I was six years old when I first set foot on Canadian shores, having flown from Liverpool to Vancouver one sunny day in July. I knew very little about anything, let alone the enormous country I was about to call home for the next 40-plus years. Also, I came from a very urban environment, with little knowledge or experience of the outdoors. No one had ever told me about barbeques or cooking outdoors in public places. So while sitting and watching the Pacific Ocean from Stanley Park not long after arriving, I had a bit of a meltdown as I saw flames licking up from a tiny grill in the park. My parents will never forget me screaming, “throw it in the ocean; it’s on fire!” Fast forward a few decades, and I’m an inveterate barbequer now. Still, that little child’s misunderstanding has followed me my whole life. This personal anecdote should make you feel better about any new immigrant misunderstandings you might encounter.
Immigrating to a new country is a bit like learning on a new job. Your education has hopefully prepared you for life in the country of your origin and has probably taught you little bits and pieces about other countries. But when you’re preparing to move to one of those countries, you must have more knowledge before leaving home.
We reached out to immigrants and asked them the following questions. Their answers are intriguing, amusing, and enlightening.
What did you know, or think you knew, about Canada before you immigrated? Did those things turn out to be accurate?
“I guess I thought it would be more mountainous.Tom, 42 years in Canada, originally from England
“I didn’t think there were any Indigenous groups besides the Inuit, and I only knew them by the name ‘Eskimo.”Isabel, 11 years in Canada, originally from Brazil
“I thought it was more mountainous.”Sheila, 42 years in Canada, originally from England
“[I thought] that everyone was bilingual (French and English)”Richard, 25 years in Canada, originally from South Africa
Even from these short answers, we get a pretty good idea of some of the stories about Canada. Tom and Sheila were exposed to images of the Rocky Mountains, certainly one of Canada’s most prominent features but only a tiny fraction of the country. As with many stories about Canada, a lot of our identity gets rolled up with our Southern neighbours. But Canada has immense prairies as well. Isabel’s response is another example of this – Canada is home to many Indigenous nations. Still, our cold climate and Inuit First Nation get a lot of attention. And Richard’s response acknowledges the well-known aspect of Canada as a country with two official languages is somewhat misunderstood.
What didn’t you know about Canada that you wish you had known before immigrating?
“[Canada’s] multicultural, which was a lovely surprise, and of course its size!”Tom
“Provinces. (I had no idea that this division even existed).Isabel
“Though I knew Canada was big, I had no idea how big and that it could take days to travel across it, also the diversity of peoples.”Sheila
“[I] had to live here for a while before realising how vast in size the country is.”Colin, 54 years in Canada, originally from the United Kingdom
“That Summer’s are hot (and humid if in Ontario).”Richard
There’s only so much one can learn from an atlas. While the familiar world map lets us generally know where we are in relation to other places, it doesn’t help much in explaining that place. Canada is the second largest country in the world. But it can be challenging to wrap your head around just how big it is. It’s just one of the things that surprise newcomers to the country. Many long-term Canadians are amused by visitors from other countries who land in Toronto and plan to make a quick trip to the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Ocean.
Canada has some interesting legends associated with it. It’s so cold that we all live in igloos; we’re the most polite country on the planet, hailed as international peacekeepers, and not Americans. Canada is seen as a place of opportunity, equality, and vast amounts of space where new Canadians can carve out a hopefully better life than the one they left behind. These are just stories about Canada, which are repeated most often to and by newcomers to the country.
The above understandings and misunderstandings are pretty cosmetic. Even if you didn’t know how big Canada is or that we have prairies, your experience of immigrating would not be that different. These are facts about the country you will inevitably pick up the longer you live here. But some differences are a bit more immanent – like what Sheila tells us below:
“…it was a complete surprise to find out that we had to do a tax return every year. In Britain at the time, a tax return was only necessary if something changed, like marriage or having children.”Sheila
“The challenges in setting up a bank account; Getting a credit rating to then rent an apartment, buy furniture, get a phone, buy a car; Also remember car insurance [especially] being prohibitively expensive; Failing my drivers test even though I’d driven 15 years prior without incident.”Richard
Far from misunderstandings about geography and population, Sheila and Richard’s experiences here show that there are legal and economic hurdles that can often be extremely difficult to access for new immigrants because they have absolutely no idea that these things are different from their country of origin. Indeed, Richard’s experience of setting up a household, despite having arrived in Canada 25 years ago, is a familiar and frustrating experience for most new immigrants. Information gaps can lead to some pretty severe consequences. Although there are numerous guides to immigration, every question is not answered. It’s up to immigrants to do the research necessary to integrate into legal frameworks. Thankfully, there are resource centres in most major cities that can undoubtedly assist in addressing these more complex kinds of questions.
In the end, this is just another of the exciting parts of moving to a new country. As prepared as you may be, there will always be surprises and stumbling blocks along the way. The key is not to let the strangeness or unfamiliarity throw you off. Suppose you’re confused by something or don’t understand how things work here. In that case, there are always resources to draw upon, be they a community centre, immigrant resource hub, handy-dandy Immigrant Muse magazine, or a friendly neighbour. One myth of Canada seems to have proven itself correct: we’re pretty kind, conscientious people.
Oh, and we spell many words with the letter “u.”