“Wide, Open Spaces” and “Opportunities” – The Canadian Dream in France

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Since spring 2017, these lawn signs have been popular around Ottawa

Many of my fellow citizens sigh with envy when I let on that we live in Canada. I suspect the reaction would be different if I’d mention China or Mexico, but every French person seems to have a story about “The Country Above the United States.” The spotlight has been on it for the past ten years or so, thanks to a good helping of propaganda from the Délégation générale du Québec à Paris, the need to convince francophones to bring their skills to remote Quebec towns and various local media featuring story after story of hopeful gap-year travellers and successful French immigrants in the province.

As a matter of fact, no one asks us where we live, exactly—it’s gotta be Montreal, because, where else?

In French people’s mind, Canada (i.e. Quebec) is this magical place with “de grands espaces” (“wide, open spaces”) where “on peut réussir si on s’en donne la peine” (“you can make it if you work hard”)—insert stock picture of a lake with fall foliage reflecting in water as well as a smiling French holding a briefcase and you have your typical “spécial Canada” magazine feature.

I can’t disagree with the first statement. I mean, look at the map—yep, we’ve got plenty of space… most of it is icy and desolate, though. To give you a sense of perspective, population density in Canada is 4 people per sq. km, 122 in France and 6,500 in Hong Kong. While I understand the challenges of living in a densely populated country or city—this is my in-laws’ number one complaint about China, “人太多”, literally “too many people”—I think most French don’t realize that these “wide, open spaces” also present unique issues. Commutes are longer, schools are further, you need a car to get around, public transportation is inefficient, cities are spread out and no, you can’t pop in to New York or Los Angeles for a weekend. You actually have to wait for the green pedestrian light because you can’t exactly run across a four-lane road and expect to make it. You learn to shop efficiently because supermarkets are fucking huge and it’s a five-minute walk from the dairy section to the shampoo aisle. Larger houses and yards are more work. Everything is generally bigger than in Europe because apparently, you can’t live modestly in a big country—you gotta make a statement with a giant SUV, two-kilo jars of peanut putter and half-a-litre coffee cups.

You know what? These wide, open spaces freak me out. It took me years to realize what makes me feel slightly uneasy in Canada, but I think this is it. There is too much land for too few people, too much distance between places, too much pressure on us, tiny human beings, to tame terra firma and build something. I’m more of a people person than a nature lover and while I can appreciate the scenery, I like humans better than a bunch of trees or prairies. I think this is why I walk from place to place in Ottawa—it’s my way to tame this spread out city. For the first few years, I drove everywhere—well, Feng did most of the time. As a result, I couldn’t piece it all together, much like Japanese tourists who travel around Paris by subway don’t realize how close the sights are above ground. I felt lost until I understood how everything was linked.

But French aren’t just into trees, lakes and mountains—the storybook image includes opportunities for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility.

In a way, this part is true. The new world remains a place where everything is possible. However, the fine print specifies that “everything” includes both good and bad outcome.

Most immigrants, from French and British settlers through the current fifth immigration wave, were forced to develop a Bob the Builder “can do” attitude. North America is a work in progress, and Canada is still a young country celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation. There are opportunities but you have to create them, take the lead, take control and build your future like you’d build a LEGO house. Living without much of a safety net can be scary and exhausting at times. You’re doubly on your own: first because as an immigrant, you don’t have relatives or a network of old, trusted friends to count on; second because public authorities don’t offer much help. You’re way much likely to get a credit card with a high limit or secure a loan than to get some kind of subsidy or allowance. Unlike in France, you can’t rely on financial and social assistance, benefits and public services, although it’s worth pointing out that Canada is miles ahead of the US, a country that is apparently dedicated to keeping pace with the workplace standards of the 1900s.

This is how I picture my two homes. France is cozy, predictable and traditional while Canada is fascinating, inventive and open. French follow recipes passed down from generation to generation while Canadians invent new food groups just for the sake of it. French talk about what they would do if they could while Canadians already tried three new different ways to do things better. French are wise and cynical, Canadians are naïve and enthusiastic. French build on the past, Canadians start fresh.

If I had stayed in France, I could have been myself.

When I moved to Canada, I decided I would be someone else, freed from constraints.

On my good day, I love the challenge. On my bad day, I wish I was in France where I could have quietly pretended to fit a society I didn’t particularly love but that I was familiar with.

Maybe Canada is your dream too. Just make sure you know what you really want.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

15 Comments

  1. Pour ma part je ne crois pas que j’aurais pu continuer en France. Non en fait j’en suis sure. Il m’a fallu partir ailleurs pour avoir la liberte de me trouver. Je serais bien restee en Ecosse d’ailleurs mais la meteo quoi…
    And yes people are always surprised to hear I’m so far from Montreal! And that yes Quebec is halfway between where I live and Paris. And no I’ve never been there… I used to love the big city and people everywhere but I’ve grown to love the mountains and the coziness of my small town (because it’s full of transients and expats it’s not suffocating).
    As for the land of opportunities, it’s true. Heck I couldn’t have worked so many jobs in France. But those “opportunities” were also low paying and with low job security. And where I am there isn’t that many jobs going with my skill set.
    Donc oui c’est un peu le pays des bisounours sur certains aspects, mais c’est dur de se contruire toute une vie “ailleurs” que ce soit au Canada ou autre

    • I think we’re on the same page. I don’t think I would have accomplished (if I consider I accomplish something…) as much in France. I had way more opportunities in Canada. However, I did (and do) pay the price for them. It’s just not *that* easy. You’re still starting from scratch!

      • Exactly, it’s not easy… You really have to fight for these opportunities and you don’t have the same safeties in place.
        I guess it’s never sunshine and roses anywhere and it’s still a beautiful democratic country though 🙂
        Comment va le moral? J’espere que vous avez tous les trois repris du poil de la bete

  2. This is such a lovely, thoughtful post, and has got me thinking about what it means to be a native Canadian. Do I appreciate all that is here? Do I like it, but not love it? Would I like to explore other cultures someday and see if I fit in better there? Hm.

    I read once that people who grow up in Iceland – even more desolate than Canada – often have a real problem with crowds and closed in spaces. They are so used to wide expanses of land and open areas that they don’t like big cities or small rooms. I guess it makes sense that some people have the opposite – they grow up in close quarters feeling cozy and loved, and so wide open places seem forbidding or even dangerous. It’s fascinating how the place and family you grow up with has so much influence on your adult self. Some things cannot be changed!

    • One thing I noticed when I first came here was the perception that crowded places = potential danger. In France (and many countries I know), it’s the opposite: an empty street would feel potentially more dangerous than a crowded street. Both theories have merits, I guess. I always think that if something isn’t right or if you feel threaten, it’s better to be a crowded place because someone can help and there are witnesses.

  3. Hello Zhu, I was led here from the blog of Susan Wanderlust… really enjoyed your post, especially the part “On my good day, I love the challenge. On my bad day, I wish I was in France where I could have quietly pretended to fit a society I didn’t particularly love but that I was familiar with.” Substitute “France” with “Malaysia” and you have just described to a T exactly how I feel as a migrant in Australia. I got my PR easily and quickly as I ticked all the boxes, but it was more at a family member’s suggestion, at a time when I was at a crossroad in life. (Incidentally, was at the same time considering Canada, and enrolling in a second degree with UBC in British Columbia, but when they showed us pictures of the city, I immediately got freaked out by the “wide, open spaces”. Like you, I prefer cozy and convenience, especially having lived most of my adult life in a big city, Kuala Lumpur)

    • Hi Bel, nice to meet you!

      Oh, boy… I know both Australia and Malaysia (love KL!!) and I can imagine how… ahem, quiet and empty Australia must feel for you. Where about do you live? How do you feel about this move?

      • Well, Australia is not new to me as I graduated from there (a very, very, very long time ago), but yes, you are right, the difference in demography remains a challenge. I tried living in Hobart, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, then Sydney, and Sydney, though nothing like Asia, is as close to a city as one could get in Oz … I am now back in Malaysia, and probably will spend a few years there and a few years here, but because of the deep-rooted familiarity with KL, that might be the best compromise. Luckily, it is still fairly easy and affordable to travel between the two countries. What I came to realise is that I don’t prefer one over the other; comparing Malaysia and Australia is like comparing apples and oranges, and I like both for different reasons. One thing though, I will never ever be able to get used to the awful Australian twang, haha! Anyway, I remind myself how lucky I am to have a choice of living in two countries.

        • I can completely relate to the fact you don’t like one country much more than the other. I feel the same with France and Canada (and I also can travel relatively easily between the two). They both have good sides, bad sides and they are so different it’s hard to compare. For example, I feel I have more work opportunities (and minimum hassle) in Canada but there are some aspect of French culture I will always like best.

          I remember I really enjoyed Perth, but it’s so… remote! There’s nothing around. Sydney would be my top choice in OZ as well. I’m not a big fan of Melbourne or Adelaide. I enjoyed Brisbane though.

  4. Wiiiide and opeeeen spaaaaaces!!!
    Hell yeah!
    Edmonton-Halifax : nearly 5000 km, and in Edmonton, you’re still not on the west coast. Almost 1200km for Vancouver, and almost 1500 for Prince Rupert by highway 16.

  5. C’est drôle parce que je ne fittais pas vraiment en France. Je m’y suis toujours sentie un peu en décalage. Ici je me sens plus à ma place mais c’est moins à cause du pays que pour cette nouvelle idée de Française à l’étranger. Je suis d’ailleurs donc dans mon esprit et dans celui de mes interlocuteurs c’est normal que je ne fitte pas tout à fait.

    • Moi non plus je n’ai jamais eu l’impression d’avoir trop ma place en France. Ici, personne ne remet en question ma… canadienneté, disons, je peux me fondre dans la masse plus facilement, y’a des communautés de tout, des gens de tous les horizons, etc. Par contre, plus le temps passe, plus je vois que je ne colle pas non plus avec certaines mentalités ici, notamment au niveau de l’éducation.

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