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

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 the 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, the 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 into 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, and 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 the French aren’t just into trees, lakes and mountains—the storybook image includes opportunities for prosperity and success, as well as 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 outcomes.

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. The 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, and Canadians are naïve and enthusiastic. French build on the past, and 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, free 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 into 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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