Life Stories

Migrating to Canada: A few pages from a ‘skilled immigrant’s’​ diary

Before I begin to pen down my experiences and share it with the world, I felt it was important to lay out a brief understanding of my background
Toronto-Skyline-at-Sunset

A first hand account of living in Canada and starting your new life as a permanent resident. 

Before I begin to pen down my experiences and share it with the world, I felt it was important to lay out a brief understanding of my background, professional experience and personal circumstances so as to allow you, the reader,  to make your own decisions. My intention and goal with this piece is to better prepare those of you who are considering the move and would like more insights through a first hand account. I wish I had known a lot of this before I made my move, as it would have helped me tremendously. I don’t intend to influence anyone’s decision to migrate (or not) to Canada. The idea here is to share, rather candidly, my experience and journey in Canada and more specifically Toronto (where I was). Each city in Canada is different and Toronto is certainly the most diverse with almost a 50% migrant population as its cultural mix. I don’t intend to have a discussion or debate on any of the points I’ve expressed, but happy to answer any questions you may have specifically.  And please note that there is no right or wrong here. It’s purely a narration of my personal experience of migrating to Canada from India. Hope this helps you!

First Things First: My background

I was 37 years old when I moved to Canada in June 2018. My wife and four year old son remained in India while I made the move to test waters and evaluate the opportunity for us as a family. This was a conscious decision by my wife and I bearing in mind finances, uncertainty of the job market and the fact that we have a Kindergartener who was already well settled at school in India. We didn’t make a landing together and I applied for their dependent PR’s once I got there and eventually found a job. I hold a bachelors degree and an MBA, both from well reputed American universities and have worked predominantly for about 13 years in India with public relations firms and corporates in the function of integrated marketing communications or corporate communications. I consider myself as someone with a very global mindset having grown up in Africa, India and USA. So my outlook stems from all these experiences. After getting a full time job and working in my field of public relations in Toronto, I evaluated and decided to return to India as my wife and I felt that it was the best decision for us as a family. This is after I carefully understood the Canadian context and lived in Toronto for 1.5 years.

Living in Toronto

I moved to Toronto in June 2018 and had booked an AirBnb a little west of downtown in the Little Portugal area of the city. A small room would be my first abode for month one of my time in Toronto. After the first month I moved to another AirBnB on the east side on the Danforth, so that I could get a feel for the different parts of the city. I eventually got a 2 bedroom place with a friend and we shared that in the heart of downtown near the St. Lawrence Market area. That’s where I lived for a whole year and loved every bit of it. StLawrenceMarket_006-5c58a9e4c9e77c000159b183

The blessing for me was that I knew a few friends in the city (from various stages of life) and one of them was a very close old friend who along with her boyfriend helped me feel right at home (you know who you are:)! For that I will be ever grateful and that positively helped shape my experience of the city. I got to know the city through the eyes of a local and got the best possible gastronomical tours as well as cultural immersions that i could have asked for.

Soon after the initial couple of weeks of going around and exploring the downtown area of Toronto and its various restaurants and craft breweries, I quickly realized just how costly it was to maintain that sort of a lifestyle. Having lived or spent time in other global cities, I know that most big cities are expensive, but it definitely hits you much harder in a city like Toronto which I found to be frightfully more heavy on the wallet in almost all aspects. Even more than the US (leave aside NYC or SF).

Toronto is an amazing multi-cultural melting pot, with an international fabric that defines almost every corner of the city. Having lived and travelled extensively across the USA (over 35 states) I found Toronto to be a unique spot where Europe meets North America. There is that old world British colonial charm seen in the architecture and planning of the city while everything else screams America. The closest way to describe Toronto is as a smaller cousin of New York city or at least that’s how I saw it. It’s a lot more manageable in terms of the size and hustle bustle than New York (for non New Yorkers) yet gives you an idea of what a well developed megalopolis looks like.

I made it a point that I would live downtown or close to downtown, my first year in Toronto to truly experience the city. I was advised by many to look at the suburbs like Mississauga, Brampton, Scarborough etc. to pay less in rent, but I am glad I paid no heed to any of that. To really get a feel for this city, you need to experience life close to the city and that is best explored by living close to the subway line or TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) as it’s called. You will pay a bit more to stay there but you will be within a 30-45 min radius of the downtown core which is where the action and most of the jobs are.

Living away and in the suburbs may cost less on rent, but you’ll end up spending that on the commute and Uber rides. You will eventually need a car, which again becomes an added expense when you first get here. So ‘nett nett’ you are better off living closer to the subway line for easy access to begin with.

Of course, like most of North America, families live in suburbs and commute to work by car or drive up to the nearest train station and park. That is going to be your way of life eventually. The school districts are better in the suburbs and hence most families end up moving there.  That is inevitable, but something you can look at after year one. I recommend getting familiar with the city initially, and remaining close to most of the action and where majority of your job interviews might be. If you have school going kids, then you would need to consider an area with good schools. Check the Fraser Institute school rankings to get an idea of the better schools around the city.

Renting an Apartment/ Condo/Basement in Toronto

In general, you can expect a 1 bedroom plus den for anywhere between CA$1800-2500 depending on where you choose to live. This number goes up to CA$2000-3200 if you are looking at a 2Bedroom place. This is around the downtown to midtown areas or areas close to the subway line. The prices have gone up so much that even if you look at the suburbs like  Mississauga, Milton, Brampton, Scarborough, Ajax, Pickering, Oshawa etc. you still are paying a lot (less than downtown rates, but still pretty high). You can find lower cost basements or smaller attic style studios/rooms but that’s not what I had in mind when i moved to Toronto.

You might find a place in these suburbs for lesser but you have to understand that there really isn’t much to do around. While the Indian diaspora in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), will ensure that you never get homesick (enough restaurants, grocery stores, places of worship etc), your ability to get around is very restricted and that becomes even harder once winter sets in.

You most definitely will need a car if you are living in the suburbs.

The advantage close to downtown or most of the subway line is that you just need to get down from your apartment or condo and you have stores all around and most importantly you will see other human beings 🙂 There will also be enough to do within walking distance or a short subway/ streetcar ride.

Some good resources to search for rentals are:

Kijiji.ca

Padmapper.com

Realtor.ca

Rentals.ca

BlogTO is also a fantastic resource for almost anything you would need recommendations on in the city.

Also, using a real estate broker is helpful and doesn’t cost you a cent. More on that later. Keep reading the next section. I’d be happy to share recommendations on a few brokers as well. 

Buying vs Renting apartments, condos or houses

So this is something that I learned in the time I was in Toronto and also something that nobody ever tells you to think about. In fact, I hadn’t come across a single article that talked about this from an immigrant’s perspective. I owe this greatly to a couple of close friends who made me understand this.

The real estate market in Toronto boomed over the past 10-15 years and those people that invested/ bought property early, truly benefitted. Now, the market has kind of peaked and plateaued. It’s mighty expensive to buy property, especially close to the downtown area or close the subway line. Even the prices in the suburbs are pretty high and I’m guessing that’s because all those immigrant families I talked about earlier, who moved to the suburbs for better schools, also raised the prices of real estate.

Just as an example, a condo in the suburb of Mississauga (1 bedroom plus den) which would have cost approx. CA$150K- 200K to buy some 8-10 years ago would now be at CA$400-600K! And that’s just a very generic example to give you an idea. Downtown is much higher.

However, with the cost of rentals being as high as they are, you might want to consider investing in a home for yourself if you are planning to make Toronto your permanent base. Sounds ludicrous right?

Now read carefully as this is something no one will tell you to think about and something which I really feel is important as a consideration if you are planning to move your entire life to a new country!

toronto-beauty-clouds-skyline-935474

Your monthly mortgage (EMI in Indian terms), would practically amount to what you would pay in rent. And more importantly you are building an asset for yourself while you pay your monthly mortgage and not just helping someone else pay for their mortgage in the form of rent. Also, once you commit to a home and start paying the mortgage, you start building what is known as HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit). I won’t delve into details on that, but do google that to get an understanding and to see how that can be beneficial.

The good thing about the province of Ontario right now is that first time home buyers can put a 5% down payment to purchase a home. You end up paying a bit more on insurance if you put anything less than 20% down, but at least you have the option to buy. Of course that is assuming that you get home loan approvals and have built good credit in the system. It takes approximately 6 months to start building a decent credit score so you can start looking at buying your first home in Canada as early as by the end of year one. That is obviously assuming that you can afford a 5% down payment on the home and that you have the ability to make your monthly mortgage payments (through employment or if you have that much savings or collateral stashed away).

To build credit in Canada you can get a credit card or two and make your payments on time, get a few utility bills in your name and pay them on time, pay your mobile bill on time etc. These are some simple ways in which a new immigrant can start building credit. That’s what I did and built a good credit score.

To sum it up, if you intend to live in Toronto permanently, it truly makes sense to plan to buy a home as soon as you can. Factor that into your planning, if it means that you want to consider selling property in India to accommodate that cash flow requirement, then consider it. By no means am I telling you to sell your assets in India, but just make sure you think about this as part of the big picture. Even 5% on a $500K home works out to CA$25K or approximately INR 15 lakhs. And trust me, it is going to be hard to find a house for less than that unless you wish to go really far away from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area).

One last thing, when renting if you use a broker, you don’t need to pay the broker. They get their commissions from the seller and from their agency. Same case when buying property, you don’t directly pay commissions to the broker, it is factored into the overall selling price of the house. Just something to keep in mind as it’s a different concept than we are used to in India.

Getting a job in Canada

This probably should have been the first point in this article but I intentionally kept it down here 🙂 It’s a very subjective question with an equally subjective answer.

Please understand that this is my assessment of the Canadian market and entirely based on personal experience as well as being privy to the journey of several other new migrants from India.

The Canadian government opened up its doors to skilled labour who in turn act as consumers to spur the economy. The country has roughly 37 million people with a little less than half of that population concentrated in the province of Ontario (where Toronto is the hub with approx. three million population in the GTA). Skilled Migrants come in with money and also act as ready consumers for the local economy. There are not enough jobs to cater to the wealth of qualified migrants that enter and that’s the stark reality that you will face. The competition is very stiff and what really works more often than not are referrals and a strong network. What i see happening is that all the skilled migrants that come in from across the globe will eventually pay demographic dividends in the form of new enterprises and innovations. This in turn will create more jobs and further boost the economy. Great plan and should be a tremendous success story for Canada. But the journey for the migrants during that time is tough and not everyone is going to be a successful entrepreneur.

Networking is what is going to increase the probability of you finding a job in Canada. You will soon learn that LinkedIn and Indeed applications end up in a black hole and very few get responses (when you come from India, you are already used to this).  Even if you make it to the interview table, one of the first questions you get asked is, “Do you have any Canadian experience?” To people that come from very solid work backgrounds in India, this question can irk you and make you want to give a very snarky retort, but please refrain from that urge.

This is an unspoken form of institutionalized discrimination that has a very strong undercurrent in the job market. For this reason, your first break in Canada is very challenging and critical. You will hear this over and over again, from several immigrants who have been there for a long time. And it is largely true.

The sectors that have higher number of skilled jobs are finance, banking,  healthcare, data science, developers/ coders/ programmers and other data driven analyst jobs. Marketing and sales have openings but you really get bogged down by the ‘lack of Canadian experience’ piece to get your first breakthrough. Also most of these jobs are in the early to mid stages of careers. So it becomes much harder for people with more work experience to breakthrough. You are better off fresh out of college or a couple of years into the workforce.

Financial planning & the job market

I would strongly advise you to financially plan your move to Canada with a scenario of at least one year of savings (nothing short of 15-20 lakhs for a family of three). If you land up with a job sooner than that, then good for you. You will be able to plug the bleeding and save yourself some money.

One of the stark realities that hit you once you acquire your first job, is that you would in most cases have got something a couple of levels below what you were doing in India. Your pay scale would also be lesser that what  you would have imagined which puts an added pressure on your monthly expenses. If you are married and have kids, that makes that much harder.

But the key is getting that first break as everyone will tell you and from then on navigating your way to your ideal job and salary range. For that, give yourself at least 3-5 years to get to where you would need to. But I urge you to consider this before you decide to move. Think hard about your current job or salary in India and if you feel that you are in a decent spot despite a lot of angst that you may have with the politics at work, or the political climate of the country or just frustration on day to day living in India. If you have a good job and make a decent income to save money for your family and the future, then you just might be better off in India. Think about your overall returns in the same 3-5 year period should you stay on in India. For me that answer was key in making my decision to return to India. 

Putting aside substantial savings each year takes a lot more effort in Canada. A lot of financial prudence and more importantly a solid dual income for the family. More on that figure later.

Healthcare & Education

I won’t delve too much into these as there is enough material for you to read online but here are my quick thoughts on them. Education in India, especially if you belong to the middle to upper middle class, is very darn good. Without sounding like a prude, I just want to make it very clear that our private schools in India (where most of the middle to upper middle class send their kids) are very good and in fact the quality of education is superior. So if you are already able to send your child to a decent school in India, then the free education till 12th grade (in Canada) doesn’t really make a difference. So don’t think of the free education as a real kicker in your decision making. And I am not talking about the parents who send their kids to the fancy IB schools that charge the equivalent of college tuition nowadays. I’m talking about the regular old-fashioned well known, strong valued private schools that most of us went to growing up.

When it comes to healthcare, if you have health insurance in India, then you have access to good healthcare. Period. India has excellent healthcare and unless you or your loved ones require very specialized treatment not available in India, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what we have in the country. Just in terms of the quality and convenience of healthcare, India is pretty darn good. What’s covered in Canada is basic health care such as regular check ups, basic tests and doctor visits. The moment you need to get additional tests done or need more specialists, you might need to start paying. Also, eye care and dental is not covered and you would need a top up plan or most often companies offer health insurance as an add on to cover those and prescription medication. But getting a doctor is not so easy and you need to find doctors that are accepting new patients. Read up on all this as well.

In short if you have access to health insurance in India, then you are pretty well covered. This can vary case to case and based on your situation, but largely I didn’t find anything so compelling about the healthcare system in Canada.

Commuting or Getting Around in Toronto

You will hear Torontonians complaining about the TTC or GO Transit ever so often but it really isn’t bad at all. The TTC is the subway, buses and street car system in the city. The GO Transit system (Greater Ontario Transit)  connects the GTA to the city through a rail network and coach style buses.

toronto-subway-leadThe Presto card is a must have to commute on the TTC, as it makes life much simpler to swipe in and out of stations. You can keep reloading the card online or at machines at the station. The TTC is the best way to travel around the city and is very economical. The GO transit is very comfortable as well and in fact is luxurious in many ways especially when you come from India 🙂 The GO is a great way to travel to the suburbs but the frequency of it is a lot less than the TTC so you need to plan your travels based on the schedule. All information is available online on TTC.ca and gotransit.com. And for everything else there’s google maps that helps you plan your journey.Presto_CardIf you are downtown, there are also bike sharing options across the city where you can rent a bike and ride anywhere you wish around the downtown area and drop it off at points.

260px-BikeShareToronto_Temperance_St_at_Cloud_Gardens

Space, clean air and first world goodness

Like most first world/ developed countries, Canada offers good infrastructure, clean air and ample facilities for children and adults alike. When you migrate from a country like India, you definitely appreciate this a lot more. If you have lived abroad previously, you are accustomed to this and take it for granted. However, this often is what people term as ‘quality of life’ and sure enough it plays a big part in decision making for families.

So yes, Canada is much like the US in these matters and you have community spaces, parks, recreation centres, museums, galleries, public libraries etc. in abundance. Do remember though, especially if you are living in Toronto, that the outdoor activities get restricted based on the weather for at least 4-6 months of the year. However, most recreational centres and facilities offer fantastic indoor options for you to continue to enjoy during the winter months.

If you are going to live in Toronto, you need to adapt yourself to the winter and getting used to the fact that you can enjoy the cold as long as you embrace it with the appropriate attire.  Sports enthusiasts may also wish to learn skiing, ice skating, ice hockey or snowboarding to make the most of the season. For the active types, enjoy going for a walk/ hike through some fantastic winter trails. There are also several ski resorts and winter cabins within a 2 hour drive from Toronto, which make for good winter getaways. Don’t get stuck indoors the whole time because that will just make you feel depressed in the end. Get out and do what Torontonians do! And please start learning a thing or two about Hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Basketball (Toronto Raptors). Those will be great ice-breakers and conversation enablers. I was privileged enough to be there when the Raptors won the NBA title in 2019 and witnessed amazing scenes downtown during the victory parade! Truly memorable.

Overall Affordability

In my estimation, for a family of 3 to live a comfortable life affording one annual holiday to India and a trip around Canada or nearby USA, you need an annual household income of at least CA$120-180K. This will allow you to put aside some money and give your child the extracurriculars and camps he/she needs as well as allow you to explore and enjoy some activities. That’s how we choose to live our life, but if you are largely a homebody and don’t wish to explore the country or do little trips and vacations then you might be able to do this in even CA$80-100K (annual household income).  This is being extremely thrifty and controlled with your expenditure. But please know even then, you will find it insufficient and look at additional income.

Conclusion

I hope this gives you a bit of a better sense of what to expect in Canada. All is not as rosy as you may think. If your reasons to get out of India are for a better quality of life, that’s an extremely subjective reason and you need to really dig deep and peel the layers. You need to realize that you might already have a decent quality of life in India, but just don’t know it or value you enough. Because to get the so-called quality of life that you may want in Canada, you will really need to start afresh and work a long way up before even enjoying that.

Happy to answer any questions directly. This entire piece is purely my own experience and please take what may be relevant to you from it 🙂

I’m happy to help.

Cheers,

Bharath Arvind

22 comments

  1. Thank you Bharath. What other things can one do so that they get a good paying job in Canada? My field is Finance so i am thinking of getting international certification

    1. Hi..I would love to comment or help but I am not the right person to answer that. But my two cents on this is that international certifications especially in the field of finance definitely would help you.

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