Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is the Grass Greener in Canada?

I was vacationing in Prince Edward Island, Canada this summer when I came across this article in The Globe and Mail: “The World Would Love to Be Canadian” ( The writer, Joe Friesen, cites this startling statistic: “Given the choice, 53 percent of adults in the world's 24 leading economies said they would immigrate to Canada.”
I'm teetering on the edge of joining them.
This isn't a whimsical decision on my part. It's been brewing since 1974, when my father took our family on our one and only camping trip. He rented an RV and we headed north from Massachusetts to Prince Edward Island, which he described as “a peaceful emerald isle of enchantment, where the sands are red and the waters sparkle silver.” Dad had never read Anne of Green Gables (, but he made PEI sound tantalizing, like the Land of Oz without the Wicked Witch and her horrible flying monkeys.
Sadly, my mother did not take to camping. “Just more chores for me!” she declared, and forced us to turn around in Maine after driving a grand total of four hours. My parents were divorced soon after that.
Fast forward to my own divorce. When my first husband and I split up, I had two young children; I was dead set on giving them a family vacation, man or no man. Affording a beach vacation in New England was impossible on my single-parent salary, so I convinced a friend and her kids to join us on a week-long trip to Prince Edward Island after spotting an ad for a cottage there that rented for just $400 a week.
We drove twelve hours north from Massachusetts with our kids making more noise in that van than most rock concerts. Between the various stops to pee and feed them all, it was midnight by the time we reached the island. (In those days, the only way to get to PEI was the ferry.) The cottage was on a rutted red dirt road (still plenty of those up there, for all of you Anne of Green Gables fans). I was shaking with fatigue by the time we arrived. It was pitch black all around us, but the sky was a bowl of stars and we could smell the sea.
We woke the next morning to the sound of fiddle music. I sat up and looked out my window at Rustico Bay, where great blue herons dotted the shore. Tall purple and pink lupins waved like some Disney cartoon animation; I half expected the flowers to sing. Across the bay was a tall white church, and that's where the fiddle music was coming from: a festival that we attended that very afternoon. I was hooked on PEI from that moment on.
I've gone back to Prince Edward Island every summer for the past 14 years, and sometimes in the fall or even winter, when the snow blows across the potato fields and the roads disappear out from under you. There is never a time when I don't love it.
Yes, there are certainly moments while driving up Route 95 through Maine (where the State motto should be “Maine, the Infinite State”) when I think, “This is so not worth it.” Even in New Brunswick, where I've come to love the Bay of Fundy's rocky shoreline and the long stretches of farmland with their big brown loaves of hay and spotted cows, I sometimes think, “Why can't I find a closer place to love?” Then I cross the Confederation Bridge from the mainland to Prince Edward Island and fall in love with the place all over again. The colors seem brighter and the air is clearer here than anywhere else on earth.
The Globe and Mail article reports that more than three-quarters of those surveyed in China said they'd prefer to live in Canada, followed by Mexico and India at nearly 70 percent. Most respondents perceived Canada as a place where rights and freedoms are respected on a deeper level than anywhere else.
Is this true? By now, I've explored most parts of Canada, including many of its cities, from Vancouver to Ottawa, from Montreal to St. John. There is urban blight, as there is in the U.S., and visible evidence of unemployment – the Canadian unemployment rate is just over 8 percent overall. Certainly Canada isn't free of crime or substance abuse. The last time I was in St. John with my mother, one drunken spacey fellow stepped onto the escalator behind Mom and rested his chin on her shoulder, passing out for a second until she barked at him to back off.
Yet, wherever I've been in Canada, there is an overall feeling of goodwill from most people – my husband calls most Canadians “pathologically friendly” because of their willingness to chat you up – and generosity abounds. Most recently, I was staying at a friend's house on PEI when another friend brought her bike over for my husband to pump up the tire. Within minutes, we were joined by two other neighbors, both asking if we needed help. They stayed for an hour.
Three years ago, my brother and I went in on a small summer cottage on PEI. It's a typical cottage, mostly porch, overlooking Malpeque Bay. I bought it online, sight unseen, and we've camped out in it happily every summer, renting out empty weeks to help sustain the costs of having an extra house. This summer, I spotted the perfect year-round house for sale in the more remote eastern part of the island, near our favorite beach. Now we're trying to decide whether to buy that one as well. This sounds luxurious, even decadent, this idea of having second homes – but neither costs more than most new cars here.
If we bought the farmhouse, I imagine one day retiring there with my second husband, or living there half of every year after the last of our five kids is off to college. I dream of raising alpacas and selling the wool; my husband is arguing on behalf of goats and cheese-making. Both are pipe dreams at this point. Sensibly, we'd probably do better just doing what we do now: writing and software engineering. But it's the simplicity of having a ramshackle farmhouse on Prince Edward Island that lures us – and the good neighbors I know we'd find there.
Should we, or shouldn't we, go for this dream? Am I fooling myself about Canada because the news headlines here are so awful (think war, oil spills, harsh immigration legislation)? Is it a purely escapist impulse, the kind we all have when fantasizing about living in our favorite vacation spots, that makes me want to flee north of the border? Or is Canada really a better place to live?


  1. Hi,
    I am Canadian and thought I'd send a wee bit of advice your way about moving to PEI. First off, take a big deep breath and exhale slowly.

    You don't have to move there permanently yet. You can stay in Canada for up to 6 months at a time as a tourist. My suggestion is to take the plunge and rent a place for an entire month. Go during the worst possible month (February or March sounds good). During that month, do things like a local: go grocery shopping, drive to town, call up the cable company for quotes, call the phone company for quotes on rates and cell phone packages. Go to a doctor's office and ask them to explain how the medical system works. Do the same with a dentist, and an eye doctor. Go to the immigration office one day to just ask a few questions and pick up some brochures to see how they treat you. Call a home renovator to get quotes on things like new windows, labor, painting. Go to a store to check the prices of appliances and furniture. Go to a car garage to see how long it takes to get a car fixed in the winter, make all your meals from scratch, use regular amounts of hot water and electricity and see how much it all costs at the end of the month.

    If you still love PEI at the end of an entire month during the worst month of the year, then you'll be fine living there the rest of the time. Plus, if you spend your month LIVING there (as opposed to being a tourist) you'll know what to expect. Trust me: a waitress serving a tourist a slice of apple pie will be nice, but someone at the phone company might be another story!

    Another thing to do during your month long live-in is to make contact with the writer community which is quite strong on the east coast of Canada. Just Google 'PEI writer' and a bunch of things should come up. Meet/chat with other writers and find out what sorts of writer opportunities exist for income-generating potential (like writer retreats, etc).

    I think your alpaca farm is a great idea. PEI probably needs a knit-cafe-bookshop. Why not check out the local knitting group while you are there? (they must have one...ask at the nearest library)

    I hope this helps a bit. I have used this method myself in deciding about moving to other countries. It has helped me immensely in my latest move which has taken me to Zagreb, Croatia. If you think it is a bit of a mind bender to move from the US to Canada, just imagine going from Canada to Croatia! (and, no, I don't speak the lingo...not yet)

    Best of luck!

  2. Wow -- this is all great advice, Gabriella,and I thank you. I'd love to hear more about your move to Croatia! We are taking it slowly, buying a cheap fixer upper now and spending just short bursts of time on the island at the moment, at different times of year, but I do like your advice about talking to doctors, waitresses, etc. I'll follow through, promise!

  3. Hi,
    I keep a blog about my Croatian life at

    I'll warn you that I try to keep it rather chipper and cheery...because I found out the rather difficult way that it is not wise for an easily identifiable foreigner (me) to post anything negative about my experiences because the locals don't like it. Gulp. So I keep things pretty positive. The darker and more real stuff is in my private journal though. That's where I keep the real-life stuff about work visas, language schools, unfriendly expats, life as a foreigner, being away from family and friends and a myriad of other unpleasantries.

    I hope your PEI adventure works wonderfully. And I hope you give gardening and small scale farming a try because it is really great.

    I'm expecting your PEI Tales book to be hitting the bookstores in about 5 year's time ;-)