are definitely top-of-mind for me since my daughter married an Englishman last month! 🙂

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