When I first moved to Calgary 20 years ago I didn’t think I would stay for long.
It’s a great city, nice people, and the summers are good, but the winter is often brutal. I constantly compared it to Ontario: so brown from October to April (unless covered in snow – barely better), the growing season is about 6 weeks shorter and snow is possible in any month of the year. 20 years hence I am still here and I have grown to love it and consider myself an Albertan. However, when I meet someone who has come from an even more temperate climate than Ontario I am always intrigued (nosy) about why on earth they would move from a place where jasmine grows wild or where daffodils bloom in February to a place that can’t even grow a decent tomato.
I decided to capture some of the chats I have had with people about their choice to move to Canada in general and to Alberta in particular.
I spoke with
Ruback from Hyderabad, Pakistan who lives in Calgary
Bo from Koudekerk aan den rijn in the Netherlands who lives in Airdrie
Fatiha and Muhammad from Karachi, Pakistan who live in Calgary
Mary and Len from Reading, Berkshire in the U.K who live in St. Albert
Sally and Shaun from Durban, South Africa who live in Calgary
Mirzada from Maglaj, Bosnia and her husband Senad from VK, Bosnia who live in Calgary
And these are some of the stories that they shared with me.
Ruback from Pakistan had heard so many stories about how cold it was in Canada that when he first flew to Toronto in February, 2012 he packed on the clothes. “It was plus 5 the day I got here – which was cold for me. Honestly, you will laugh. I had on many layers under my jacket – I didn’t even take my jacket off for the entire journey. I was getting pretty warm on the flight. My uncle and my aunt were laughing at me about wearing so much when I met them. When I actually got outside it was more windy than cold.”
Len had experienced some snow in the U.K. but not much, and it had always been quite heavy, not like the baby powder snow that we usually get here. “One of the funniest things was when I went to shovel the snow, the snow was about a foot high. I looked at the size of the shovel and thought that everyone in Canada must be very strong. I rushed in to shovel the snow and fell right over. I didn’t realize it was going to be so light. I was only used to very heavy snow in Britain and the snow in Alberta was more like polystyrene.”
There was a massive snow storm in Calgary on March 17, 1998. According to Environment Canada “On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing was green in Calgary after the city experienced its worst March snowstorm in 113 years. The airport recorded 32 cm of snow, but most other parts of the city received about 40 to 45 cm. Downtown Calgary was a ghost town. Motorists couldn’t dig out of their driveways, and the bus system ground to a halt. For the first time ever, the Irish had to cancel St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the city.” Sue and Gary from the U.K. had moved to Calgary just prior to this historic snow storm. Sue says “We had ski hills in Scotland, but where we lived if there was snow it wasn’t much and it was very wet.” Gary remembers “We had only been here a few weeks when the St. Patrick’s Day snowfall occurred. We were living in a basement apartment with a walkout and a glass door. You could see the snow drifting all the way up the door. I walked to my buddy’s place to get a ride to work. It wasn’t a very far walk, but it took a very long time. When I got there he said that he wasn’t driving in that day, so then I had to walk back. We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into, if this was going to be a common occurrence.”
Bo from the Netherlands learned quickly how unpredictable the Calgary weather could be. “Our first winter my parents came for 6 weeks and we did not see one single flake of snow during that time. We had to go to Lake Louise to see snow! People had warned us about Alberta winters. Then everybody said “Oh, this is not a typical Alberta winter.” We came to Canada in the summer, the same year as the floods in Okotoks and everybody said then that this was not a typical Alberta summer. So we were here for 12 months, through every season, and it was not the typical Alberta weather. Well, we eventually got typical Alberta weather. We have seen years where we shoveled our butts off and years where we had to shovel maybe only 5 times.”
Even though it very rarely snows in Karachi, Fatiha and Muhammad were prepared for the cold because Fatiha’s mother’s family lives in a place close to a desert and the weather there can be very extreme. “The cold goes into your bones and we had to have layers and layers of sweaters to keep warm.” But Muhammad found that it took some time getting used to driving in the snow. “I didn’t know how to stop immediately. If I stopped quickly I didn’t have control of the car. It was scary. One time I put the car in the ditch, and an angel, a white guy appeared. I don’t know where he came from, he just showed up. He had a truck. It took about 10 minutes to get the car out of the ditch. There was no damage to the car, but I lost my cell phone. After that I drove slowly and kept a good distance from the car in front of me until I got more used to it.”
Bo had a similar experience “I was driving my daughter to school and it was minus 18 when we left. I got to an intersection and there was a truck ahead of me. There were tire ruts in the road that were very slippery. I was driving very slowly and I tried to brake and I could feel nothing was happening. I didn’t have winter tires at the time. I checked and there was no one on the sidewalk, so I tried to steer in that direction but because of the ruts I couldn’t turn. So I slid underneath the truck. It was so minor that my daughter didn’t even realize why I was getting out of the car, but that was when I decided I was getting winter tires. I know they might not work on ice, but still, I thought, o.k.”
Bo continues “We had to adjust to winter. When we were skiing the coats and pants that we were used to were just not warm enough, especially for the kids walking to school in the mornings. We sometimes get snow in the Netherlands, but it’s more of a dusting. Like a little icing sugar. For us to adjust we had to realize that winter here is different. The bright sunny sky here can be very deceiving. It can look like a lovely day outside and it’s nice and warm in your house and you think ‘It isn’t that bad.’ But within the first few steps your eyelashes are frozen. I remember once I was going to get the mail and it was minus 30-something with a wind chill of minus 43. Well, I had no idea what that even meant. I dressed warmly, but within 5 steps I thought that getting the mail was just not that important. But you only do that once. One time my mom was worried for us because she heard it was minus 15 here. Minus 15 here you can walk out in a sweater! The delivery guy still comes in shorts! It’s not that bad. When you get to minus 25, then that’s cold. It takes a couple of years, you have to experience it a couple of times. What you remember most is the snow in May. My mom came for a visit in 2007 in May and it was very warm and she didn’t bring any summer stuff, so we took her out to buy some tank tops and shorts. We woke up next morning to a huge dump of snow.”
The weather in Bosnia is similar to Ontario weather, and Mirzada and Senad were both refugees in the early 1990’s before they came to Canada. Both of them had periods of time when they lived in tents in the winter with very little food. They chose to come to Calgary because of family ties and they have lived here for 20 years. Senad says “I am very happy that we came here, except the weather. But the weather does not make your life.” Even so, when they retire it will probably be to Ontario to be nearer to Mirzada’s family and for warmer winters. And they find the sunshine in Calgary makes the winter easier to bear.
For Sally and Shaun from South Africa, heat was more of an issue back home. Shaun relates some of their experience “We lived near the coast, but further inland there was greater variability in the temperatures. In the winter it would be 25 degrees C. during the day, but could drop down to -5 at night, which was considered bloody cold. That’s before we experienced cold here. Sometimes we would get snow in the mountains, and everyone would go crazy when it happened. They would get in their cars and drive to see a silly little mound of snow. Our mountains were not as big as the Rockies. There was a small ski hill like Canada Olympic Park in Rhodes.”
Shaun continues “In the summer part of your phys. ed. would be swimming and you would wear your Speedo at school for P.E. The schools would either have a pool, or there would be a community pool close by. The primary school that I went to we would walk to the public swimming pool. I remember that in high school we were actually sent home from school because it was too hot, like snow days here. It was hot and it was humid and it was impossible to work.”
Sally adds “Both schools that I went to had swimming pools, and even before we left South Africa our oldest son had started school there. In January and February it would be incredibly hot and they would swim 2 or 3 times a day. In fact, they would sit in the classrooms with their swimming clothes on because it was so hot. And it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t air conditioning in the school and it was terribly hot. When we were growing up air conditioning wasn’t common where we lived. We lived in an area that had been developed by the English and the original homes were built with fireplaces. We never used the fireplaces. The newer homes were built for the weather.”
Susan and Jeff from the U.K. don’t mind the cold winters and enjoy winter sports here, and they chose to live in Cochrane because the summers are not too hot, the humidity is low and there is lots of sunshine. Jeff was born and initially raised in Scotland, and had lived in Ontario in his teens. He returned to the U.K. in his early 20’s and found that he did not care for the way of life, mostly hanging around in pubs. He enjoyed hiking and camping, which was how he met Susan – she did not go to the pubs and she liked hiking and mountaineering. When they first moved to Canada they lived near Vernon for 3 years and the last year that they lived in B.C. they had 4 straight months with no sun. Jeff prefers the dryness of Alberta to his previous homes. “We love the blue skies in the winter in Alberta” says Susan. “It’s nice to visit the U.K. for the scenery, all gorgeous. You do miss the green, but not the rain” says Susan. “I am a sunny person at heart. Here in the winter the skies are blue and you can wrap up and keep warm.” For them the trickiest thing about the weather in Canada is the gardening. In B.C. it could be too hot for some plants and in Calgary it can get very cold even during the growing season. Susan is fond of growing scarlet runner beans and she wasn’t having any luck in Canada, either in B.C. or Alberta. She finally got some seed from England that germinated and the beans were growing well when a gopher came along and chopped them all off at the base. To make matters worse, he didn’t even bother to eat them.
Susan and Jeff find that it is brown for a long time every year in Calgary. Mary and Len from the U.K. noticed the same thing when they first moved to Alberta in 1975. They arrived in May and they were struck by how brown and dead looking everything looked, and by the fact that it still didn’t seem like spring. “Our son’s birthday is May 7 and that year we got him a bicycle for his birthday, but the snow didn’t go away until the end of May and he had to wait until then to ride his bicycle. We couldn’t believe it would take so long.” Despite that, Len still prefers the weather here. Like Jeff he’s a low humidity guy, and Mary and Len also love the blue skies.
Blue skies and wide open spaces – almost all of the people I interviewed cited these as their favourite things about living in Alberta. And of course, the mountains. Bo says “We love the mountains. We are skiiers and we come from a country that is under sea level. There are no mountains, just a couple of big hills.”
In the next post I will share insights on the vast differences in population density between my friends’ hometowns and cities in Alberta.