Exactly one year ago today we were boarding a plane ready to set off for our new life in Nova Scotia. Our hopes and dreams were intact and we were full of excitement about our new adventure. All of our belongings had gone into storage, our house was empty and ready to be rented and the three of us and the cat were setting sail for pastures new.
How things can change in twelve short months. We certainly had an adventure, not quite what we were expecting, but an adventure none the less and a valuable learning experience. Looking back now I can see the signs of where things started to go wrong - isn't hindsight a marvelous thing?!
May of 2010 saw us embarking on a six week tour of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland looking for a job for Tony. Of course it couldn't be just any job, it had to be one that fulfilled the criteria for Provincial Nomination and that also meant that the employer needed to be willing to go through the process with us. It might seem like that was a pretty tall order but we were optimistic that things would work out. We had a list of companies we were going to approach and a folder full of resumes to hand out plus we got to explore more of the provinces we had so fallen in love with.
Imagine our surprise when on the second day of our trip Tony was offered a job! We hadn't even started to travel around or approach any of the companies we had short listed. Tony had simply been doing what he does best - talking to people and explaining what we were doing. It almost seemed too easy. The people who offered him the job had just bought a new business and needed to replace existing staff for the following year, so even the time frame worked perfectly for us! We would have time to get our UK house finished and ready for renting and to get our belongings sorted out and sell what we didn't want to keep - perfect! They were looking for an Operations Manager to run the business for them as they didn't have any experience in their new venture and wanted someone who could solve problems with the minimum of disruption. Now that job had Tony's name written all over it! I have never met a better problem solver than Tony. He truly can "think outside the box" and his associates in the UK have a phrase they frequently use - "If anyone can Tony can - he's The Can Man"!
So, the job was offered, they were willing to go through the immigration process with us and everyone was very excited! Plus it also meant that we now had six weeks to use as a holiday - what a bonus! Admittedly, it was a bit cold and as we were so early in the tourist season practically nothing was open, but that didn't stop us having a great time.
The job came with accommodation in a caravan onsite which seemed perfect as it would give us time after landing to find somewhere more permanent to live and would take some pressure off the move. We could live in the caravan for up to 6 months and after all the touring we had done in campervans I knew we would be fine. We had already spent 16 weeks in a much smaller campervan so a large caravan would seem like luxury! We were required to return in October so that Tony could have some training with the guy he was replacing, but that seemed perfectly reasonable.
However, the warning bells started when we had to completely fund that trip ourselves. Surely an employer who was bringing over someone they wanted to fill a vacancy would offer some assistance with the costs? Flights to Canada are incredibly expensive, but at the time all we could see was that the job was there and it was a ticket to our new life in Nova Scotia. The two weeks training went fine and Tony was in his element. He had everything under control within the first week, but the atmosphere was different. The employers weren't as friendly and there seemed to be something going on under the surface. It turned out that the business had made a massive loss that year so understandably they were worried about their venture. However, we were confident Tony could turn things round and with careful planning and a kerb on spending we knew it would all be OK. We submitted our application for the Nova Scotia Provincial Nomination Programme whilst we were there and we were excited that things were moving along.
Once we got home we continued in earnest with our preparations and kept in regular touch with the employers to make sure everything would be in place for our arrival in April 2011. By January 2011 we had been approved for Nomination by the government of Nova Scotia so now we had to apply to the CIC for federal government approval. The costs to apply for residency in Canada are high. It's a very expensive process what with application fees, medicals, x-rays, photos and also the fees for the Temporary Work Permits and Study Permits we would need. We knew our residency application wouldn't be approved before we had to start work, so we had to apply for work permits. This was something I had never wanted to do. I had always wanted to wait until we had residency as otherwise we were tied to one employer and if things were to go wrong we would be stuck. However, the earliest our residency would come would be August - all being well, which was simply too late. It was risky, but we decided to go with the work permits - after all, what could possibly go wrong?
Around this time a second warning bell started to chime. As most of you probably know we have a beloved, if slightly mad, family cat. We had talked at length about what to do, but I just couldn't face leaving him behind. He was a rescue cat and had already been through some terrible things and I wanted him to stay with us where I knew he would be safe and cared for. He is a very mellow cat so I thought he would manage the flight OK - otherwise I would never have considered taking him. We got him a Pet Passport - not cheap, but I wanted to make sure we could bring him back to the UK easily if we needed to and we were all set. Just when we thought everything was going smoothly the new employer in Nova Scotia suddenly decided she didn't want our cat in her caravan as he would spray and make it stink. OK, so he has NEVER sprayed and is neutered so unlikely to start. First of all she said her father had rented out his basement to someone with a cat who had stunk the place out. Then she said she wanted her father to stay in the caravan after we left but he was incredibly allergic to cats and wouldn't be able to enter it if our cat had been in it. Hmmm - this is the same father who had rented out his basement to someone with a cat who had sprayed - yet he was so allergic if he entered a room where a cat had been he would instantly have breathing difficulties? Something simply wasn't adding up. Still, in an effort to keep things going and to offer some reassurance we offered to replace the caravan - like for like - if our cat did any damage to it. You can't say fairer than that surely? There were still some objections, but in the end they grudgingly agreed and we thought everything was fine.
Obviously I was now slightly nervous about how we would be received when we arrived, but I didn't see what else we could do. I knew Mr Puss would be fine - which he was - and we had done everything we could to reassure them. Other than finding somewhere else to live, which they didn't want as they wanted Tony onsite, we would just have to hope everything would be OK.
So, on 28th April 2011, with small alarm bells still softly chiming in my head, we landed at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. My first priority was finding my cat but it took quite a while to get our work permits issued. He was fine though, chatting away to anyone who went near his cage. We went through customs as we needed to show them our goods to follow list and also the paperwork for Mr Puss. That all went pretty smoothly too - although interestingly no one actually looked at any of the cats paperwork which I was surprised about.
Anyway, I've covered most of what happened in previous posts and the point of this piece is to look at where things went wrong so that others in our situation don't get taken advantage of like we did. As I mentioned earlier, when we went over in October 2010 there was a definite under tone of something going on. This was even stronger when we arrived in 2011. The money problems were pretty severe and everyone was understandably worried. It seems the new owners really hadn't done much research about what they were taking on or how much work it would need to make the business profitable. Tony tried so hard to explain things to them and get them to see sense, but they were so blinkered in what they wanted that they literally threw away thousands and thousands of dollars on unnecessary and pointless expenditures.
It didn't take long to realise that they really were taking advantage of Tony and our position. We knew the salary they offered was low, but didn't realise that it simply wasn't enough for us to survive on. They worked him like a dog, over 70 hours a week in 6 days, with no overtime paid, even though it was in his contract and I believe is actually a legal requirement for anyone working over 48 hours a week in Nova Scotia! I mean who were these people - life draining zombies? Quite possibly! He never got any peace and was called on for the most ridiculous reasons. The employer actually said that she was glad we were on work permits as it meant she had Tony for 2 solid years as he couldn't work for anyone else - that was a rather large alarm bell. It was pretty obvious that she thought she had us over a barrel and as we desperately wanted things to work she pretty much did.
Around the middle of May yet another warning bell started to clang in my head. The employers and all their kids went down with a nasty sickness virus. It went through the whole family over a period of a few days, but they kept bringing their kids to play with Flynn! We had been in the country for less than 2 weeks and everything in me was screaming not to let Flynn play with these children, but how do you say to your new employer that you don't want your child playing with their sick kids? The atmosphere was already strained and the children were brought over specifically to play with Flynn - it was a very difficult situation. I can honestly say that I made a big mistake here. I should have stuck to my guns and refused to let Flynn play, but what sort of parent brings sick children to play? The kids had literally spent the previous couple of hours throwing up and then as soon as they felt slightly better they arrived to play. In the UK if a child is sick then they are not allowed in school for 48 hours following the last occurrence and I'm sure there are similar rules in Canada. After all who wants to spread germs around and make other peoples kids sick - surely that is common sense and part of being a responsible parent? Apparently not and I am still amazed at the sheer selfishness of these people. Subsequently Flynn caught the virus and was terribly ill and ended up in hospital. It was the most frightening experience of my life as Flynn simply is not a sickly child and is very rarely ill. I hold my hands up to that mistake and maybe if I had stood my ground then things wouldn't have deteriorated so much later. It just goes to show how completely self absorbed these people were and how they really didn't care for anyone apart from themselves, not even children.
Early on Tony was sent to Toronto for training. A pretty pointless exercise as he didn't learn anything other than how to clean - not necessarily an important thing for an Operations Manager. Now this was supposed to be an all expenses paid trip but that was not the case. The flights were paid, but we had to fight tooth and nail to get an allowance for food. He was put up in the most basic of accommodations and the trip actually ended up costing us money. They didn't even pay him for all the hours he worked whilst he was away. Having spoken to a lot of local people in Nova Scotia I am now certain that it is normal for employers to pay for the hours worked whilst on training, including travel time. This wasn't training Tony wanted to do, it was compulsory and he should have been compensated adequately. When I queried this I was pretty much shot down - yet another warning bell that we were being taken advantage of.
One final note which I think really shows the character of these people. In July it was Flynn's seventh birthday. We had invited several of his friends for a little party and of course we were obliged to invite the employers kids. I wanted nothing to do with them by this point, but it was Flynn's party and they were his friends so we invited them. The day of the party, Tony's day off, he was obviously called away to yet another disaster and missed nearly the whole thing. However, the party was going really well and all the kids were having a great time. Nearly an hour late the employers turned up for the party, dumped all their kids and left without so much as a happy birthday. Honestly, who turns up at a child's birthday party, just when they are opening the presents, without even bringing a card? Regardless of the fact that we had bought a card and present for their kids birthday, what sort of person would do that? The answer - a selfish, arrogant and rude one. I have to say I was amazed. These people who loved to show of how rich they were with expensive gifts for their kids and throwing money around willy nilly turn up to a birthday party with not so much as a card, dump their kids and leave. Speaks volumes in my opinion.
I think I've pretty much covered the other terrible ways we were treated in previous posts. Being ignored and ostracised seemed to be the way they dealt with their invaluable staff who were trying to save THEIR business. The complete arrogance was astonishing when they had someone on hand literally working themselves into the ground to make the business successful. They preferred to start rumours, talk behind our backs and cast us out of their little "click". Now we really weren't worried about being out of the "click" - leave them to it we said. If they chose to employ other staff who were incompetent and too lazy to carry out their duties then that was up to them. Tony would carry on doing his best with what was available, and if that meant losing those useless individuals as friends when he pulled them up on the quality of their work, then so be it.
Tony and I are both intelligent, highly skilled individuals. We both have university degrees and many years of experience in various fields of work - we are not stupid and yet we still managed to get caught in the "Immigration Trap". You hear of people all the time who are brought to a country to work by employers and then treated terribly, but you never think it will happen to you. Surely you are too intelligent to get caught out like that? The trouble is that all you can see is a way into a country that you desperately want to call home, so you ignore the little warning bells in the hope that it will all be OK. In hindsight we should have negotiated rather than just accepted what was offered. We should have agreed on a decent salary, working hours, an on-call rate, powers over staffing and generally what was expected - but all we saw was a way in. I would strongly urge anyone reading this who is contemplating a move abroad to really take stock from our mistakes. If this post stops just one person being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers then my work here is done. If people learn from our mistakes then I feel what we went through was maybe worth something. All the pain, heartache and financial losses we experienced must have been for some reason. Maybe it was so I could stop other people falling into the same traps we did. We also would NEVER fall for any of those tricks ever again. We are worth too much and will not be taken advantage of ever again. If any employer wants us then they will be willing to pay appropriately and treat us with the respect we are due.
Of course the employers thought they had us by the proverbial short and curly's. They had us for 2 years and we were so desperate for residency that there was no way we would quit. WRONG!! It might have taken us a while, but in the end we knew what they were doing was very wrong and we had no reason to put up with it. It did mean that we had to return to the UK - not something we wanted to do and yet more costs, but we had a beautiful home to return to and a successful business which Tony could re-start easily. So that is what we did. We returned and waited for our residency papers to come. Tony already had several job offers on the table from people who could see just what a valuable asset he would be to any company, so we could wait, bide our time and with luck things would all work out for the best.
In November 2011 we were awarded Permanent Resident status and in February 2012 we landed back in Nova Scotia to activate our visas. That was our first experience of a Canadian winter and I have to say, the place is just as beautiful. My initial fears about moving with only work permits were right, but in the end it all worked out. If I've learnt nothing else from this experience then at least I have learnt to listen to my intuition because time after time it has been proved right. I will never ignore it again, if I had listened in the first place it would have saved us all a lot of heartache but at least now I know I can trust it. Having doubts is one thing but when my intuition shouts "warning" I will now always listen.
We have so many new adventures ahead of us and we never lost our love for Nova Scotia or the people of that beautiful province. I would like to add that none of the people who treated us badly were actually from Nova Scotia - they were all "from away" and not all of them were even Canadian. The people of Nova Scotia who we met and made friends with were always warm and welcoming and helped us keep the faith that we had chosen the right place to move to. I hope what we experienced is not the norm for people moving to another country. There will always be difficulties settling in to a new country and culture but I'm hoping our experience was an extreme that most will not have to go through.
The future is bright and exciting for us and I hope it is for all my readers too :) Below is a picture of some ice covered rocks we saw by the beach back in February - how cool are they?!