Immigrating: Guidelines for Living in Canada

by Sioban Costelloe

Sioban Costelloe was born on the island of Dominica and raised in Trinidad and Tobago before migrating to Canada in 1997. She is currently working in Dominica.

Have you ever heard the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do?” It means that every place you visit has certain guidelines which are primarily for your safety, the safety of others and protection of the environment.

Adapting to Canadian guidelines is easy but often involves breaking old habits. With constant work, you can break a habit in about three weeks.

There are really no guidelines posted in the West Indies on behavior habits but in Canada there is information posted everywhere – especially in parks. The key is to pay attention to your surroundings and read. In the subway for example, the zoning sign for not crossing the yellow or red line is purely for your safety so you do not fall onto the tracks. In our parks there is signage for cleaning up after a picnic, where to put recycling and garbage.

Let me give you a couple of ideas. In the West Indies, where I come from, everything seems to be first come, first served and arriving in a country where everything is so organized was challenging for me.

Rule #1 – No matter how overwhelming things may seem, relax and look around. See what everyone else is doing.

When I got my first job in Toronto, the experience of working in a 25-story building was enough to give me land sickness for a week. I had never been so high up and away from the security of my feet planted firmly on the ground. On my first day when lunch time rolled around, I was excited to find a foodcourt below ground that offered an amazing variety of foods. I decided what food I wanted, zoned in on (found) the service counter, walked straight up and proceeded to place my order. An annoyed voice behind me said, “There is a line, you know.”

I wondered who this person was speaking to. It never occurred to me that her comment was directed at me until I turned around and found her eyes glaring at me. I looked at her with a blank stare, then observed where she was standing. Yes it was a line and everyone in that line was staring at me. A Line! Of course there was a line. It wasn’t a question I was asking myself but more of an affirmation. I muttered a quiet, “Oh,” and my eyes followed the 15 people to the end where I took my place. Once I had my lunch and sat down, I laughed to myself. The last time I was told to get in line was in school.

Rule #2 – Read all manuals given. They are there for a reason.

All my driving in the West Indies never prepared me for what I was about to face in Canada. It started with finding out that my license was not valid and that I had to go through the testing system. No problem, I thought. I had been driving for years and this would be easy. I was given a book as big as a catalogue, which is an exaggeration, but it is in great detail and teaches you all you need to know about being safe on the roads. To obtain your driver’s permit there are three stages – your learner’s permit, called a G1, then you graduate to a G2 and finally your full G license. The roads and safety precautions are different here in Canada and the system is such that everyone learns the same methods. The nightmare was when I was taking my first driving test. Driving instruction in the West Indies involves learning hand signals, which you use almost all of the time to indicate the direction you are turning the car. So when my driving instructor told me to turn right and I stuck my hand out of the window to proceed, she immediately started writing in her book. I, of course, took this as a good sign and proceeded to turn, at which point she stopped me and said, “You did not signal properly.” And I said, “Yes I did.” Five minutes later we had pulled over and were having a conversation. It did not take me long to realize that hand signals would not work in Canada during the winter.

Rule #3 – Thermals fit snugly. Snow suits should be at least one size bigger than the regular size.

It can be hard preparing for the different seasons especially if you have children. My first winter was a life time experience trying to provide the appropriate clothing for my son. I remember purchasing my son’s very first snow suit. He looked so cute in it and when I bundled him off the next day to school, it never occurred to me that I would receive a call from the principal asking, “Where are his clothes?” Clothes, I thought? You mean you take the snow suit off?

This was the beginning of quite an interesting and hilarious relationship between school and parent. Everything, from boots to waterproof gloves, was purchased one at a time. I really had no idea. When we were finally into a deep freeze, my son said that he was still feeling chilly and I was alarmed. I checked the list I had: clothes, hat, gloves, scarf, ear muffs, wooly socks. What could be missing? I consulted my parents. “Thermals” was the response. “What are they?” I asked in amazement and with that, I was taken shopping. You need thermals – it’s the very first piece of clothing you put on. The thermals and the snow suit gave me the most problems until I got it right – thermals should fit snugly and the snow suit should be at least one size bigger to accommodate all the clothing underneath. Of course, as soon as the child is bundled up, there is a little voice saying, “Mom, I have to go to the bathroom.” Talk about frustrating! We spent many a day inside.

Rule #4 – Be aware of the environment you live in.

Caribbean people love parties and entertaining in their homes. When I moved into my first home in Canada, I immediately called up all my friends and announced a house-warming party. It started at around 11:30 pm, which was of no consequence to me – that’s when things get going. But at 2 am, I got a call from my neighbor asking me to turn down the music. I was alarmed. Do what? Turn down my music? But the party was just picking up, friends were still arriving.
Hanging out until 5 am and going straight into breakfast was completely normal to me but, as my neighbor explained to my party of friends (because he had to come over to explain this) was that, in this community, we have to live by the same guidelines as everyone else. I placed myself in their shoes, and to be honest, I would expect the same. Truthfully, I was not being inconsiderate – I was just following my normal behavior.

My recommendation is that when you move into your apartment or house, you should find out what the expectations are from your superintendent, who manages the building code, or your neighborhood committee. For example, if you live near a hospital or a home for the elderly, there will be different guidelines for noise pollution verses living in a neighborhood of houses, and so on.

It may take some readjustment but eventually it all becomes part of your daily life and old habits are replaced with new ones.

When in Canada, do as the Canadians do.