Immigration to Canada
Reading has always been my gateway to other places.
It began when I was a young girl in Germany. We didn’t have the money for extravagant trips, so I would pour myself into books about different cultures, countries and people around the world. My father would supply me with batteries for my flashlight and I would stay up to scour books under my covers - he always loved that I was passionate about learning.
When I was 20, my boyfriend began talking about immigrating to another country. I was beyond excited. Just having finished my degree in social work, I had landed a job working in a small orphanage. Back then, I considered an opportunity to work with children, on a high salary with benefits, a dream job. This idea to move, however, planted a much bigger seed in the back of my mind - it was my first taste, my first chance, to see the world beyond the bleak and heavy life that awaited me in Germany. I wasn’t going to pass it up.
My boyfriend, Hans, was the son of a German forester who loved the outdoors. He often assisted his father by stocking food for the wild animals in the mountains.
On Sundays, I would tag along, helping to replenish the food stores for the wild boars, deer, and elk. To him, even the mention of living in Canada peaked his interest. The world renowned fishing, hunting and camping that British Columbia boasted only fuelled his growing passion to move. Merely a few weeks after our discussion, he stumbled upon an advertisement in a dental magazine looking for German trained dental technicians in Vancouver. He applied without hesitation. I, on the other hand, had always been fascinated by Africa and applied to a teaching job in Pretoria. At the same time, we had also befriended a group of students from Sydney, Australia who encouraged us to apply there for the fruit picking jobs.
My mother- in-laws car - 1973
Immediately, the doors began to open. Within a month we had received approval from all three countries. It was a whirlwind of opportunities to consider but once we received the sponsorship approval from Shaw Laboratories, the dental lab in Vancouver, Hans accepted. On the condition that we would marry once we arrived, we decided to get engaged.
There was little celebration, however, when we broke the news of our new adventure to my family. My friends thought I was crazy to give up such a good job in the hopes of life in the unknown. My family, especially my father, didn’t understand why I wanted to leave my homeland. Only my grandmother embraced the idea with optimism and curiosity. We laughed as I dispelled myths about Canada’s culture and landscape. She asked things like: “will you live in a teepee?” to which I replied with a few photos of the Vancouver skyline - etched out with skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings.
We were engaged in the first week of December, and Hans left two weeks later. I arrived in Vancouver on a sunny day in February of 1976. I had one suitcase and $500. It was made very clear that within six weeks of arrival, we had to be married or I was to face deportation. So, in early April, we met at City Hall and got married. It was nothing glamorous. I wore an old black dress, the only dress I owned, and Hans gave me $10 to go buy myself some flowers. I was touched and a bit surprised when the manager at the laboratory volunteered to throw Hans a stag party, and his wife organized my bridal shower. All of the female employees attended, bringing gifts to help start our new life. Neither of us had experienced these exciting customs before and the kindness of our new friends touched my heart.
Winter in Wieda (small village) - 1973
My first job was at a sporting goods store on Robson Street selling things like shoes and tennis rackets. I had no clue what I was doing besides helping people try shoes on and smile politely. I hated working there and only lasted three months before I quit to look for something better. After being turned down by every childcare centre in the Yellow Pages, a few people told me that waitressing was a good way to make money in the city. Armed with a map and bus change, I took to every restaurant in downtown Vancouver. As I didn't have much of a resume and virtually no serving experience, I fibbed my way into getting hired at the Palisades Hotel on Robson Street. No one was going to call Germany for references and I knew if I worked hard enough I would adapt to any task.
My first day was a disaster. It was seven hours of dropping plates, unhelpful co-workers and a Swiss chef named Helmut gruffly barking orders from the kitchen. My saving grace was Pedro, a Portuguese busboy. I offered him half of my tips in exchange for help. He taught me things like how to carry glasses on a serving tray and decoded confusing english colloquialisms like “sunny-side up.” Seeing my clearly unexperienced attempt at my first shift, my boss confronted me at the end of the night. I managed to convince him that I was going to improve and work tirelessly if he just gave me a chance. He did. Inspired to overcome my ineptitude, I bought plastic plates from the dollar store and practiced walking around in our apartment until I could effortlessly carry five on one arm. I studied the menu inside and out and made peace with the grouchy chef. I learned what side of the kitchen door to walk into so I wouldn't crash into other servers. Within a week I had mastered all of the tasks that had shamed me on my first night and I was darting around the restaurant taking orders with a smile.
As my sole method of support, I had no other choice but to adapt to the constant challenges - rude customers, a language barrier, chauvinistic employers, long hours. I can recall one particularly disturbing incident while working at the Vancouver Board of Trade restaurant. At this point I had acquired a stern but polite tone to use when the male customers would make advances, but in this instance it didn't seem to deter one business man on his lunch break from slipping his hand up the back of my skirt. Frankly fed up with the lack of respect for women in my position, and knowing my complaints would go unheard to my boss, I poured a carafe of piping hot coffee into his lap. This was 1980. I knew I was going to be in for a world of trouble - no employer was going to empathize with the plight one waitress. Instead of hanging around for the inevitable, I quit that day and never looked back.
Although there were many of these incidents, serving gave me one of my most sacred friendships. Janie. A friendship that lasted over 40 years began in November 1976. Through our marriages, my divorces, the birth and growth of our five children, our professional achievements and personal celebrations, we were there for each other through it all. From the beginning we could share all our deepest thoughts, desires and fears. We would spend hours talking comparing notes and venting about our day’s frustrations. I remember her recounting her first trip to the morgue as a Registered Nurse. As she was delivering her first dead body, closed in a small elevator, she felt the body move and it terrified her. I would listen intently as she would talk about telling people their illness was fatal and the fear reflected in their eyes. I would return with stories about my early days in childcare - being vomited on by a child or my difficulties reporting parents to social services. We were relieved to share the struggles of our daily lives and, though we were very different people, were similar in our love and respect for one another.
It is with great sorrow and profound appreciation that I am reminded of these memories. Janie’s last chapter came to a close in 2017 after a long and hard battle with cancer. Her memory will always live on in her beautiful children, Kelli and Kyle, whom I am still very close to today.
Another hurdle in the journey of integration was mastering English. It wasn’t a completely new language to me, but I was definitely behind by the time I wanted to enrol at UBC in 1976. It was determined that I had mastered the basic reading and writing skills of a fifth grader, which was a problem for someone wanting to take a first year course in English. I knew my degree in Social Work and limited English weren't going to carry me far, and there was no way I was giving up on my dream of working with children in Canada.
The first year at UBC was difficult. I struggled to keep up with the lectures, my essays would come back littered in red ink and I would stay extra hours with my professors to improve my writing. I attribute a great deal of my achievements in my first year to my English professor as his encouragement and guidance paved the pathway to my success. I sailed through the next three years easily and graduated with a B+ average with a Bachelor in Education, with no student loan to pay back as I had worked full time through all those years. Sadly, there were no teaching jobs then in Vancouver. I was left to choose between the occasional substituting job or teaching in the interior. I decided to move to the little town of Merritt for a while, living out of the Road Runner Motel.
Years later, my brother would run in to my English teacher back in Germany. He had always made fun of me as I always failed my vocabulary tests. When he inquired as to what I was up to, my brother told him I had moved to Canada and had become a teacher. Hearing that the look on his face was one of pure bewilderment brought joy to my heart and made me realize anything is possible, even if you’ve been told your whole life that it isn’t.
Living in Canada was exciting then and still is now. It is a safe and beautiful country full of kind people. My first impression of the stunning landscapes and all of the amazing opportunities still lingers true today. Over the years, I have embraced the outdoors, learning how to hike, ski, kayak, camp, and even fish and hunt with my husband briefly in the early years. We explored the interior of B.C. in our 15-year-old station wagon (that cost us only $500), full of rusty holes that allowed the dust to fill the inside on those gravel roads. We stopped at the side of the road and slept on a mattress in the back. All was new and exciting, and the beauty of the outdoors was breath-taking.
In 1980, we decided to buy a home, as it was affordable in those days and my first husband and I became proud homeowners in North Burnaby. It was an 8-year-old, five bedroom house with two levels, a huge garden filled with trees on a double lot for $144,000…today worth well over a million. I began to pursue the beginning stages of a business in childcare that would later expand into one of the top daycare facilities in North Vancouver. Even though I was stressed at times with the demands of balancing a full-time university program, work and domestic duties, I always knew I could handle it.
As I reflect on those early years I am filled with gratitude for this country I am privileged to call my home. Over 40 years have passed since I set foot in Canada…what a beautiful journey it has been so far!