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Interview with Catherine – A South African expat living in Calgary

Updated 1 Feb 2021

Catherine is a South African expat who moved to Calgary in 2019 with her husband and two children. She says it’s been a wonderful adventure and she enjoys sharing her experiences on her blog, Cape Town to Calgary. In her interview with Expat Arrivals, Catherine tells us about the ups and downs of her new life in Canada.

Read more about expat life in our Expat Arrivals Canada country guide.

About Catherine

CatherineQ: Where are you originally from?
A: South Africa

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Calgary, Canada

Q: When did you move here?
A: 2019

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes, this is my first expat experience, but my husband lived in Canada before.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my husband and two children.

Q: Why did you move?
A: We moved to Canada in search of a more secure future for our family, for the adventure and the new experiences of living abroad.

Living in Calgary

Q: What do you enjoy most about Calgary? How would you rate the quality of life compared to South Africa?
A: I love the small-town feel of Calgary and the fact that we are so close to the Rocky Mountains. Calgary is a very family-friendly city and there is a great community feel. There are also so many wonderful things to do and places to explore, and we especially love all the outdoor spaces – parks, woods, walking and bike paths.

We had a great quality of life in South Africa, and we lived in the winelands region so we loved getting out and about to the vineyards and the beach. Calgary also offers a wonderful quality of life, and while we no longer have the vineyards and beach, there are so many more places to explore. We definitely feel much safer here – while there is crime, it’s mostly petty in nature and it’s not unusual to see people leave their garages wide open all day or kids leave their bikes and toys laying in the front yard.

Q: Any negative experiences? 
A: Overall, our expat experience in Canada has been very positive and we have enjoyed our time here. The only real challenge I experienced in the beginning was driving – Calgary drivers can be quite aggressive and the roads are an endless construction site. We had to redo our diver’s tests here as our South African drivers were not recognised, and this was quite stressful as there are lots of new rules to learn and cars drive on the other side of the road here.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Canada? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The biggest adjustments here involved the drastically different climate. Coming from sunny South Africa to snowy Canada can be quite a shock to the system. Winters are very cold and with the snow you need lots of layers, jackets, mittens and boots, and this was a huge adjustment for our kids, who were used to running around barefoot most of the year. It’s also quite a challenge to learn to drive safely in the winter conditions.

Houses are also very different here – they are not hidden behind high walls and fences and having our front door and garage open right onto the road took some getting used to for these safety-conscious South Africans.

We haven’t experienced any major culture shock, but there are still some days where we may have said or done something that a Canadian didn’t understand and vice versa, and it made for an awkward moment. But overall, we have adjusted quite easily to the way of life here.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Canada?
A: The cost of living in Calgary is high compared to back home, but it’s all relative once you start earning a Canadian salary. Housing is quite reasonable, and pretty much on par, if not cheaper than what we would have paid in Cape Town. Food is expensive, especially meat. Fresh produce is also expensive and not always the best quality – we really miss the beautiful fresh South African produce. Cars are affordable and gas is cheap, but insurance is exorbitant. Schooling and healthcare are free, although dental, optometry and medicines are not included under Alberta Health, and they are expensive. However, most companies offer their employees health benefits to help cover these costs.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Calgary? What is your most memorable experience of using your city’s transport system?
A: Calgary has an extensive public transport system consisting of an integrated system of trains and buses. For the most part, they run efficiently, and we usually use the train if we want to go into downtown. If we go anywhere else, we use our own car. While I feel safe, it can be a bit dodgy sitting at the train station in downtown at night as there are often unsavoury characters wondering around looking for drugs. There have been some interesting characters on my train rides, including a man who hopped on with his shopping cart of all his worldly possessions and another who played his reggae music and sang along on max volume on a packed rush-hour train.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Calgary? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: Calgary has an excellent healthcare system and we have only had positive experiences. My husband and daughter had an accident that required medical attention and the paramedics were there within minutes. They were taken to Foothills Hospital where they received great care.

The health system works differently here to what we are used to – you have to have a family doctor (GP) who is your go-to for all health needs. You can’t see a specialist directly and if you do need a specialist you need to get a referral from your family doctor. In order to find a doctor you have to set up an appointment with a doctor to meet each other and decide if you like each other. The doctor has the right to decide that they don’t want to be your family doctor – we found this really strange. Fortunately, we have found a lovely family doctor, who happens to also be South African.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Calgary? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Overall, Calgary is a safe city and the majority of crime here is petty in nature, such as car break-ins. I feel safe pretty much everywhere I go and am not afraid to walk home from the train station late at night – the only thing I need to worry about are the coyotes that wander the streets.

Drugs are a major and devastating problem here, especially among the youth, and many of the petty crimes are related to this. It’s not uncommon to see drug deals taking place on a downtown street corner or young people shooting up on the sidewalk. There is also some gang activity, which is mostly concentrated in the city’s northeast.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Calgary? What different options are available for expats?
A: There are many different options when it comes to housing in Calgary, including freestanding/detached houses, townhouses and condos/apartments. Every neighbourhood has a good selection of different housing and something for every budget. We live in a detached house with a back deck and small yard. A feature we particularly love about our house is the finished basement, which adds a lot more living room to the house.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Where an expat wants to live will depend a lot on their lifestyle and family situation. Young expats who don’t have kids should consider living closer to downtown where there are great restaurants and entertainment options. It’s also close to the Bow River, which has great walking paths and parks for picnics. Those with families will likely head to the suburbs, of which there are so many to choose from. Great family areas include Tuscany and Scenic Acres in the north west, and Signal Hill, Sundance, Somerset, Bridlewood and Silverado in the south.

Meeting people and making friends in Calgary

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Calgary?
A: Calgary is a very multicultural city and there is a general underlying culture of respect for other people and their differences in Canada. However, this doesn’t mean that discrimination doesn’t happen. While we, as immigrants, haven’t experienced any negativity, we do occasionally see news reports about people who have been victims of racism or discrimination.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: We haven’t struggled to meet people. Before moving to Calgary, I had networked quite a lot with South Africans already living in the city, so before we arrived, we already knew a few people and managed to connect with them in person once we arrived. Some of whom we have become good friends with. We have also tried to get involved in our community, the school and church, but this has become quite difficult in the current climate of Covid, with many things shut down.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: Our friends are a mix of Canadians and fellow expats. Initially, when we arrived, we tended to mostly hang out with other South Africans, but once we started to get more involved in life here, we met more Canadians. Having children has definitely helped with this, as we have made friends with some lovely families from all over the world through the school.

You need to get involved in your community here and integrate into Canadian life as much as possible. I see it over and over again, how South Africans come here and only hang out with other South Africans. It’s really not a healthy situation. It is definitely easier to be close to those who come from your own country, but this sense of familiarity can prevent you from truly making the most of life here and integrating fully.

Working in Calgary

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: We came to Canada via the Express Entry system, which is a skilled, points-based system, which grants permanent residence. The process itself is not difficult, but it is long and time consuming. We worked with an agent, but in hindsight we realise what a complete waste of money this was – we could definitely have done the whole process ourselves. The only time I would recommend an agent or immigration lawyer is if you have a complicated case that may require more documents or involve additional procedures.

Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A:  The economy in Calgary is not great at the moment. Alberta has suffered a double-whammy with the falling oil prices and Covid, which have contributed to massive layoffs, unemployment and economic losses across the province. It’s not impossible to find a job, but it may be challenging. Expats need to network as much as possible, and those who really want to move here may have to take a job a few steps lower on the corporate ladder and build their way back up again. Good places to look for jobs are Indeed and LinkedIn.

Family and children in Calgary

Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home?
A: Both of us have adjusted to life here really well, although I will admit that I have experienced a bit more homesickness lately.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: It’s been a huge adjustment for our children and it’s taken a long time for them to settle. They were taken away from everyone and everything they had ever known to a foreign land where the climate, people and pretty much everything, was so different. Initially, it was a big struggle to deal with their fluctuating emotions and adversity to change, but we can say now that they have finally settled and we are so proud of how they have grown and matured in the last few months.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Calgary?
A: There is so much to enjoy as a family in Calgary and we have really enjoyed getting out and exploring. Each neighbourhood has outdoor parks and ice rinks that are free to use, and we enjoy walking to one of these on the weekend. The bike paths and forested areas in and around the city are also great for getting outdoors as a family and being in nature – if you’re lucky you’ll also spot some of the beautiful wildlife that roam freely, including deer, moose, squirrels, hares, beavers and even coyotes and bears.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Calgary has an excellent education system and parents will have a wide variety of options when it comes their kids' schooling. Public schools consist of the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School Board schools, and there are also a range of private schools. No matter which option you choose, kids will get a good education. Our children go to our local public school and we are quite happy with the school.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Canada?
A: Immigration is a massive leap of faith and it’s not an easy journey, but you just need to keep going. Always remember your 'why' for doing it. It’s a big adjustment and you need to embrace the changes – you need to realise you are moving to a new country, and you can’t expect that life will ever be the same again. You need to have realistic expectations about this and be patient with yourself and your partner and family – you will all experience it differently, and that’s okay. Be excited, research your new country and all the wonderful things you can enjoy there, rather than focus on what you may be leaving behind.

Embrace it, have fun and enjoy all the new experiences. It’s not easy, but it will most definitely be worth it!

►Interviewed in January 2021

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