By Sara Robinson
British Columbia is a very small province — well under five million people — and a very big one, nearly twice the size of California. The economy was entirely resource-based for most of its history, and still is; but they’ve worked very hard to get the movie and tech businesses up here, and succeeded wildly. Because of this history, even though Vancouver is the original home of both Greenpeace and the Suzuki Foundation, environmental oversight is still not what it should be — certainly, not what I came to expect living in California, which I now realize was exceptional in many ways on that front.
Where you have a resource-based economy, you always have a network of Old Boys. So, yes, there’s that. But the drive for “peace, order, and good government” runs deep, too; and we’re blessed with voters and newspapers who are very quick to say — loudly, but politely — “Hey: that ain’t right!”
Vancouver is a city of immigrants. There are an estimated 250,000 American expats here, not to mention an equal number of east Indians (mostly Punjabi) and three quarters of a million Chinese who came fleeing the Hong Kong takeover a decade ago. I live in an Iranian neighborhood. Lots of Brits, Irish, and Africans, too.
The schools are exceptional. Canada has the fourth-best school system in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. And within that, Alberta and British Columbia are neck-and-neck for having the best provincial systems. Their responsiveness to special needs kids isn’t what it should be; but private schooling is a) cheaper to start with and b) partially subsidized by vouchers. My son has benefited from two amazing schools, at an average cost to us of under $10K a year. On that front, coming here was absolutely the right move.
The country gives amazing tax breaks to small, family-owned businesses; and does much to discourage big-box stores that will eat them whole. Also, the unions have real muscle, and there’s not a huge problem with undocumented workers eroding the wage base. Yes, there’s a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot within an easy bus ride; but the same malls they’re in contain mostly mom-and-pop shops and successful local chains. So you see less of that corporate-serf thing here. People start businesses, and make them go.
If you think you might want to move, it’s best if you get your application in before the head of household turns 45. The point system doesn’t favor immigrants who are older than that. If you decide to come, don’t skip the step of getting an immigration attorney to bounce things off of. The system is full of sweet loopholes that appear nowhere on the Immigration Canada website, but a good attorney will steer you through — take no “no” for granted, because there’s almost always a way around it. You will get in faster and easier, and with far less runaround. If there are hitches — well, they know people. Ours was a real fixer. Best $2,500 we ever spent.
We are glad we made the move — especially this week. We got every asset we could out of the United States several years ago. The Canadian dollar far more solid, since it’s backed by the country’s vast resources, and the country carries very little debt. (It’s a nation of Scots, and they are tight-fisted and cautious with their money.) Real estate in our neighborhood is holding steady, though it’s falling a bit elsewhere in Vancouver. We have health care, no matter what. Once our citizenship comes through (hopefully, this year), we will have Commonwealth passports, and can move to one of 52 other countries should that ever be necessary.
And the quality of life is very high. People aren’t as far along on the consumption curve, so houses are smaller, neighborhoods more intimate, stuff just not as important. Good transit makes one-car families typical. Pay is lower, and stuff is a bit more expensive, but the expectations are also lower — life is not about stuff here, anyway. The social contract is strongly intact. The cops are incredibly decent. People who play “us-versus-them” games are censured immediately — it’s not the Canadian way.
Sometimes I get incredibly homesick for America. I miss my culture, and feel sidelined in an important fight. And other times, like today, I’m grateful for the security the distance gives me, and for the kind civility of my Canadian neighbors.
Sara Robinson is one of the few trained social futurists in North America, and will complete her MS in Futures Studies from the University of Houston in 2009. Her skill set includes trend analysis, scenario development, futures research, social change theories, systems thinking, and strategic planning. She is a fellow at Campaign for America’s Future .