Quick exercise—make a list of your friends and acquaintances. Now look at it. How many of them would you feel comfortable asking a favour from? How many of them have the bandwidth to help out in a pinch? How many of them are geographically close?
Many Canadians don’t have much of a safety net. There are more welfare programs than in the US but less than in most European countries and the culture can be characterized as individualistic. Newcomers have even less of a safety net. Not only they may not know their rights, services available and the “rules of the game,” but they can no longer rely on their trusted relatives, friends and community they had back home for practical help.
I’ve had my fair share of minor crisis, ups and downs and major life events in Canada—some call it adulting…—and it took me a while to realize that I really needed to come up with my own plan B.
Here are a few ideas you should consider now before any emergency.
How big of a disaster would it be if you were let go tomorrow? If you don’t even want to think about it, think again—the hiring process can be quick in Canada, but you can also be asked to clear your desk unexpectedly.
- Know your rights, especially regarding occupational health and safety, standard hours, wages, vacations, holidays and termination of employment. You can check the Canada Labour Code, Federal Labour Standards and if you need legal help, government-funded websites like Step to Justice (Ontario only) can point you to the right people.
- Understand how the federal Employment Insurance(EI) program can work for you. You may be eligible for temporary income support while you look for another job. As an employee, you contributed to the program, so don’t be ashamed to use it!
- Make sure you have a few trusted references, ideally from managers or supervisors.
- Keep your resume up to date—the last thing you want to do right after being laid off is to create it from scratch.
- Consider having a temp, worst-case-scenario backup job—a call centre that’s always hiring, a previous employer who could use you as a consultant, a skill you could offer on Kijiji, etc.
Ideally, we could all use more money but if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you really need a plan.
- Unlike in Europe, overdrafting your checking account isn’t usually the “best” solution—it may not even be possible to do so. For better and for worse, North Americans tend to use their credit cards for emergencies. Get a credit card with the best possible rates—avoid store-branded credit cards!—while your finances are good, it may come in handy later.
- Whether you like it or not, a good credit score is the key to the best and most flexible financing options. Understand how the credit score system works and check your own score periodically—this is long-term work.
- If you know you won’t be able to make a payment, call the 1–800 number and explain your situation to your bank, cellphone provider, credit card company, etc. Fees can be waived if you’re usually a reliable customer.
- If relatives or friends “back home” are able to help you financially, make sure you know the best way to receive money from abroad. It’s not as easy and as quick as it seems—based on my own experience, apparently, only multimillionaires are able to move money seamlessly from one country to another.
- Keep a bit of emergency cash at home. You’ll be happy to have it if your debit/credit cards are blocked for whatever reason, including suspected fraud or a banking screwup.
- The Government of Canada offers several income assistance programs. Many not-for-profit organizations are also part of the social safety net—in Ontario, check 211 Ontario to find services in your community. A number of programs are also designed to help low-income households with utility bills, including energy bills and home Internet. There are also plenty of food banks and emergency shelters.
One of the most difficult aspects of immigrating is that suddenly, “family” is just you alone, or you and a significant other, with or without kids. Helpful and reliable relatives are now thousands of kilometres away.
- If someone calls you “mommy” or “daddy” and can’t be trusted alone at home, you need a backup plan. Regular childcare providers aren’t always reliable—Mark’s first TWO daycare centres declared bankruptcy overnight!—parents get sick, school gets cancelled, etc. Find several people you can trust with your kid(s) if needed—a neighbour, an occasional baby-sitter, friends, etc.
- Write down—yes, on paper!—important phone numbers (parents, in-laws, friends, school, etc.) and share them. Don’t just rely on your phone contact list because your significant other/kid(s) may not be able to access it or one day, you may find yourself without a working phone.
- Immigrating can be a tough adventure for a couple, with plenty of stressful moments. Arguments, fights and breakups are not uncommon and if you don’t have a social circle, such moments can make you feel isolated and vulnerable. If you need to leave home to defuse conflict, make sure to have a few cozy and comforting options (friends, favourite coffee place, etc.).
- Have a plan for potential family crisis “back home.” If you’re morally responsible for elderly parents or younger relatives, can you go home easily in case of emergency? Can anyone physically closer step in?
Anything else I’m missing? What are your own tips and tricks to handle emergencies?