Immigrating to Canada: It’s a Process
Gabriela (Gabi to her friends) was born in Sao Paulo, a mega-city of 20 million people in southeast Brazil. It is a vibrant place that fills all five of your senses. The city boasts world-class museums and theatres and has a nightlife that seethes with light and noise and energy. The streets are full of people and vehicles, so movement is constrained. Certainly, it is a stark contrast to the open fields and small towns of Southwestern Ontario where Gabi finds herself today.
Gabi’s “immigrating to Canada” story begins at an early age. Not so much because she always dreamed of leaving Brazil to explore the wider world, but because a difficult home life didn’t provide her with a lot of reasons to stay. She describes a dysfunctional family struggling to cope with a sister’s health problem and the narcissistic attitudes of her father. She remembers going to bed at night presented with two choices: go to bed early before her father got home or try to fall asleep later while listening to her parents screaming at each other into the night. Instead of school, at 16 years old she often found herself in a different place. She recalls, “It was 9 AM with my friends, sitting at the gas station bar drinking wine!”
She lived in a world of contradictions, where there were expectations of her to do well in school and make something of herself, yet her father displayed a marked lack of respect for her mother in particular and women in general. She was raised Christian, and her parents expected her to conform to those teachings while her father would take mistresses and lavish gifts on them with her mother’s knowledge. She was the victim of sexual assault at a young age which was reported and investigated. As a child, she didn’t receive therapy, but her parents used the incident to argue about who was more at fault.
After high school, Gabi got a job and was finally getting the therapy she needed. Despite her poor grades, University was still in the cards, too. In Brazil, if you had bad grades, you could test into University acceptance, which she did. She had always been smart, just not motivated. Now, it was time for a change; she finally felt ready to build her own life, to prepare for a future in Brazil.
“My father had told me that he would pay for University whenever I was ready for it,” Gabi remembers. “I wanted to go for public relations, decided where I wanted to go for it–had a whole plan. I went to my father and said, ‘This is what I want to do, this is how much I need from you financially.’
“That included the cost of therapy. I had started attending therapy; I was contributing $50 a month because the therapist charged me only how much I could afford. I was working for minimum wage, making R$300 per month (roughly $100 CAD). He told me no, that I didn’t need therapy so he wasn’t going to pay for anything for me. No University, nothing.
“I went back to work. Eventually, I met somebody from Canada and we started dating. He didn’t want to live in Brazil long-term; he wanted to move back to Canada. We got married and we moved to Canada. After all, I was with someone who cared about me and didn’t have anything holding me back.”
Immigrating to Canada
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Immigrating to Canada is an orderly but time-consuming process. Applicants have to carefully follow the rules because a mistake can be the end of your application. Gabi remembers navigating this system, made even more complicated by world events. She recalls, “We did it on our own; we didn’t hire any lawyers or anything. I was sponsored by my husband. We submitted photos of every trip we took together. We had witnesses to confirm that we were indeed a couple and not just faking our relationship.
“While we were dating he was living in Brazil. His visa expired so he had to return to Canada. He was in Brazil just before 9/11 and returned to Canada shortly after. I tried to get a visa to come and visit Canada and I was denied. Because of 9/11, there was so much denial of visas going on at that time. He came back to Brazil and we stayed in Brazil for about two years working on the relationship, and the immigration application.”
Unless they go through it, most people don’t understand what’s involved in immigrating to Canada. “Having to prepare and disclose so much of your life to immigration officials was quite an interesting experience,” says Gabi. “You go to a doctor that is listed by the Canadian consulate. You have to do your medical assessment, give your blood and do your X-rays, granting full permission and without knowing for sure how it is being used or tested. They don’t want people just coming for healthcare, right?
“It was kind of bizarre to expose so much of my life. I don’t even know what they are looking into. Then [to] have friends being called for interviews to confirm that our story and our relationship is indeed our relationship, was very bizarre. The special paperwork and the translation, just the cost of it was significant.
“You kind of make a diary of your relationship. Back then, you didn’t have phones taking pictures. I’ve always liked photography, and I had a camera, but none of his buddies did, or they had like one camera per family, it was the parent’s camera. And then what happens if you mess up with the film and none of the pictures turn out, right? It was interesting to do all of that and outline our relationship. “
Gabi was married that year, and eventually, the paperwork came through. She had gained Permanent Resident Status in Canada and would be welcomed to her new home. Her arrival to Canada could not have been any more stereotypical. “When I first arrived here, I’m going through customs to get my permanent residence paper. The customs officer is chatting up with my husband and made the suggestion that the first thing I had to try is Tim Horton’s coffee.”
This would be, in a way, symbolic of the culture shock Gabi would have to push through. Most people she would meet would be ignorant of the culture from which she came. She points out, “Brazil is one of the greatest exporters of coffee in the world. Being used to the strong coffee in Brazil where our cups of coffee are tiny, they are like little kid tea sets kind of size. Watching people have mugs of coffee here was interesting. I did not like Tim Horton’s coffee at first, but the need for the caffeine to stay awake has adjusted my taste buds!”
After the immigration procedures finished, Gabi set about integrating herself into Canadian society. Her dark hair and fair complexion wouldn’t tip anyone off that she was not originally from the north, but the minute she spoke, it became obvious. She was fluent in English, but her native Portuguese would colour her pronunciations and grammatical patterns. Unfortunately for her, this also led to some negative interactions.
Getting Settled in Canada
“I got bullied a lot here, actually, because of my accent. At my first job, the quasi-office manager would get me to repeat some words because of the way I would say it, like, ‘I’m going to the beach.’ She would make me say it over and over because it sounded like I was saying ‘bitch’ and then she would giggle with somebody else. There was a lot of that going on.” The bullying could also be quite passive-aggressive. When she asked co-workers for help in doing her job, she was told, “Do whatever you want; you are never going to get fired.”
Gabi had just joined the owner’s family so that one really stung and still brings feelings of anger and disbelief. She recalls thinking, “Did you just tell me to do what I want because I am never going to get fired when I just asked you how to submit OHIP billing? I’m sure there has to be a procedure on how things are done when you work in a doctor’s office. I’m working with patient records. There has to be a procedure. I may be 21 years old and from a third-world country, and have a funny accent, but I still think things should be done properly.”
Immigration is hard. There is no getting around that. The people that surround a newly arrived immigrant play a large role in just how difficult that transition will ultimately be. Gabi continues by saying, “I hated it. I cried a lot. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have true connections for quite some time. I felt really out of place for the first few years until I started connecting with people.
“Everybody seemed so friendly, but at the same time so strange. The culture is definitely different in the way that people interact. That was my first impression, anyway. I think a lot of the people I was meeting, in a way, were curated because I was working for my husband’s uncle. There wasn’t this authenticity.
“I started going to University part-time by taking classes either before work, or working all day and taking evening classes. At that point, I started making friends, or actual connections anyway. I started in a program with the United Way of London & Middlesex. It was a youth leadership program. It was really neat. They paired me with a nonprofit and I took governance classes for board training and leadership training. Then I got to sit as a non-voting member for that nonprofit, which was really cool, paired well with my bachelor’s program Media and the Public Interest (MPI) [which were] geared more towards communications and sharing stories for the public benefit and community development. I got to take a lot of social justice classes.”
Fitting in and finding her footing was a process, but one she managed well in the end. Today she is employed at a provincial level ministry and enjoys her work. She currently lives in an even smaller city in Ontario with under 50,000 people. So, of course, it’s natural to ask her to compare and contrast her experience in Canada with that from Brazil.
Regarding Sao Paulo she says, “I loved the diversity and cosmopolitan feeling of it: the varied food options and it’s always so busy. I enjoyed the business, getting to know so many people that were so unique. I ended up working at a few other places and meeting from the head of the company to the lowest employee of the company. Getting to know them has presented such a variety of life and perspectives. I’m not saying there isn’t as much here, but because it was such a large city you just get much more volume. You can’t escape. I liked that.
“I enjoy being able to go to museums, being able to go to plays. I know I could go to Detroit and see good stuff in a museum there. But it was so much easier [in Sao Paulo]. It’s at my fingertips to be able to get to such a huge variety of flavours. And I don’t mean flavours just food-wise– of culture, of music, of everything, for a first-person experience without having to plan ahead and make an hour’s drive.
As a newcomer to Canada, Gabi says, “You get the impression that Canadian culture is so nice, kind, and fair, and then my first work experience was not quite that! There were a lot of nice, sincere, and kind people, but there were a lot of bullies as well. I wasn’t expecting that. I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react!”
Canadians have a different personality than Brazilians although it’s hard to describe, Gabi states. “It’s just different because people here can be so polite but distant. In Brazil, people are more [in your face]. It seems like there is a wall here between people. People don’t always like it or know how to react when others are honest and authentic. I’m not saying down there that people are brutally honest. Brazil is ranked one of the highest in corruption, so there are a lot of lies going on! But you get a different kind of closeness to people.
This difference is apparent in the simple act of the backyard barbeque, which is a tradition in both countries. You can almost hear Gabi smile as she explains, “In Brazil, even the cut of beef, how it’s cut, slaughtered, everything, is different. You basically get this huge chunk of meat on a skewer that’s rotisserie-style rotating on top of a fire or hot coals. Then you pull it out, slice off however much of the meat you want, well done, not so well done, whatever is the preference, and you put it back on to keep cooking. A barbeque is a day-long social activity. You keep eating and drinking and chatting throughout the day.
“It’s like a weekend thing. It’s like with your friends, you plan, ‘Okay, who’s hosting it next time? Whose house are we going to next weekend?’ It was just a normal thing. It’s not like bring your own beer, either. The cost for alcohol is significantly different, it is much cheaper there. The host hosts everything! It’s part of the hospitality culture. You’re all just sitting there enjoying it with music in the background and going into the wee hours of the night.
“When I was invited to a barbeque here, I didn’t realize that [it] consisted of burgers and hotdogs! Then they come and ask me, ‘How many burgers do you want, how many hot dogs do you want?’ I’m like, wow, it’s all counted and planned and precise, as opposed to just the free flow of cooking and eating. [In Brazil,] you don’t do that much planning or counting how many burgers per head, that sort of thing. I guess that all goes with the flow of being much more formal as opposed to just sitting in the backyard and eating and cooking. And we were there for like, maybe, an hour? I was disappointed!”
Yes, Gabi misses the tropical weather, the bustle, and opportunities found in a large city, along with her sister and brother. She also misses the sense of home, that she has a place where her roots are deep. “It’s weird, having been away now for getting to 17 years, I guess. The last few times I have gone back I have assimilated to Canadian culture so much that I feel foreign there–and I still feel like a foreigner here. “
“I did eventually meet the people that made me feel so much more at home–the amazing co-workers and mentors that became friends and close friends. All the learning opportunities that taught me so much. It humbled me and allowed me to see things from multiple perspectives. None of it would be possible if I wasn’t an immigrant; if I didn’t feel isolated, out of place, and if I didn’t get bullied. I learned a lot as a result of this experience. I am forever grateful for it all! In the end, I think it is because it wasn’t all roses, that it was that much more valuable. Or perhaps it was all roses, the thorns came along with the beautiful colours and scents of the roses.
Please support Candid Badger by “tipping” your writer! Just a couple of dollars helps us continue to bring a variety of stories, local and distant, to the community.