Young and Irish? Before you head for Canada, be sure you’d happily join Generation Homeless

I love Montreal. But the country I emigrated to is expensive, and the government’s little help

Generation Homeless: first-generation immigrants make up a significant part of Canada’s homeless population. Photograph: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty

Generation Homeless: first-generation immigrants make up a significant part of Canada’s homeless population. Photograph: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty

 

In mid-1970s Belfast I worried about being blown to bits by a car bomb or murdered for a religion I didn’t practise. I left for a small town in rural Ontario, where the isolation was a form of violence worse than anything I’d known back home. After three years, about to return to Belfast – damn the car bombs – I instead moved to Montreal, which was love at first sight and 40 years later still is. Canada, though, is a different story. It seems to me that le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle – the game isn’t worth the candle – as we say in these parts. Let me explain.

Threadbare social programmes

If I’d known that annual paid vacation here was only two weeks I’d never have come. Losing three weeks of my paid holidays was a serious hit to my freedom. Canada’s spending on public pensions, family benefits and incapacity is seventh, sixth and fifth from last among OECD members. Gender earnings equity is fourth worst. Don’t take my word for it: check the data on the OECD website.

Jobs don’t grow on trees

A Canadian government booklet (PDF) on citizenship and immigration makes three stark warnings. Page 3: “Being accepted to come to Canada does not guarantee you employment in Canada in your preferred job or any other job.” Page 31: “About 20 per cent of Canadian jobs are in regulated occupations. Each regulated occupation sets its own requirements for obtaining a license or a certificate.” Page 44: “You may want to consider working in a job that is not related to your profession.” Licences, once acquired, may not be accepted in another province. Here in Quebec, for me to work as a chemist I’d have had to become a chartered chemist, and that requires, among other things, success in a stringent French exam.

Earnings aren’t great

A Statistics Canada calculator lets you estimate your earnings. At the top end, for example, a person who arrived in 2007 earned, in 2017 terms, 96,400 Canadian dollars, or about €65,000. At the bottom end they would have earned a median employment income of $43,300, or about €29,000. (The most recent version of this calculator is here.)

Everything costs more than expected

Even now it still seems less than honest to advertise prices exclusive of the roughly 15 per cent sales tax. Sales taxes and your tip (about 30 per cent) added to a restaurant-menu price tend to spoil my appetite. It seems especially sneaky to charge sales tax on a new home and tuck it away in the mortgage. In Ontario, sales tax is 13 per cent, although a rebate may be available. Quebec’s ironically named “welcome tax” is a property tax you pay when you move in.

These are only a small sample I have encountered of Canada’s costs:

Healthcare
Canadians pay 100 per cent of the cost of prescription medication and any other service not covered by healthcare. Overall, 30 per cent of healthcare services are covered by the state. Anything not covered – medication, ambulance, prosthetic limbs and so on – you pay for out of your own pocket. Ontario charges a health premium, and in Quebec I pay 600 Canadian dollars a year, or about €400, towards the provincial drug plan. Most of my immigrant friends have their dental work done while on vacation in the “old country”. As healthcare is provincial, not national, before I travel within Canada I buy medical insurance.

Prosperity
If I’d found a job in the federal government when I arrived in Canada I’d be one of today’s Generation Golden – people newly retired from lifetime employment with work, federal and provincial pensions, plus a mortgage-free home worth 10 or more times its purchase value. At least I didn’t end up in Generation Indebted, which has 200 per cent household debt, is living pay cheque to pay cheque and is a few thousand dollars away from bankruptcy. Generation Down and Out ekes out a living on the mean streets to the southeast of my condo, and members of Generation Homeless sleep in the park and in shop doorways. Immigrants may stumble into Generation Homeless: in Montreal and in Ottawa (according to April 2018 censuses) first-generation immigrants made up 20 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively, of these two cities’ homeless people.

The great Canadian property bubble
The residential-property bubble locks young Canadians and newcomers out of home ownership and pushes rentals out of reach, contributing to homelessness. When that bubble bursts it will drag down a good portion of the economy just as Canada begins to come to terms with its Covid debt mountain. Will my taxes go up? It’s not impossible.

Where do I go from here? If my downbeat assessment is accurate, will healthcare and my Canadian pension stay the distance? I hope so. They are both dear to my heart.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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