By Patricia Lightfoot
This week my family celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of our arrival in Canada as visitors, though our landed-immigrant papers arrived a week after us. As we were driven down the Décarie Expressway in Montreal with our babies on our knees in May 1992, we looked at the cement all around and the trees without leaves and we wondered what we had done. The following day, walking around Montreal in the sunshine, perplexed by the mixture of what we knew of as early and late spring and summer flowers in the gardens, we realized that this might work.
It was so much easier for us than for many, including a Syrian family I’m friendly with who arrived from Jordan last winter. We had chosen to come here, we spoke both official languages, a job was waiting, we had a good sense of what to expect from the culture and we had family in Ottawa. That being said, we too were shocked by that cold that sears your skin. Buying winter coats without hoods is not a great idea. We didn’t know. A friend told me about how his grandfather, who had fled from violence in the Ukraine, left his cows out one winter night on the prairies and found them all dead the next day. The family abandoned the farm and moved to a mining town in British Columbia. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.
A lesser, though troubling challenge that we faced was the need to anoint our young children with insect repellent, so they were not eaten alive by blackfly in June in the Laurentians, leading to some particularly tense family conversations: “We survived the winter for this!”
Like other non-Indigenous people before and after us, we learned how to live here, and we came to love eastern Canada’s three robust seasons, embracing winter sports, swimming in nearby lakes in the summer and hiking in the often spectacularly lovely fall. We made friends and built a social life and a support system, a local social network, but in those pre-Facebook and Skype days there was a loneliness inherent in not being able to spend time with old friends, or at least friends we had known for more than a year or two. I remember a program on CBC radio about the collected letters of a Canadian writer, maybe Margaret Laurence, in which the presenters agreed in what seemed to me a rather smug way that “thank goodness there had been no Facebook or email then.” I thought that maybe this writer, like myself, would have loved to connect more easily and quickly with her distant friends, especially if she had been at home at the time with young children.
Our experience and that of a number of other immigrants we’ve asked is that friends and family from Europe don’t visit all that much. It’s far and expensive, and there’s an unfair perception that Canada is dull and cold, even in the summer. Maybe if you leave, then it is your job to visit those who didn’t, though of course it’s far and expensive. Now we are able to visit every couple of years, which is great. We have found that the old friendships live on, and I’m so grateful for that, as I am for my friends here, but we’ve missed substantial chunks of our old friends’ lives and seeing their children grow up. It’s been a good life here. We’ve been lucky, but there’s a price to pay and that’s a split life.