Ontario, Canada Report of what it's like to live there - 10/28/09
Personal Experiences from Ontario, Canada
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, I grew up in Germany. I was assigned to the Russian hinterlands for five years (split between Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St. Petersburg) and for two years to Vienna, Austria, for the Department of State.
2. How long have you lived here?
I curtailed after less than one year (approximately 10 months).
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I was assigned to the US Embassy Ottawa.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
It's 60 miles north of Ogdensburg, NY, which is not far from I-81 that takes you to all points southward.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Living Quarters Allowance (LQA) post - BEWARE!!It is expensive, you will likely be out of pocket with the low US Dollar and housing is of poor quality. Despite two hot, humid months in the summer, do not be surprised if there is no A/C in the homes you find. Likewise, drafty homes with inadequate heating for the frigid winters are commonplace. The real estate vultures who hover over the diplomatic community are less than forthcoming with the negative aspects of housing they show, so it is wise to hire an independent inspector on your own to have major systems checked out. Problems with landlords are not uncommon and the embassy provides no/no assistance.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
My advice - do what most diplomats (and many Canadians) do: travel 60 miles to Ogdensburg, New York, to shop at the Price Chopper and Wal-Mart. You'll find better quality, selection and prices.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
SAD lights and lots of anti-depressants.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Most everything available in the USA is available in Canada, but it is all much more expensive (especially if the US Dollar is less than C$1.20).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are horrible during the two months of semi-warm weather.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
It all goes to Ogdensburg and is brought in 3 times per week by the embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Canadians (and immigrants who have adopted the "Canadian Way") are Socialists and have a sense of entitlement and cradle-to-grave expectations that the government will take care of them that is worse than I have ever seen. This means you shouldn't waste your money on help, if you can even find someone, because the work ethic is poor.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, inside the embassy and at expensive, trendy fitness clubs.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Beware of FRAUD. My Canadian bank account was compromised three times in 10 months, leaving me with an empty account and no cash over weekends until Monday when I could get to the bank.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, most any denomination.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Yes, but the Canadian regulatory authorities are Ameri-phobic, so all TV must contain a certain percentage of Canadian content (I forget what percentage).This means that you can watch some of your favorite American TV shows, but it will be mixed with a lot of really bad Canadian TV (think 1970s style BBC).Cable is EXPENSIVE, service is poor and there is no competition.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is spoken, but if you cross into Quebec there are people who do not (or will not) speak English.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes - one word: ICE.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
There is a bus system that is affordable and somewhat efficient, when they are not on strike. There was a lengthy strike while I was posted to the embassy and many employees spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on taxis to get to work.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
A 4-wheel drive is necessary if you want to get around in the winter. Snow tires are mandatory if you cross into Quebec and might become mandatory in Ontario soon. For a country with so much snow, they do a poor job of cleaning the roads.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Availability is spotty. BE SURE TO CONFIRM AVAILABILITY WITH THE SERVICE PROVIDER BEFORE YOU SIGN A LEASE - DO NOT RELY ON YOUR REALTOR.For a capital city, Internet service is slow, expensive and you're limited to how much you may download before you begin to pay hefty overage charges.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Get a US-based cell phone from Verizon with a nationwide PLUS Canada plan. Telecommunications in Canada, while advanced, is regulated very poorly, so it's quite costly. Plus, service is poor.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Canadian bureaucracy and the socialized systems in place are so cumbersome and complex that it will be time to transfer by the time you have navigated your way through the process.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
"Sloppy Casual" with big snow boats.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
The air is clean.
2. What immunizations are required each year?
3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Petty crime happens, like in any US city, and the downtown area (Byward Market) where the Chancery is located is filled with homeless shelters/missions and panhandlers.
4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The Ontario Health Insurance Program (OHIP) is not available to the US Embassy community and there are no medical facilities at or associated with the embassy. Everyone travels to the US for routine and even emergency care. If you need a specialist, you will likely need to travel 120 miles one way to Watertown, NY, or even further to Syracuse, NY.Do NOT believe people who proclaim Canada's universal healthcare system is the end all, be all. Even the embassy purchases a supplemental private insurance policy for FSNs so that prescriptions and other routine medical care is partially paid for. Waiting times are so long that some people with terminal illnesses die before they are scheduled for the diagnostic test that could have prevented their death.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Cold, cold, cold, cold and more cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are a few good schools, but the waiting lists are long and the embassy has no "pull" with any of them. The public schools are horrible, for the most part. If you're African American, expect to be discriminated against and for your children to be discriminated against at school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
IF you can manage to get your child into one of the good private schools, you might be able to make arrangements for special needs. Otherwise, good luck home-schooling!
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, mostly winter related.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Very little. Staying at home, drinking cocoa.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
The city rolls up its streets at 5pm and is filled with unfriendly bureaucrats, many of whom are anti-American. There is a struggling nightlife in the Byward Market area, but it's expensive and consists mostly of people interested in getting drunk for no reason at all. It's a good city for families who like to spend most of their time at home, indoors, bundled up and sipping cocoa.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Despite gay marriage being legal in Canada, there is very little tolerance for homosexuals, and the community itself is quite small in Ottawa.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Ottawa, unlike Montreal (2 hours by car) and Toronto (5 hours by car) is not at all cosmopolitan. Many Canadians will proudly proclaim how much more tolerant they are of different ethnicities and other minority groups. They will even go so far as to say that they think it is sad how racist the USA is. But the reality is that this is merely a facade. I have mixed-race family members and never experienced such overt discrimination in my life, from retail outlets and restaurants to law enforcement and other government officials.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Not really, except ice skating back and forth on the canal (which gets old fast).
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There is nothing special to purchase in Ottawa.
9. Can you save money?
No, not at all. In fact, expect to be out of pocket quite a bit and have more debt when you leave than when you arrived.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Never in a million years.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
your pre-conceived notions about Canada being ANYTHING like the USA or even resembling a modern, cosmopolitan environment.
3. But don't forget your:
Warm clothes and anti-depressants.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
7. Do you have any other comments?
The U.S. Chancery is a beautiful structure, but it is all steel and wood on the inside - very cold and sterile. This mimics the tone of Ottawa as a city. The embassy community is quite different than most since there are many US Government agencies posted in Ottawa who would not normally be "overseas", if it was not for the special relationship the US has with Canada. Diplomatic relations would be unaffected if every person left the embassy except for one Marine Guard to raise and lower the flag each day. There really is nothing to do, since contact is directly between Ottawa and Washington (i.e. the embassy is left out of the loop).