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Life in Vancouver

30 November 2010, 06:45  - Freeman
There have been so many of these articles lately but with the Brandon Huntley case going on at the moment I thought people may be interested in what life is like in Canada and if you are expecting to move here, either as a refugee or otherwise, what you can expect

Making the decision
When my wife and decided to emigrate it was mostly because of crime; we had been hijacked in our driveway when our son was two and having men pointing guns at you with a two year old in your arms is no fun. Yet our experience was mild to what many South Africans, black and white, experience on a daily basis and we were grateful that it turned out so well. We walked away with no harm to us and one car less, two wedding rings less and no wallets. That however is what prompted our decision to leave as we did not want there to be another time.

Making that decision was the starting point though and the next step was figuring out how to get in.  Without a job offer or enough financial means we had to apply as a skilled worker. For this Canada works on a point basis and points are made up of age, language, qualifications and work experience. I was in the process of getting my degree through UNISA and now just had to complete it. Once I got my degree we applied and the application process took four years. However once you get accepted you have eight months to pack up and go, we were able to sell up and leave within three months.

What you leave behind
Before you go you know you are going to leave behind; your house, some possessions and of course family and friends. For many leaving family and friends is the most difficult as you are also leaving an entire support base behind and this is why it is a brave decision to emigrate. Something that you often also leave behind, which is very seldom covered in immigration seminars or on the immigrations documents is to some extend your skills and qualifications as way of finding employment.

In Canada it is difficult to get a job without some form of Canadian work experience or qualification. It does not matter if you went to some posh private South African school, such as St John’s or graduated top of your class at Wits, employers want Canadian qualifications and experience. You are now no longer competing with the small South African base of skills. Canada accepts over 300 000 immigrants a year from all over the world, so you are competing with all the new immigrants as well as locals when looking for a job who are just as hungry and determined as you. This may mean that you have to start off in a lower level job than you are used to initially and then work your way up.

The job application process can also be tough. Even to work at Starbucks there is an online application process and if you do not meet the criteria you will never hear from them again. What I have seen is many immigrants re-educating themselves when they arrive, going to University of College full time. However, this is an expensive route as post secondary education costs here and combined with that you need to cover your living costs, this can eat into your Rands.

One last word on this, when you say goodbye to family, especially if your parents are old or sickly, say goodbye as if it were the last time you would see them. This is not melodramatic but Canada is two long plane trips away and depending on your financial status you may not have the means to get back to South Africa in the event of an emergency. The standard vacation time two weeks and a trip to SA and back can take up four days of that just in travelling and time differences.

What will you find
The first thing you will want to find is work. We were fortunate I was able to secure a job before arriving which was pretty much on the same level as I had in South Africa. In Canadian terms my salary is not high, it is average. We have always been middle class and are middle class here too. With that we were able to rent a brand new Condo, which is pretty big, pay our monthly living expenses and even save some money each month. If I compare this to South Africa we are financially better off here off without a doubt. In South Africa my wife and I both had jobs and still found it difficult at the end of the month at times, especially since food prices seem increase on a weekly basis.

My wife has also now found work but it did take time. She has been volunteering for sometime, which has now led to a job. A job with a difference though and it is something she loves. Sometimes that is the route one needs to take – be prepared to give your services for free and back to the community you live in and work may find its way to you as a result.

You will find a very efficient public service here. I use public transit every day and manage the long commute to work and back every day with it. Regardless of which department I have dealt with in Government I have found them to be extremely efficient, helpful and fair.  Can you imagine how I felt when I had to apply for my drivers licence and I spent all of 10 minutes in the queue and then was dealt with in a very professional and efficient manner. By the way, you will need to redo your driving test if you come from South Africa

Food and groceries are reasonable, providing you are not converting the prices to Rands each time you go shop. If you are earning Canadian dollars then it is reasonable and we live pretty well and have not had to adjust our spending habits significantly in that regard.

We are impressed with the schools in our area, but I have heard that this can vary from area to area. My son is in a class of twenty and each child in grade six and seven is provided with a laptop - this is a government school not a private school. Our son enjoys it and has made some very good friends, all of which live and the area. He also gets to ride his bicycle to school every day, something he could never do in Johannesburg.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, it is clean and surrounded by mountains and water. Many compare it to Cape Town and I will say Cape Town is my favourite South African city. However the difference is I can safely enjoy Vancouver day or night. We can hike in mountains and in the summer we get to swim in the ocean or in one of the many beautiful lakes. The one thing here is that you are always very close to nature.

Canadians are generally polite, friendly and very politically correct which I enjoy. Race hardly gets mentioned, especially in the work place and you do not read too much about it in the papers or hear it on the news. This has really opened my eyes and think South Africans are way too race obsessed. A Canadian is a Canadian, regardless of your race. You are not called a white Canadian or black Canadian for example you are just a Canadian.

It is a true democracy and politically stable. If we had politicians singing “one farmer one bullet” here or “bring me my machine gun” they would be forced to resign and in sighted for hate speech.

You may also need to change some of you terminology and pronunciation of words so people can understand you. It is no good holding onto things that are not going to be useful, including certain parts of the language so do not be afraid to learn new words and use them.

Many people see work as just that, work. So if you are looking for a job that you feel is below you or easy, remember there are many people who see it as a job and way to earn a living for their family. This is what employers look for: employees who are serious about what they do regardless of where you come from or what you have done in the past.

The government does provide some good tax incentives. For example if you save for your children’s education in a registered fund the government will pay a certain percentage into that account up to a capped amount. Also if you earn under a certain annual salary you get a tax refund for each child you have, so if you move here there are things you can do to help you get your feet on the ground.  The government pension system is good, however you have to contribute to it and the amount you will get when you retire is based on ratio on the number of years you contributed to it. This is good to know if you are slightly older. What you get back from government is not for free, you also have to take responsibility for you savings and your future, which right, everyone needs to contribute.
The country does have a good medical system but don’t be fooled; it is not free as many think. It is medical insurance which has to be paid for by you, although it is subsidized by government. This covers doctors and hospital, not drugs, optometrists or dentists. You can however purchase separate medical insurance for this. Also expect to wait for non critical care.

In Vancouver there is a very large South African contingent and it is amazing how many Canadians recognize our accent, never mind the many South Africans we come across. However in order to fit into the country we have tried to meet people outside of the South African circle as well as within it.

You will find problems, don’t get me wrong. There is crime here, mostly drug related though. There are also homeless people but not to the extent of South Africa. With a 7-8% unemployment rate it is not a significant problem.

A parenting style change and mindset change may be required. We have never believed in hitting our son in South Africa and honestly find that form of punishment barbaric. In Canada it is outlawed and what many South African parents may seem as normal parenting can be considered child abuse here. That can be difficult for some parents coming from a more traditional or religious style of parenting.

While many South Africans have not had a formal job by the age of twenty-four many teenagers start working from about sixteen here in part-time jobs. They can earn good money working a few shifts at a place like McDonalds. This gives them good preparation for the working world as well some spending power. Also it makes children much more independent from a young age.

Vancouver has one of the most expensive housing markets in the world and even if you move to the outlying suburbs it can be pricey. The interest rates are around 3% so it does make the mortgage payments more reasonable but expect to wait a few years before you can afford property.  Rentals are also not cheap and a fair portion of your pay check can be spent on accommodation. However most places come with appliances, such as a stove, fridge, dishwasher and a washer and dryer so there is generally no need to lay money out for that.

Are we happy?
I can honestly say yes and this is not to prove any point. If we were not we would come back to South Africa. We were determined to make it when we left and have given it a full go, I do not think a half-hearted approach with one foot in and one foot out serves anyone well. We as a family are truly happy, inside and out as a result. The move has not only provided us with a new life but it has broadened our minds and helped us experience a new culture and way of living. It has given us an opportunity to grow and start fresh. Our family has become closer and stronger and we feel like new people. However each person’s experience is different and I understand that it can be difficult to settle in especially when work is hard to come by. However if you do decide to come to Canada remember there are people making it all the time here and so can you.

We never run down South Africa and do not hate the country and are looking forward to seeing it as “tourists” again one day. We would love to see South Africa shed its problems of crime and corruption and succeed as a nation although we would not move back even if it did. We made a different choice for our lives as is our free will to do so and are content with that choice. I still follow the Rugby on News24, although I am also a proud Cannucks supporter (the Vancouver based NHL hockey team) and have even started to watch a bit of the US and Canadian football.

We never encourage any of our family or friends to emigrate, that is a decision they need to make for themselves. The advice I give to people is this: Commit yourself to the country you live in, regardless of where that may be. It is where you live so make the most of it.

- Are you a South African living abroad interested in sharing your views? What is it like for a South African living in a foreign country or how do you view South Africa from a distance? Send us your columns to and you might get published in our new Beyond Borders section.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

*Ed's note - This article was erroneously published with the wrong byline. The correct author - Freeman - has been added to the article. Our apologies for the mix-up during publishing.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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