A 20-Something’s Guide to Getting Permanent Residence in Canada

My soft spot for Canada developed when I travelled through the country in August 2011, aged 19. It was this country that instilled in me a new sense of confidence, independence and adventure. Soon after my trip, I moved to London to start university, graduating from King’s College London in summer 2014 with a BA in History. I spent that summer in Canada and road-tripped through the USA, without a clear vision of what I wanted to “do” or “be”. Through a mixture of luck and initiative, I was offered a staffing and recruitment role in 2015, and found it to be a field I thoroughly enjoyed working in for the next two years. My relationship with London and England in general wasn’t blossoming quite as well, and I maintained my love affair with Canada through a trip in between contracts. The big and bustling city just wasn’t for me; I dreamed of mountains and lakes of British Columbia, of hiking on the weekend and smelling the ocean’s scent on evenings. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing with my life in 30 years’ time, but I did know that moving to this part of Canada would bring me much more happiness than my life in London. I identified for myself that I needed a big change. Neil Young sang “24 and there’s so much more”, and that was how I felt. Some people aspire to have a certain title, make lots of money and have a big house, but for me, living a healthy, active and happy life in a beautiful part of the world was the goal.

Canada is understandably one of the most popular choices for people looking to work and travel overseas; it has beautiful scenery, it’s relatively safe, and it has an immigrant-friendly government. Aged 24, I moved to Victoria in late December 2016 on a two year working holiday visa. Happily settled into a Canadian life, I submitted my application for permanent residence in June 2018 and was granted this status in December of that year.  Below is my guide to the process.

Peyto Lake, Alberta

Getting to Canada

When looking for information on the available opportunities for immigrating to Canada, the only website you should be consulting is the Government of Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) website. The easiest way to start your quest for Canadian permanent residence is to go on this website and apply for a working holiday visa via the International Experience Class system, which is open to applicants aged 18-35. Depending on your country’s agreement with Canada, you can get either a one or two-year work permit that allows you to work for any employer (barring those in the sex trade…). Applying for this is fairly simple and just requires you to enter some personal information including your age and citizenship. You are then entered into a pool from which candidates are randomly selected to apply for the visa, typically after two or three months. You then submit an application form with your personal details and the addresses/occupations of your family members, have a police criminal background check completed, and pay the fee. If your application is approved, you have a year in which to arrive in Canada, where upon arrival an immigration officer will ask you a few questions. You must be able to prove you have sufficient funds to survive for a few months without a job, and have purchased medical insurance to cover the duration of your visa.

Establishing Yourself in Canada 

I was lucky when I moved to Canada in that I already knew the area I would be living in and had a (now-ex) boyfriend whose family I was able to live with for the first few months. If you have enough money saved to rent a place from the beginning, there are usually many house-share listings available on websites like Kijiji or Craigslist. If you don’t have any handy connections and are worried about funds, consider signing up for work exchange programs like Workaway, HelpX or WWOOF. In exchange for around 5 hours’ work a day (gardening, labouring, looking after animals etc.), you receive free food and accommodation. This is a great way to save money while helping others, meet people and get to know your new neighbourhood. Some families really show their helpers an awesome time during their free time, whether it’s taking them camping, sailing or horse-riding. Just make sure you aren’t having too much fun that you’re not putting enough time into searching for a paid job! It’s worth pointing out here that because I had already seen a lot of Canada on previous trips, I was more eager to jump into hunting for a full-time job than I’d expect of someone who was completely new to the country.

Finding a Job

There are a few different programs through which you can apply for permanent residence, with certain criteria needing to be met in order to qualify for each. Naturally, work experience has a huge influence on whether or not you will be granted permanent residence.

The Canadian Experience Class program is a good option for 20-something applicants who only have a couple of years’ skilled work experience in total but have a full-time job in the same field in Canada. The Federal Skilled Worker Program suits older applicants with a solid education who lack Canadian experience but have worked in a skilled role for the past 10 years. Experienced carpenters, electricians, plumbers and so on should check out the Federal Skilled Trades Program.

Because of my age, amount of professional experience in England, and the permanent position I received with a Canadian company, I opted to go through the Canadian Experience Class for my PR application. This program requires applicants to have 12 months’ of full-time (1560 hours minimum) work experience with a Canadian employer in the past three years before applying. The job must also fall within the skills category of 0, A or B in the National Occupation Classification (NOC).  ‘0’ refers to managerial jobs in any field, whether this is Human Resources, hospitality, health care or construction. ‘A’ refers to professional roles that typically require completion of a degree, such as a physiotherapist, engineer or teacher. ‘B’ refers to skilled jobs that typically require post-secondary education or training, like legal assistants or electricians. To be brutally honest, working as a server or retail assistant won’t cut it. If you want another country to accept you as a permanent resident, you need to prove that you will bring skills required in the job market that are perhaps lacking among the Canadian population in that region.

If you are struggling with your job search, considering registering with an employment agency. After learning about your skills and preferences, staffing consultants will send you details of job leads with their clients. These are typically temporary roles but can often lead to permanent opportunities if the client decides the temp would be a good long-term fit for the company. I myself signed up with a local employment agency and completed a few temp assignments with the provincial government. While the wage was lower than I was used to and the work less challenging than I was used to, I knew that it was worth it in order to make useful contacts, enhance my resume with some Canadian experience, and ultimately increase my chances of finding a permanent job as a foreigner. Funnily enough, a few months after registering with them, the agency offered me a position as a staffing consultant when a vacancy opened up, and it remains my job to this day! While I definitely had some luck with the timing, I wouldn’t have been offered the role had I not made a good impression during my temp assignments. Moral of the story: let go of your ego and who knows where you will end up!

Sooke, Vancouver Island

Preparing for your Application

If your job is going well and you are confident in its longevity, half the hard work is done! The rest mostly requires organization, patience and frankly, quite a lot of money. To apply through the Canadian Experience Class program, you need to have worked continuously for 12 months. If you work on a shift basis, make sure you are getting enough hours to total the minimum 1560hrs amount at the 12-month mark. If you work a consistent Monday to Friday schedule, use your free time to focus on the other application prerequisites.

While there is no education requirement for the Canadian Experience Class program, getting your education assessed (if it was completed outside of Canada) will boost your points in the Express Entry pool. The Education Credential Assessment (ECA) verifies that your foreign education is equivalent to Canadian standards. It takes up to four months to be processed, so get organized early. Contact your old university or college requesting they send your certificate and transcripts to the organization conducting the assessment (I used the University of Toronto Continuing Studies). You also need to upload a copy of these certificates to the organization’s website, before paying the fee of $271 (as priced in 2017).

A language test must be taken before a candidate is eligible to apply for permanent residence. Yes, you read correctly: if you were born and raised in England, you must still take a test to prove your proficiency in English. I opted to just take the English exam through IELTS. Taking an additional French exam will give you more points, but it will also cost more money, so it’s not worth doing unless you’re super confident in your abilities. This exam involves a Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking element, and requires half a day of your time (but you can take them on weekends!). Results are mailed out around two weeks later and are valid for a year. It cost me $309 to take the IELTS test. You might be thinking, “This is ridiculous, I’ve communicated in English for 24 years, I shouldn’t have to take a test”, but don’t expect to receive full marks on each test; I didn’t, and I’m a literary nerd. If I could re-take the test I would practise writing in pencil beforehand, especially because some people already struggle to read my handwriting in pen.

While you wait to reach the 12-month mark with your job, it’s also worth contacting your former employers in your home country to ask for references or copies of your contracts, as these will be required when proving your work experience later on in the process.

Applying for Express Entry

Express Entry is a points-based pool system that considers candidates’ age, education, work experience and language skills when assigning them with a rank. Draws take place throughout the year and candidates with the highest number of points are invited to submit a residency application. There are federal and provincial Express Entry options available, with the Provincial Nominee Program meaning a province can nominate you to apply. In the interests of money, I just went through the federal system.

Certain criteria need to be met before you are eligible to create an Express Entry profile. Once you have been employed for 12 months, completed your language tests, and had your educational credentials verified, go on the IRCC website. The ‘Come to Canada’ wizard has a questionnaire which determines what immigration programs you are eligible for. It asks you for your age, citizenship, marriage status and so on before inquiring about your work experience, education and language test results. Eligible candidates will receive a personal reference code to start their Express Entry application. You will only be eligible to apply through the Canadian Experience Class program if your dates of employment show you have held your position for 12 months. Entering the pool is free. (“Finally, a free component of applying for PR!”)

Submitting an Application for Permanent Residence

It’s important to remember that being in the Express Entry pool doesn’t guarantee you will receive an Invitation to Apply (ITA) for residency. It ultimately depends on how your points compare to other candidates. Some people wait for months to apply, others never get the invitation and have to re-apply the next year. I was fortunate (and pleasantly surprised) to receive my ITA after one week. Candidates have 60 days in which to submit an application so once again, organization is key. Candidates must request that their home country’s police force complete a criminal background check. This cost me £45 and the certificate took about 10-14 days to arrive in the mail. They must also complete a medical exam (including an x-ray, blood test and physical) to confirm they have no contagious diseases and will ultimately not be a drain on the country’s health system. The IRCC website helpfully lists all the clinics in your area that are authorized to perform medical exams for immigration purposes. I booked mine the day after I received my ITA because spots can fill up quickly, and all the tests were done within 10 days. The total cost of the medical exams is $340. Ouch. That’s an expensive way to find out that you’re in good health.

When applying through the Canadian Experience Class, you are asked to list all your previous work experience that falls under your current Canadian job’s NOC. Proof of this experience must be provided, including signed contracts or references that note your position title, duties, hours of work, and salary/wage. Your current employer must also write a reference letter verifying your employment status. Reading that my boss valued my contributions and intended to keep me employed for years to come definitely made all the work for the application seem worth it!

Employers wanting to hire a temporary foreign worker for a specific job must typically complete a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to confirm that a Canadian citizen is not available to perform the job, and this costs money. However, candidates currently in Canada on a working holiday visa obtained through mobility programs like the International Experience Class have an open work permit, and because this is a reciprocal program between the UK and Canada, their employer is subsequently exempt from needing to complete a LMIA and does not need to pay any fees to sponsor the application.

A passport photo, copies of your passport, your medical exam results and criminal background check results must also be attached in the online application, before you pay the submission fee of *gulp* $1050. You’d better really want to stay in Canada!

Whistler, BC

Next Steps

You’ve submitted your application and have collapsed on your sofa with a glass of wine. Now it’s a waiting game. Applications are usually processed within six months. While easier said than done, it’s best to try and forget about your application over the next few months. Unless you have a very dodgy criminal past or you do have a contagious disease, it’s likely that your application will be approved in time. Do yourself a favour and don’t call IRCC every few weeks in hopes this will make a difference; you will simply get through to an automated system and be told that your application is being processed, with no further elaboration provided. After a month or so you might get an email from IRCC and gasp in excitement…but it will likely just be a confirmation that you passed the medical exam.

Following submission of an application, you are considered to have ‘implied status’, which means you can continue working until a decision is made on your application. For additional peace of mind, you can apply for a Bridging Work Permit. I paid the $255 fee for this in October 2018, knowing that my visa was set to expire in late December and you cannot extend working holiday visas. On reflection I don’t think it was necessary for me to do this because my application was due to reach the 6-month mark on December 1st. Had I submitted my application in September, it would have been a different story. But given how close we were getting to December, I just wanted to be safe rather than sorry. (And frankly by this point, what’s a couple more hundred dollars matter anyway..?) Typically, my PR application was approved before I even received confirmation my BWP application was approved. I’m still waiting to hear back about a refund…

Confirming Permanent Residence 

A few days before reaching the 6-month mark, I received a letter from IRCC noting that my application was in the final stages. After reading this I think I did a little jig in my office. Candidates at this stage are instructed to send an Express post parcel to an office in Ottawa with copies of their passport, a form confirming their current residential address, two professional photos* taken for their PR card, and a self-addressed return envelope.

*When getting your photos taken, don’t make the mistake I did of going to London Drugs. I asked the employee in the photography section if the store took photos for permanent residence applications and he confidently told me they did, only for me to find out a month later that the $14 I paid was for two photos that were rejected because they didn’t meet the specifications for the PR card. Thankfully this had no impact on my application, but it was still stressful to find out. I also received no response when I emailed the customer service department with constructive feedback. 

On December 5th, a week after the initial letter, I received the email from IRCC confirming that my application for permanent residence had been approved! Even though deep down I had known there was no reason I shouldn’t be successful, it was still an overwhelming moment and I immediately broke into tears of both joy and relief.

Shortly after receiving this email, your parcel from IRCC will come back with your ‘Confirmation of Permanent Residence’ landing visa. Just when you think you’re all done and can put your feet up and write your emotional Facebook post, you are told that you need to show this letter to an immigration officer and have it signed and approved before officially obtaining PR status. There is an option to schedule an appointment with an officer in your town, but this can take up to 30 days. The other option is to leave the country and speak with a border officer on return. Living so close to Washington State, I decided to get things over with and paid $60 for a US day visa and return ticket for the Coho ferry.

On return from a sunny couple of hours in Port Angeles, I showed the border officer in Victoria my landing visa and then sat down with another officer who signed the forms and informed me of the terms I must follow in order to maintain PR status. While it can take up to several weeks for the photo card to arrive in the mail, the signed landing visa is your official proof that you have permanent resident status. The border officer also touched on the process of applying for citizenship (as if I wasn’t exhausted enough from this process to start considering that!) He was absolutely lovely and I particularly appreciated his recognition of the effort that goes into getting permanent residence. It truly is a long process that requires a lot of organization, patience and dedication. It was as I walked home from the immigration office, passing Victoria’s distinctive legislature buildings on the way, that I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.

Ultimate Dos and Don’ts

  • Do make sure you consult the IRCC website for official information on anything related to Canadian permanent residence. There are lots of visa-assistance or immigration law websites that don’t always give 100% accurate information, and many of them are ultimately looking to make money off people without visa success being guaranteed.
  • Do be organized with looking for a job, getting all your documents together and booking exam dates etc. Two years goes by quicker than you think, and timing can make all the difference. Save all relevant emails in one folder and keep any mail correspondence related to the application in one place, in case you need it for future reference.
  • Do be smart with your finances. Obviously you will want to enjoy your free time, but keep the main goal in mind before you splurge out on trips across the country (domestic flights in Canada are not cheap!). Consider setting up an application fund and putting some money from each pay cheque towards it.
  • Don’t apply for PR unless you are 100% sure you want to stay in the country for the next few years. Applying for PR is a big commitment and an expensive process if you are funding yourself independently. If you are in a relationship with a Canadian, ask yourself what other factors attract you to the country and if you would genuinely want to be there if single.
  • Don’t immediately consult an immigration lawyer for advice. Applying for PR is already costly before paying additional fees for the sake of having to do a little less work. The IRCC website isn’t perfect and ESL speakers may find it confusing, but at least try to understand it first before paying for advice you might personally not need.
  • Don’t complain to immigration officials about the processing times. Everyone is in the same boat, so being petulant and demanding about the status of your application won’t do you any favours.

Approximate cost of applying for Permanent Residence (application submission, medical exams, language tests, educational credential assessment, postage and other expenses)$2500

Salt Spring Island, BC

 Good Luck with your application!

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Please note, this post is an unofficial guide to the process of obtaining Canadian permanent residence, based on my personal experience. The writer of this article cannot be held accountable for the outcome of a reader’s application.

Have you successfully obtained permanent residence in Canada? Please feel free to share any additional tips or experiences below.

Guilty Compromises and Quarter-Life Crises: Lessons in Living Overseas

When I turned 25 last year, I was proud to feel able to say I had reached my quarter-century having accomplished many things in both a personal and professional sense. Had you known me 10 years ago, you would never have imagined I’d be living and working halfway across the world right now. I was a very shy child. My best friend was my family’s Labrador, Tom, as was Milly, my spaniel, who was not actually a real dog but a bag I took everywhere with me. My siblings tell me I had an imaginary friend called Jinky who I’d talk to under the barn steps. Much of my time was spent wandering around our fields in a daydream or incessantly scribbling down pony stories in notebooks. Like many children, I was bullied for a few years, and my way of dealing with it by saying nothing, casing myself in a shell and trying to distract myself with my imagination, has contributed to my quiet voice and love of writing. As a teenager I didn’t really fit in with the catty group of girls I found myself in a friendship group with. While they loved shopping and make-up and got attention from boys, I did sports, felt more comfortable in scruffy hand-me-downs and believed my broken nose made me ugly.

Like with many people, my experiences of being mocked through school instilled in me a quiet ambition to aspire for greater things. I truly believed that something better was waiting down the line if I kept working hard, and I was determined that in later years I would look back on the past and be the one laughing at how insignificant the events and those people inside it all seemed. I still experience moments of Impostor Syndrome when I wonder how my shy young self grew up to be who and where I am. However, the question I am most often asked as an expat is: “Don’t you miss home and your family?”

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The answer is yes, of course I do, but I was fortunate in that my parents encouraged all of my siblings to travel and see the world. They presented time away from home as something to be excited rather than worried about. As a result, I never struggled with homesickness when I went on school trips overseas. The last time my whole family was together was in 2013. To some families this would seem indicative of a dysfunctional dynamic; for us it’s normal. We are adults in our 20s and 30s who have all fled the nest to go in different directions around the world, and we were brought up to understand that this is simply how life goes.

Even with an independent mindset however, this doesn’t mean living in a foreign country doesn’t have its extremely challenging personal moments. A lot of travel bloggers will glorify the expat life, presenting their lifestyle as a trouble-free haven to which we should all aspire – “I quit my 9-5 job for paradise”. What these people aren’t telling you is that difficult personal experiences follow you wherever you go. Everyone goes through complex emotional stages in life. Place yourself in a foreign country away from your family and there is a whole new dimension involved. Gone are those unconditional physical comforts and avenues for support. Gone is the certainty of what steps to take next (and in some cases, which steps you are entitled to take as a foreign resident). Under the impression that they should always be smiling because of living in a beautiful new country, I personally believe that a lot of expats struggle to identify when they are unhappy. I was one of them at the end of 2017.

This post is not intended to invite sympathy out of an implication that I have a difficult life, because I don’t at all. I debated sharing it for a while because some of the content seemed too personal and conceited. Then I realized that if I was to rewind back two years to when I started my visa application in the midst of a long-distance relationship, the experiences I’m about to share are things I wish I had been more prepared for. But of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and life is unpredictable. On the whole I don’t have many regrets, and I am a believer that things happen for a reason. If I could go back however, I would approach some things differently.

While my decision to move overseas was also largely based on a desire to leave England and experience working abroad, having a boyfriend in Canada inevitably had an integral influence on the type of experience I had in my first few months here. Realistically, both members knew we were no longer a good match and were simply staying together because of history. Regardless, I clung onto a failing relationship for a long time, and on reflection I know it was because I didn’t feel secure enough in my own life here to brave going it alone. Around this time I didn’t have a stable job, I didn’t have many of my own friends, and I didn’t live separately in my own apartment. I didn’t feel I had enough independence to become independent. All break-ups are hard, but it turns out that ending a long-term relationship while living away from home is really hard. In losing a boyfriend I had first met aged 19 on my first trip to Canada, I had also inevitably lost the strength of connection with what I had considered for a long time to be my second family. As much as a partner’s family members might insist on keeping in touch, realistically things can never fully be the same. Gone were the guaranteed Thanksgiving and Christmas invites, collections from the ferry or airport, and advice on Canadian systems and laws.

In spite of this huge change in my circumstances, I thought I was doing pretty well in the break-up’s aftermath. In a September blog post, I discussed how content I was with my Canadian life. Little did I realize how much this was more me trying to convince myself everything was great, underestimating how much my confidence had been unsettled. This was largely because I didn’t have family and close friends around who knew me well enough to understand and suggest how I was really doing. I also didn’t realize how much the break-up had affected me because I had been quickly distracted by an attraction to a new person who seemed to come along at a perfect time near the end of the relationship, when I had felt so much uncertainty about my future in a foreign country. Excited by the new attention and comforted by the prospect of immediate company, I let myself get caught up in a complicated romance without realizing that my current mindset was not in a strong place to form a new relationship. My emotionally needy self clashed with someone emotionally unavailable. The impact of the emotional collision was drawn out over a confusing period, and the final broken remnants left me questioning many things about myself and my ability to form fulfilling relationships in which my level of care would be reciprocated. Having always prided myself on being an independent person, I didn’t recognize the clingy person I had become. I had invested so much time and effort caring about someone, when really it was myself I needed to take care of. The soundtrack to my 2017 Christmas was Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’. Aided by a dose of SAD, I felt lonely, tired, pessimistic and unmotivated. Trying to understand my self-esteem was like trying to decipher a face through a cracked mirror.

Around the same time, I also went through that “quarter-life-crisis” stage common to people of my age. I was a few years into an unexpected career field, living away from home being a true “grown up”, and yet there was still a shy, indecisive person inside me who was scared by the prospect of a structured work life and unsure of where my life was going. We are constantly pressured to aspire for more – more money, more titles, more living space, more materialistic possessions – yet I didn’t feel ready or interested to follow that trend; I was drawn to the idea of a life where I could just take off whenever I felt like exploring a new place. To afford to travel, you need to work. But to have a worthwhile travel experience, you need time. And when you work full-time in a permanent role, time doesn’t come easily. When unemployed, we crave having a permanent job, and yet when we have it, we long for more freedom. The prospect of my future consisting of days spent at work seemed so confining. I was very grateful to have a job that I love, but my priorities and plans in life went through a period of feeling muddled. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams’ was added to my soundtrack. (Evidently, rivers are pretty symbolic.)

I’d never planned to go home for Christmas 2017, and the same plan still stood even when I became single. Flights seemed too expensive, I wouldn’t have enough time there to make it worth the expense, I figured better to wait for a visit in the summertime, “it’s only Christmas”. Yet another underestimation of how difficult things would be. I put on a brave face to family because I didn’t want them to worry about me. I had a stubborn desire to prove that I was fine and could be a “big girl”.

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A last-minute decision to get away for a few days of solo travel time helped pick me up. Corny and cliche as it may sound, my trip to Kelowna helped restore my understanding of myself and rejuvenate my sense of purpose. Heading into 2018, I resolved to look forward. A single 25-year-old young professional in a foreign country – I had so much freedom to carve out the type of lifestyle I wanted. I realized this was an exciting time for me, not a sad one.

I started focusing even more on running and fitness, and even started swimming occasionally again – a sport I was not known to enjoy during my teenage days as a Modern Pentathlete. I got stricter with my diet after having let meals slip into lazy choices during December. I turned off the sad soul and acoustic blues – the Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young – and turned on more optimistic Motown and funk. I started making use of my creativity again and writing more guest posts for other bloggers.  I focused on quality and not quantity when it came to socializing with people. I won my first 5k race of the season with a better time than I’d expected. As my sense of self-worth rose again, I shook off my scepticism about male intentions and relationships, and let myself give a guy I’d been wondering about a chance that turned out to be worthwhile.

As the days get longer and the spring flowers start to bloom, I now feel like I’ve truly established my own life here in Canada. I feel truly content and independent. I’m blessed to have some fantastic people in my life, some fun hobbies, and some beautiful surroundings. I feel like I’m having the lifestyle and relationships that I wanted, and it feels great.

MEC Race Thetis Lake (1)

So after everything that’s happened in the past few months, why do I sometimes feel bad saying that I’m happy?

Every so often, I’ll experience what I call ‘The Cycle of Guilt’. The guilt relates to being far away from home as my parents get older. Even if parents are fortunate to be in great health, the distance from family makes worries about the future that most children experience throughout their lives a little more pertinent when living overseas. A recent article on long-term expat experiences even suggested that a desire to look after parents often influences family members to return home, even if they struggle to readjust to their old lives themselves.  A thought of happiness I have will sometimes be followed by a voice of judgment. The voice tells me that I am being selfish and inconsiderate. It reminds me of the wonderful childhood my parents created for me and my siblings – one that wasn’t filled with many materialistic things, but with health, adventure and encouragement. How can I just get up and leave them when they did all this for me? How can I act so ungrateful?

On UK Mother’s Day in March, Victoria saw its warmest day of the year so far. I walked around in a t-shirt along the oceanfront and bought ice cream at the park. The sound of an English woman’s accent ordering an ice cream had me involuntarily spinning around to catch a glimpse of this familiar stranger, and the sight of an elderly lady on her own, fumbling with her purse and trying not to drop her walking stick, consumed me with a sudden feeling of guilt. I envisioned a similar (and very far away!) future scene featuring my own mum and, irrational as I knew it was, felt bad for having a lovely day over here rather than being at home with her.

One of the biggest challenges as an expat (or Canadian resident who has moved to the other side of this huge country!) is maintaining strong relations with people back home while investing in new ones in your current place of residence. Despite all the technological options for keeping in touch with people around the world, doing so still takes a lot of work. I will not deny that I am bad at scheduling Skypes with friends and family outside of Canada. It’s not because I’ve forgotten about or been forgotten by them, but because life gets in the way. With a Monday-to-Friday work schedule, the 8-hour time difference with the UK is very restrictive. A time might be planned on a weekend, only for something to come up and my priorities be cast into doubt. Do I miss out on a unique opportunity for an interesting outdoor or social activity, or catch up with a friend overseas I haven’t properly spoken to in a few weeks? While I’m very organized when it comes to sending cards for special occasions, I Skype my parents only every few months. The ending with my mum always seems to follow a “You hang up”-“No you hang up” pattern, and the end of every call is followed by a little cry before I snap myself out of it and get on with my day.

Although these cycles of guilt will be an inevitable occurrence while I am away, my rational self knows I should not punish myself with such feelings. I also know that as soon as they read this post, my parents will email me insisting I’m a silly billy who shouldn’t be worrying or feeling bad. Realistically, I know that my parents are happy for me. They want me to be happy, and they know that being here makes me happy. I’ve come to realize that the best parents don’t ask their children to stay close, but encourage them to go far. By trying to persuade children to stay nearby, it’s the parents that are actually being selfish. Had I stayed at home, I would not be feeling guilt over others, but I would be feeling discontent with myself. I’d be frustrated that I’d only wondered about a life overseas and not actually attempted to pursue the dream. Guilt is a natural antagonist of joy. More than guilt I feel pride in the things I’ve accomplished,  and the parents that helped me accomplish those things by “letting me go”. The past year has taught me the importance of not wasting time, of taking advantage of opportunities and trying to fill life with as many memorable experiences as possible. Life involves compromises, and time with family is a big one you have to make if you decide to move abroad. But awkward as it feels to say it, when you look at the bigger picture, the compromise is worth it.

In June I’m heading home for a couple weeks to visit family and friends. It will be my first trip back to England since December 2016. The time together will be brief, but I know I will greatly cherish every moment of it.

 

 

Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

It’s been ten months since I left England for Vancouver Island, Canada. Summer with its droughts and wildfires has now passed, and I still have no desire to return back to London. Not only do I have a permanent job doing something I love, but my time in Victoria has opened my eyes to a lifestyle I was missing before when I lived in London.

In the first house I lived in upon moving to Victoria, I’d wake up for work in the morning and open the blinds to see a deer just hanging out in my front yard. He became known as ‘Stanley’. On the walk to the bus stop I would pass runners and dog-walkers who would smile and let me pet their pooch. I would recognize people on the bus who were open to the concept of smiling and engaging in brief conversation. I admired and participated in the culture of saying “thank you” to the driver upon exiting the bus. I established that my favourite driver was a former pilot called Dan who provided weather updates, scenic commentary and probably even birthday shout-outs if requested.

I learned through my interviewing of various people at work that a lot of Canadians can’t decipher between an English and Australian/Kiwi accent. I made friends with a Persian family who started a new restaurant a few steps away from my office, to the extent that they wave at me whenever I pass by and look in.

I learned (and soon forgot) the rules of softball and that “good hustle” and “you got this” are a quintessential feature of Canadian vocabulary.  I experienced how wonderful it is to spend evenings after work on the beach, in a park or doing exercise, and not in a setting that requires consumption of alcohol. I learned of various locally owned bakeries and cafes that made such a refreshing change from the large corporate chains such as Starbucks, Pret and Costa Coffee that can be seen on every street in London. I realized just how fame-obsessed and media-mobbed life in London was in comparison to the easy-going, outdoor-loving West Coast lifestyle.  I also learned that I’m addicted to thrift stores.

With regards to self-esteem, I stopped wearing mascara in late April after suddenly feeling more comfortable in my skin and realizing I no longer cared about looking younger or less attractive with my naturally fair features. And at the end of the summer, I went to an open mic night at a small pub up island attended by a handful of locals, and ended up singing Neil Young ‘Harvest Moon’ with a bunch of old boys playing guitars.

The kindness of Vancouver Islanders in comparison to Londoners really came to light during a bus journey on a Saturday in June, when I happened to be suffering from severe cramps. Shortly after boarding a bus crowded with passengers on a sweltering hot day, my head started spinning and everything suddenly started to go black. I closed my eyes in defeat as if to say, “Take me angels, I’m ready.” Next thing I knew, there was the sound of a man’s voice and someone’s hands supporting my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see a few strangers peering down at me uncertainly, with one of them casually holding my raised legs by the ankles. A lady placed a damp flannel on my forehead and asked me a series of questions, one of them being: “Are you on your period?” Once she had kindly confirmed to everyone on board that I was indeed enjoying the shedding of my womb, she decided that my apparently ghostly white face warranted calling an ambulance, even though I had had vasovagal episodes like this before and was pretty confident all was fine.

The lady continued to ask me a series of questions, including: “Where are your parents?” I told her they were in England. “They’re not here with you?” – “No, they’re in England. I’m from England.” – “Oh…what are you doing out here without them?” – “I’m living here, I work here. I’m 25.” – “Oh! Well what’s their number?” – “They’re in England, there’s no point. They’re asleep right now.” Suddenly I had one of those stirring moments of realization I’ll occasionally get where I remember where I am and how far away I am from home.

Once it was established that I was not a minor and had other emergency contacts in the area that could be called, things seemed to relax a little. While the bus waited on the side of the highway, those passengers that had opted to stay near me naturally got talking, asking where everyone was heading to. The poor man tasked with holding my slightly prickly legs mentioned that he was heading to the airport. Like a lady in labour feeling an unexpected surge of willpower, I shot bolt upright and gasped in horror, “You’re heading to the airport?!” The man laughed and said, “Oh I’m not catching a flight; there’s an old bomber on display I want to see.” Heart rate slowly restoring to normal, I allowed my weary self to rest back down on the seat. The paramedics arrived and as they escorted me off the bus for a quick chat-and-release, I smiled a sheepish apology at the few passengers on the back looking rather miffed that their journey had been disrupted by the menstrual cycle. The lady who had taken charge later texted to ask how I was feeling. To my grateful response she replied, “Don’t thank me, just pay it forwards.”

So I did.

A few weeks later I was reading at the beach minutes from my house when a little girl ran over to her mum to inform her that reckless Sally had taken a tumble at the playground and cut her toe open. “Oh God oh God,” gabbled the mum like an alarmed chicken, “Is she okay? Is it broken? Is there blood? You know I can’t handle blood, Lucy!”

And so Lucy ran back to assess the extent of damage further before returning with a report. “Oh God oh God,” began the chicken-momma again. “Why would she do this to me? Does she need an ambulance?”

At this point the lady spotted me observing the situation with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, and decided to reiterate to me that she was bad with blood. “I can go help her if you’d like?” I offered. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “Oh would you? That’d be great.” She handed me a band aid sized for a large gash on the leg which I swiftly replaced with a smaller sized one coincidentally found in my bag. Little Sally sat calmly on a bench and rolled her eyes at me as if acknowledging her mother’s batty ways. I cleaned up and covered the 1-inch cut on the top of her toe and then her mum approached, only to shrink back at the sight of a slightly-bloodied wet wipe. “Thank you so much! I just can’t deal with blood when it’s on my kids; with anything else it’s fine, but not my kids.”

I decided not to ask what she would do if her child was in a life or death situation, but did insist she shouldn’t need to take her daughter to the doctor.

All in all it was a great summer, and the best thing was that I got to show my life here (and some humpbacks!) to my mum when she came out to visit for a week.

The worst thing about the summer was the part where my boyfriend and I decided to call time on our 3-year relationship at the end of it.

No relationship is perfect – there will always be struggles, and for a while you will rightfully try to work through them. Then comes the time when you have that highly needed yet highly unsettling moment of realization that someone you have loved and cared about for a long time just isn’t right for you anymore and vice versa.  Your personalities, interests and goals no longer align, and you no longer recognize them as the person you felt an instant attraction for upon meeting. No matter how much you try to compromise and persevere, you cannot find the sense of content you are looking for, and it’s time to concede defeat.  But it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of something that has always seemed so simple, natural and ideal in so many ways. As an expat far from home, questions of, “Why am I really here? Do I actually want to be here?” arose in my mind. The future seemed unclear and scary.

Then I thought long and hard about all the big things I had experienced in Canada since December, like new friendships and a fulfilling job. I then thought about all the little things I had experienced just this summer – the friendly interactions, pleasant sights and snippets of conversation – that made being here so much more appealing than returning to London and England. Why would I give up all these things I’m lucky to have in my life? Why would I return to a place and a lifestyle that doesn’t make me feel as happy? More than ever, I knew that I wanted to remain in Canada.

I started making a list of goals for when I would become single. One of them, of course, involved going back to running – that old faithful ally of mine through which I’d met many of my closest friends at university, and experienced so many memorable feelings of elation that outweighed any frustration. I missed what it felt like to run fast alongside others and feel that pre-race surge of adrenaline fueled by a competitive spirit. I tried two running groups. The first didn’t do much for me running-wise, but it gave me a hilarious new friend I held onto even if I no longer attended the group. The second meet I tried gave me exactly what I had been looking for; it got me enjoying running again. I signed up for my first race in over two years for late September, and regardless of the fact that I ended up being the first lady home in my race, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

Another goal included making more use of my free time to travel. It had been over a year since I’d completed a solo trip. After passing my work probation I booked a few days off for the beginning of September. It was time to leave the Island and return to the place where I first fell in love with Canada: the Rockies.

After the gross mixed-dorm experience my sister and I had in Whistler in October 2015, I vowed to avoid hostels for future trips. Unfortunately on this occasion I’d left my flight-booking a little late to organize an affordable airbnb. Instead I had a terrible sleep in a hostel in Calgary, that city of skyscrapers plonked smack bang in the middle of flat nothingness; a place, nevertheless, that was more aesthetically pleasing than I expected. I woke myself up during my Greyhound bus journey to Banff by banging my head on the window, only to recognize the prestigious mountains rising up in the distance, albeit this time with a faint cloak of smoke hovering over that had drifted up from the forest fires in Washington State.

Banff was flooded with tourists out for Labour Day long weekend. At one point during my battle through the crowds, I realized I’d passed a girl I went to school with ten years ago. There was now a McDonalds on the main tourist strip which made me cry a little inside. Banff was even more commercialized and tacky than six years earlier. I hiked Tunnel Mountain and lamented the fact that few people reciprocated my “hi” or even had the common sense to make space on the trail for my approach, too busy they were in their Lulelemon leggings taking selfies and choosing their Instagram filter. But the main thing for me was that I was somewhere different, alone, and enjoying being alone.

The next morning I sat at the same spot on the Bow River where I’d perched six years ago as a less confident and more naive 19 year old. I thought about all that has happened in the past six years – travelling, moving to London, completing my degree, commencing a long-term (and mostly long-distance) relationship, starting a job that developed into a career field, moving to Canada, and returning to single-hood again. I felt a sense of pride remembering all that I’ve experienced, learned and accomplished in that time, and suddenly the world felt like a map in my pocket, with me in control of my life route and excited for what lay ahead in my chosen path.

Finding Happiness as an Expat

It’s been a while since I posted something, partly because of being busy and partly because of not knowing what to write about. I always thought my first post about living and working in Canada would be entitled something like, “Why I Left London to Live in Canada”, with a list of all the great things about the move and my new life overseas. But as the weeks went on after arriving, I realized writing this would be untruthful. Many blog posts enthuse about the joys of being an expat, encouraging readers to ditch their full-time city job and move to another country for a “better life” (the definition of which, it should be added, differs between everyone). Everything seems all rainbows and daisies, and achieving the “dream lifestyle” is so seemingly easy. I’m sure they exist, but rarely have I come across a blog post that has delved into the difficulties life as an expat can bring.

The first challenge is making friends. In this regard, I’d argue there is a difference between being an expat whose purpose is to travel or study, and an expat whose prime purpose is to work full-time in a professional role with the intention of eventually applying for residency. The first two contexts offer environments where one is more likely to encounter and interact with people of similar age and with the same academic/recreational interests and levels of life responsibility. When I backpacked through Canada in 2011, I had no trouble meeting people in hostels, on guided tours or on help exchanges who I developed friendships with, and I’m sure it would be the same today. When you’re trying to get your foot in the career-door however, putting time towards meeting people can’t always be a priority, and depending on where you work, you can’t always guarantee meeting people you can form friendships with. As an example, I worked as a temp for the provincial government for a few months, where only 7% of the entire staff were aged under 30. My chances of meeting a new buddy were low.

On the one hand I am very lucky. My boyfriend is Canadian, and upon arriving here in late December 2016, I was not forced into the unknown territory of a hostel, but instead welcomed by a second family that I’ve lived with for my first few months here. On the other hand, having and living with a partner – especially one you haven’t seen in several months – offers a comfort that can prevent you from making much of an effort to meet new people. Living in a relatively remote area where access to a vehicle is often required to get around can also play a limiting role here. The friends I have here so far I have met through my boyfriend. While this doesn’t mean they are not friends of mine in the fullest sense of the word, and while I can safely say that these friendships are not contingent on there existing a relationship, I’m aware of the value there would be in having friends I met independently of him.

In March I was fortunate to meet a Belgian girl who was staying with my boyfriend’s family for a month on a Workaway exchange. Being the same age and having shared similar experiences, we clicked and at a time when I was in between temp jobs, she became my dog walking-companion, brunch-buddy, yoga-chum, movie night-mate and dancing-sidekick at our own little spontaneous 90s disco party. My experience in Canada was definitely enriched by the short time I spent with her, and yet there are no photos on social media that have captured these memorable moments together and can therefore “prove” that we shared a fun and supportive friendship. Nor are there photos depicting the times I have tried out a new cafe with other friends, gone for sunny group hikes or seen the Chili Peppers play in Vancouver. In fact, there aren’t really any photos of me on Facebook anymore that show me in sociable situations surrounded by others, and in this day and age, it almost seems like this is something I should be concerned about. No photos, it seems, indicates no social life, and no friends.

My Facebook news-feed is filled with an array of photos: pre-night out pouting selfies; impressive plates of food from fancy restaurants or the latest trendy Shoreditch pop-up; tilted head-smiles with cocktail in hand; couples on dog walks; group selfies from house parties. There have been times since living in Canada when I’ve looked at my page in comparison, and wondered if my lack of “socializing evidence” means I’m not fun, that I have a boring life which will wither away without anyone noticing. There have been times when this has made me feel sad and lonely. The rational part of me always soon remembers that Facebook is a superficial social platform, and that my life isn’t boring and that I do have friends, even if they are spread all around the globe and I can’t see them often. Nevertheless, I now make a conscious effort to only spend time on Facebook if it’s for a communicative or informative purposes, and not for aimless browsing of other people’s lives. I also maintain my stance that there is no obligation (or desire from others) for you to share photos of every single sociable thing you do online.

Along with the expat’s challenge of making physical friends (i.e. not those met and interacted with through a blogging forum), there is the challenge of the job hunt. In London, I was paid a good salary for a job that I enjoyed doing and that gave me a desirable level of responsibility and valuable management experience. It was also a job where I had met and worked alongside one of my closest friends. I knew I couldn’t count on being so lucky in Canada, and based on economic factors, I also knew to expect fewer job openings and a pay cut in the small Canadian city I was moving to. I was also aware that it likely wouldn’t be a case of just sending a company my CV and being offered a job within days of arriving. However the difficulty I faced in landing a job still came as an unsettling reality check. Upon starting that tedious task of writing cover letters, I discovered a surprising amount of stylistic differences between British and Canadian English. I soon learned that while my visa made me eligible for any job, adapting myself to the Canadian job market would require more effort than I’d expected. I would apply for jobs that I knew I could do with my eyes closed only to be “ghosted”, and it began to hurt. I knew I was putting pressure on myself and that this was maybe unreasonable considering the small job market I was searching in, but I wasn’t one of those expats content to get a part-time job in a cafe or house-sit while living modestly out of a backpack. I came here aiming to earn a living and develop a career further with the intention of applying for permanent residency later.  Temping proved to be a good solution when it became clear that finding a permanent job with my temporary work visa wouldn’t be so easy. Almost five months after arriving in Canada, I have been offered a permanent job that I am thrilled about, but the journey was a long and often demoralizing one.

It was always my plan to move away from my boyfriend’s place and live with other people after a few months, so that I had more space and more of an incentive to meet other people. Now I am living in a lovely place near the ocean and closer to downtown. In contrast to London, the value for money when it comes to rent is excellent, especially considering that it’s really a student apartment. (“Detached? A garden? A spacious living area? Nice clean furnishings and utilities that work? This must be a dream!” I initially thought when I first saw it.) The neighborhood I’m in is ideal for me too. I can sunbathe in my garden without feeling like neighbors are peering down on me, walk to the beach and breathe in the clean air and pet cute dogs and chat to their friendly owners. I can go for runs along pleasant trails and smell blossom trees and nosy handsome houses and get on buses where the drivers smile and passengers say “thank you” before they get off.

Does this mean my life is perfect and I am the happiest I have ever been? No. I still haven’t met many new friends, and while with my new home and new job position I am feeling in a better place from which to explore new places, try new things, and meet new people, it’s inevitable that I will still have moments of loneliness now and then. But do I ever wish I was still in London? Hell no! I obviously miss friends, I miss the theater and ‘Time Out Offers’, and now that it’s summer, I kinda miss scenes of “village cricket” during post-work runs around my favorite Regent’s Park, but my life here in Canada is so much more preferable for my personal interests. While I will definitely feel even more settled once I meet more people, I am one of those ambiverted characters who prefers having guaranteed tranquility and alone-time along with the option to be around people, instead of having no choice but people and noise constantly around me.

New surroundings

The first few months of being an expat looking for permanent professional work are bound to involve challenges. I was lucky in that I was already familiar with this country, wouldn’t have to learn a new language, and had contacts prior to arriving, but this didn’t mean things would be a walk in the park. My boyfriend recently introduced me to an American comedian called Louis C.K. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, he humorously explained how, in a time when people crave instant contact with others via their cell phones, we should be more accepting of loneliness and sadness as inevitable feelings in life. Now that I seem to have overcome a major challenge I’ve faced in my first few months as an expat, I’m able to reflect on any setbacks or disappointments as useful experiences: experiences that were not simply reflections of unfixable shortcomings of mine nor an indication that my coming here was a mistake, but experiences that are a part of growing up and have helped develop my strength of character. Living and working abroad is definitely not for everyone and I imagine many people do call it quits and return back to more familiar surroundings. But if everything in life came easy, that would be a boring life. Soon I will turn the milestone age of 25, and when I look back on the life I’ve lived so far, the challenges I recall will be valued just as strongly as the moments of happiness.