It’s been quiet around these parts for one of my favourite interview series… The Honest Expat… fortunately I have a new one for you today! Catherine and her husband Ivor along with their twin girls, Hannah and Amy, moved from Cape Town to Calgary in Canada just over a year ago. Here she shares more about their expat journey emigrating to Canada. I hope you’ll enjoy reading their story as much as I did.
Where are you originally from?
We’re from Cape Town, South Africa, but in the last three years before moving to Canada we were living in the winelands region of Stellenbosch and Somerset West.
Where did you emigrate to?
To Calgary, Canada in 2019,
What was the catalyst/s for your emigration decision?
There was no one event or issue that made us one day wake up and decide to move to Canada, but it was a gradual process of realising that the unstable political and economic reality of life in South Africa didn’t give us much hope for a bright and secure future for our family. We visited my siblings in Australia in 2016 and it was then that we realised that we had the option of seeking a different, and perhaps better, life elsewhere, so we started to explore our options.
How long had you thought through the emigration process?
It was about a year process were we had started to think about it, tried to apply to emigrate to Australia, failed in that endeavour, changed our minds, forgot about it for a few months, and then finally one day decided to try again, this time turning our focus to Canada.
How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/documentation/ finances etc?
We came over to Canada via the Express Entry system – it’s a points-based, skilled visa whereby you need to have the relevant qualifications, work experience and English language proficiency to qualify. Once granted we had permanent residence in Canada. The process itself is not complicated but involves a LOT of paperwork and it’s very time-consuming, expensive and stressful. From the moment we decided to move to Canada to finally landing in Calgary took two years. We had a number of stumbling blocks along the way and it was a very stressful time.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
We’re just approaching our one-year mark of living in Canada and it has been a wonderful adventure. We love Calgary – it’s a city but has a definite small-town feel. We’re close to the Rocky Mountains so we have had some great opportunities to explore and see the beauty that Canada is renowned for. It’s been a wonderful adventure for our family and I love sharing our experiences of life in Calgary on my blog.
Unfortunately, the pandemic and lockdown happened just a few months after arriving here so it has complicated things somewhat, and just as we were starting to settle and the kids were starting to enjoy school and make friends, everything shut down and we were home for months without much contact with the outside world. Thankfully, we had already established a lovely friendship circle and have had so much support (mostly from the South African community in Calgary) since arriving, which has made a big difference.
I must admit, though, that while the first few months were exciting and fun, as time has moved on and we approach our first year mark here and the reality of getting back into the rhythms of everyday life, it has felt a bit more challenging and the homesickness creeps in every now and then – not so much a homesickness to go back to SA, but more a homesickness for our family and friends, and just being near those who know us and love us. The reality that we are here to stay and won’t be going back to SA any time soon, does sink in and I have my moments of sadness.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children? (the positives of emigrating)
We have loved the adventure of it and have been able to enjoy many opportunities for beautiful road trips, camping, hiking, and weekends away in such beautiful surroundings. Alberta is truly breathtaking, and I don’t think I will ever get used to it – I really have to pinch myself to realise that I live here. You can see the beautiful photos on a screen, but it’s a whole other thing to experience the beautiful scenery in person.
We love living in safety and in a society where things work and the government truly cares about its people. The other day, as an example, a few parents complained that people were driving recklessly near our school during the morning drop-off, and the very next day there was a police officer at each intersection and at the crosswalks outside the school. The other night we forgot to close our garage door – it stood open all night and the next morning, everything was all still there. I often catch a train to downtown in the evening on my own and walk home from the station in the dark on my own and don’t feel unsafe or threatened (except for the possibility of encountering the occasional coyote haha). It’s little examples like this that are so encouraging to us that we made a good choice for our family.
We love the cultural diversity of Canada and the fact that our children are growing up in an environment where they are exposed to so many different people and viewpoints, and these cultures are embraced and celebrated.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children? (the negatives of emigrating)
Adjusting to the culture and making friends. Everything is new and unfamiliar. Even though Canada is an English-speaking country and we were familiar with most aspects of the culture, it’s still an adjustment thanks to many subtle things we had to get used to, from social interactions, to grocery stores, the healthcare system, driving on the other side of the road, different words and phrases we weren’t familiar with, and now being the person with the accent who people don’t always understand. Canadians are friendly, but not necessarily easy to make friends with – they are quite private and unlike South Africans who are extremely social and love having people over to their home, this is not always the case here.
The admin! There is so much admin you need to sort out when you arrive. This is challenging when you don’t know where things are or how they work and it’s exhausting. A big challenge for me was having to redo my driver’s licence, including the full road test, which was very stressful!
It has been a huge adjustment for our children and our one daughter has really struggled with the change, as she really doesn’t like change to begin with. The climate is so different and arriving at the start of a snowy winter certainly came with many challenges, especially for our kids who weren’t used to big boots and snow suits, so getting ready for school in the mornings is a marathon session of fights over socks and gloves. They both also really miss their grandparents and it has been hard not seeing them on a daily or weekly basis. Talking to them on FaceTime is just not the same as popping in for a cup of tea and a proper granny or grampa hug.
What have you NOT missed about South Africa – for you and your children? (the positives of emigrating)
Living in fear and constantly worrying about my and my family’s safety.
What have you missed about South Africa – for you and your children? (the negatives of emigrating)
Our family and friends, and just the familiar rhythms of life.
The South African people. South Africans are resilient and have such a wonderful energy and ability to survive and thrive no matter what. South Africans have this ability to make fun of themselves and each other and we miss that unique sense of humour.
I miss the winelands – we loved living in Stellenbosch, and I miss the beauty of the mountains and drives through the vineyards. I miss the ocean too!
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?
Absolutely! We love Canada and we know we made the right choice to move here. If we were to go anywhere else it would be to Australia, which was our first choice, as my siblings all live there.
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you consider returning to South Africa?
No – there is nothing that could convince us to return to South Africa.
What makes it hard to return to South Africa – for you and your children?
We have such a wonderful and safe life here in Canada and our children have a secure future. We could never give that up to return to the uncertainty of South Africa.
What were the unexpected (good and bad) aspects of emigrating that you’d wished you’d known about before going. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
Emigration is not an easy journey – it’s emotional, it’s expensive and it’s stressful. If you’re moving over with a partner or family, you need to ensure that your relationships are strong and that you’re on the same page when it comes to your expectations and plans. The emotional upheaval, uncertainty, and challenge of building a new life in a new country can place a lot of strain on relationships and you will likely learn a lot about yourself and your partner along the way.
If you’ve made the decision to emigrate, then go for it. Don’t overthink it, but also have realistic expectations about what it involves and how long it will take. Emigration takes a lot of work and you need to be motivated to do the hard work to make it happen. There may be some stumbling blocks along the way, but this doesn’t mean it’s not meant to happen. It’s these challenges that will make you more resilient along the way and more prepared for the journey once you’re in your new country.