This morning, I received this email from an American, a famous name in the tech business: So, what is it really like to live in Canada relative to the US? How are the public schools? What's the real story with health care? How's the cost of living in Vancouver or Montreal vs. Seattle? On one hand, as a citizen of the world, I think that it’s generally dangerous when the USA gets as badly out of tune with the rest of us as it is now, and thus it would be nice if the best Americans stayed home and helped fix things. On the other hand, as a patriotic Canadian, I know that we have regularly benefited from the arrival of smart, disaffected Americans. So herewith a few notes on what it’s like here.

Canada is more like the US than it is unlike, and there are state-to-state variations south of the border, and province-to-province variations up here, that are sometimes bigger than the cross-border variations. Living in Vancouver, a big west-coast city, is more like living in Seattle than it is like living on the Canadian prairies or Montréal.

Immigration · In my experience, if you’re English-speaking and can get a job and aren’t an obvious criminal or terrorist and have decent health, getting permanent residence in Canada is easy, if slow and a bit on the expensive side. On the other hand, if a Canadian company wants to hire you and is willing to do the paperwork, you can get a work visa almost instantly, and these fairly easily morph into permanent residence.

$$$ · Wages are quite a bit lower (less so with the recent run-up in the Canadian dollar) while taxes are higher. On the other hand, if you roll up all the direct and indirect taxes, they’re not that much higher in aggregate, and you do get a few things for them. If you’re a businessman or entrepreneur, our capital-gains tax rates are really very good, and we don’t have the dreaded AMT.

The cost of living has been distinctly lower than in the States; but once again, watch that Canadian dollar. As in the US, the variation from place to place is high; everything, especially housing, is more expensive if you’re in a part of the country with better-than-average weather, or good access to the mountains, or to the water, or near a major financial/business centre. All of which apply in Vancouver (but Toronto is about as expensive).

Schools · The quality of schools varies strongly as a function of the neighborhood. That is to say, a school in a well-off neighborhood full of active, socially-involved parents is going to be a lot better than one in an a hard-up area where the parents are working too hard to have cycles to spare.

My experience with the elementary-school system is that’s its decent, but here in BC it’s been seriously underfunded the last few years to the point that it’s starting to hurt. I have some well-off friends who say that at the high-school level, the quality of intellectual challenge in a private school is immensely better than what the public schools offer. This matters, because it gets harder every year for a kid to find a place in University.

Health · You have health insurance by virtue of being a resident. There are waiting periods for anything that’s deemed “elective”, but our family has had a few acute/critical issues in recent years and we’ve gotten care that has been mostly prompt and good. There is extra insurance (dental, prescriptions, and so on) that a lot of people have in connection with their job, but you can get by without it.

We have all sorts of political problems because the public health-insurance system costs an insanely huge (and growing) amount of money, but the public seems in no mood to abandon it.

Culture · We are, by American standards, very liberal and pretty comfy with it. We have public broadcasting, public medicine, public universities, strict gun control, a tiny military, liveable welfare, gays get married, lots of immigrants, and so on. Abortion is not an issue and is not going to become one. While we have a political right wing that would like to make us more like the US, Canadian politics has a very large high-inertia centre and also an active left wing, so I can’t see things changing too much.

On the other hand, the hand of government falls fairly lightly on business, much more like America than Europe. I’ve started three companies myself, and while they haven’t all hit the big-time (yet), the government never really got in our way.

We spend way too much time agonizing over what it means to be Canadian (aside from not-American); except in Québec, where they just get on with it.

In most of the country, the weather sucks. But in most of the country, the landscape is beautiful.

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November 03, 2004
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