I have been debating with myself, for some time now, whether or not to write about my leaving England and emigrating to Canada. I won the argument, so I will just have to live with it.
Me: “Are you sure you are ok with this?” Me: “Doesn’t really matter, you are determined to go ahead, just leave me out of it”. Me:”Well that’s hard because it’s about my experiences and I can’t do that without taking about me”. “O.K., but I don’t want to read it!” “Fine with me”.
Actually the debate was somewhat deeper and stronger than that, but here goes.
I was 20, living in the North East of London and working in the West End. Much of my salary was consumed by the transportation system. I was engaged to be married (to my first wife), but finding it impossible to save towards a place of our own due to low wages and high costs of living.
I remember standing on the platform of the train station, in the same place I had stood every day for the last four years. The same commuters were standing near by. I had no idea who they were, no one ever spoke or even acknowledged others. I started to do the calculations. 20 years old, retire at 65, that’s 45 more years. Assume three weeks vacation and ten days for other holidays – deduct that from 365 = 340 days times 45 years = 15,300 more mornings waiting on this platform – 15,300 more days of travelling an hour and a half to work and another hour and half home. That’s 45,900 hours commuting. Assuming 8 hours for sleeping (good luck with that one), that’s 2,868.75 wasted days – that’s 7.86 years of my life gone! If I live to be seventy-eight and a half, it’s over ten percent of my whole life – ARRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH. I hope I didn’t actually scream out, but I certainly was screaming inside.
I looked up, (Cue inspirational music) there in front of me, on the other side of the train tracks was a poster on the station fence ‘Canada – Land of Opportunity’ I can still see the stars popping around the poster and the rainbow in the sky above it. (Ok you can stop with the violins now).
I spoke to my fiancé and we agreed I should look into us emigrating. Now where? I had aways dreamt of visiting New Zealand, and I had a distant aunt in even more distant Canada. We decided to try both the New Zealand and Canadian high Commissions. I lived under the false advertising of a British Commonwealth at the time and assumed a British subject could go anywhere in the commonwealth and automatically be a citizen. “Not so fast young man!”.
First, I visited the New Zealand High Commission. I told the person in reception that I was interested in emigrating. “What do you do?” “I am an interior designer” I replied with a satisfied look on my face. “what’s that then?” he asked. “Do you paint walls?” Patiently I replied, “No, that would be a painter and decorator, I design interiors of buildings, offices, shops, department stores…I plan the rooms and the furniture and furnishings”. “I don’t think we have any of them in New Zealand”.
I trotted on over to the Canadian High Commission. They seemed slightly more interested in my qualifications, gave me a bunch of forms and an invitation to a “Welcome to Canada movie night”. At least I think that was then, it could have been later in the process. Anyway, we went to the free filming and saw wonderful movies of people having a wonderful time, living in lovely houses, all of which seemed a stone’s throw from Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains and the skating rink at City Hall Toronto. As I had been gazing at phosphenes through much of my geography classes I believed them.
We filled out the forms and sent them in. We were warned, in the instructions, not to call and enquire about our file as that would cause delays. If we called and they retrieved our file, rather than saying where it was in the system, it would be put back on the bottom of the pile. We didn’t call.
One day, great excitement, a letter came, the envelope announced it was from the Canadian High Commission. Good news, we were through to the next step – more forms!
We were granted an appointment with an immigration officer on a certain date, the appointment was 12:23 in the afternoon. I was impressed! 12:23 – these folks sure run a tight ship I thought (bureaucrats, you gotta love ’em).
Putting on our best duds we arrived at Grosvenor Square (The US Embassy is also located on the square) at 12:10 – we had 13 minutes to kill. Because the appointment time was so precise, we thought it best to present ourselves right on the dot!
Entering the immigration centre we were directed towards a desk. There was a long line of people waiting their turn at the desk. Much like stores on Boxing Day or Black Friday (I think Black Friday is on a Thursday now).
It took us about twenty minutes to reach the desk. I’m not sure why, because all they wanted to do, was check our appointment time, have a quick look at the forms and put them on the bottom of the pile for processing.
We were directed to the waiting room around the corner. It was packed with people: old, young, singles, families. Lots of families with little children; running around, crying and complaining and that was just the mums and dads.
We sat for a couple of hours. On the dot of 3:04 pm we were summoned to see an immigration officer. He looked over our files and gave us the go ahead to see the doctor on duty. We went in, he looked at us both. “How do you feel?” “Fine thanks!” “Great, do you see that eye chart on the wall?” “Yes?” “Well that’s all right then”. He stamped our documents and we proceeded back to the waiting room.
After another wait we were again summoned to see the immigration officer. “Good news, looks like you are going to Canada”. “Have you thought about where in Canada you plan to settle?”. We looked at each other puzzled, we honestly hadn’t given it a moments thought, just Canada. Oh the innocence (stupidity) of youth! Explaining that we would like his advice on the best place for us we received a very warm smile (it was his lucky day!).
“well let’s take a look at your file here. I see Miss N, you are a bank clerk (he actually pronounced it to rhyme with jerk), should be able to get you employed anywhere. Now Mr S, you are an interior designer?” He really knew his stuff, he was right on top of things. “Yes” I replied with a satisfied look on my face.
He then told us that normally Montreal would be good, but seeing it was Expo year the city was full of designers (not to mention separatists too). Toronto, being close by was also pretty overloaded with designers at that time. Vancouver, well, it’s economy was not doing too well, so it might have been hard to find a position. At that time Calgary was still Cow Town and Edmonton hadn’t discovered the opportunities to come from toxic wastes associated with extracting oil from tar-sands.
A light went on – not literally, but figuratively – above the officer’s head. Oh he was good. He looked as though he had just thought of something. “You know, Winnipeg has an interior design school as part of its faculty of Architecture in the University of Manitoba. They use a lot of interior designers in Winnipeg – and the economy is doing well. I am sure you would be able to find a well-paying position”. “Well, that’s the most important thing” I said bravely with no idea what I was talking about.
“Very good, just sign here that you will relocate to Winnipeg if receiving final acceptance for immigration”. Scratch scratch the ink forms our signatures. The deed is done!
Looking very relaxed, the immigration officer smiled at us, rather like an older brother – and you know what that can mean! (“let’s put our money together and share it” was running though my head. see here for the background)
“Forty below is just something you get used to” he said. “Forty below what?” I asked
“ha ha, the temperature, it get’s to be -40 Fahrenheit or Celsius take your pick, they meet at 40 below”. “Once it gets much below -20 F it really doesn’t matter”. Having no idea how cold that was I merely shrugged.
“The mosquitoes aren’t as bad as everyone makes out, and they only come out in the summer, ha ha ha”. he chuckled. “Mosquitoes?” I enquired, not feeling quite as chipper as before.
“Yes, and since they built the big dike – Duff’s Ditch they call it, Winnipeg doesn’t get flooded every spring”. Beaming smile on his face.
He stretched out his hand to shake “Good luck! Don’t do anything about travel arrangements until you get the official letter. When you do you will have three months to get to get to Canada”. “Oh and you will receive a sealed package to present to the immigration official on landing on Canada. Do not, under any circumstances, open that package. If you do you will be denied entrance”. “Have a nice life!” I am sure I saw him marking off a chart with a real flourish – he had made his Winnipeg quota.
We headed home to wait for the official letter.