The Air Canada plane starts its descent and I look down out of the window. It is a dark November afternoon and I can see nothing except a few pinpricks of light on the ground. After regularly flying around densely populated Europe, this is a shock. Where are the towns? The people? What have we come to?
It is November 17, 1978 and here we are with our two boys, seven and five, landing at Mirabel Airport near Montréal, Quebec, where my husband, John, will start a new job.
We stand in a long line and wait. First there is an interview with a customs official who tells us that we can collect our boxes of “chattels and household effects” in a few days. Then on to the Immigration Officer who asks us about Geneva, where we had been living, and England, where we were born, and then examines our papers. We then talk to a pleasant lady who gives us information on schools and local businesses, and a telephone number to apply for our SIN cards (our what?). Finally, we can collect our luggage and leave. We have been admitted to Canada!
John sets off to find our car hire and when he returns driving a huge Plymouth Volare, the kids are thrilled. Cars of this size are not often seen in Europe. As we start to drive, it seems very dark; there are few lights on the motorway – or highway – as we soon learn to call it.
Our youngest child, Owen, awake since we left Geneva, finally falls asleep in the back seat as we head downtown to our temporary home, an efficiency apartment in a downtown hotel.
The next morning when we switch on the TV, we are confronted with the horrifying story of the Jonestown Massacre¹ a religious cult leader has killed all his followers with poisoned punch. The story is revealed in great detail, and we find the television coverage quite different from the French, Italian and German media we were used to (and could hardly understand) in Switzerland. We feel quite naive.
Finally, we venture outside for breakfast, choosing Ben’s, right across the street from the hotel. The boys are thrilled to see two policeman at the counter, their backs to us, wearing guns.
In that high, carrying voice of the very young, Owen pipes up, ‘Are they real guns Mummy?’ He has never seen a policeman with a gun before. The policemen smile and wave at the children, but we feel nervous after the shocking TV news, and now policemen wearing guns?
Breakfast was, how shall I say it? Different. Bacon with pancakes and maple syrup? We give it a try. It’s not bad, but it’s a strange taste for us. Coffee is served without asking if we want it; we prefer tea. And the food portions are enormous. We stagger out, well fed.
Soon it starts to snow and the children are delighted, but by late afternoon, when it is still snowing, we are staggered. When does it stop? (FYI, in late April the following year.) We tell the hotel concierge we are going to take a walk. He eyes us and says, ‘You will need boots and winter coats. Try Eaton’s, just a block down there.’ We venture out and cannot believe how deep the snow is. I tiptoe down the street in my high heels, feet freezing.
In England, we have just one heavy coat, shoes and one pair of boots for all the seasons. In Switzerland, we only use boots for skiing, so all this new clothing is strange. We buy hats, scarves and warm gloves too, and we soon appreciate how important it is to be warmly dressed in winter!
Eventually, we move into our house and the time comes to register the boys for school. We decide to send them to a French school since they studied in French in Geneva. The elementary school principal is amazed, as we are obviously English, but in our fractured French, we insist.
Owen, who will be six years old in February of the coming year, is outraged that he is deemed ‘too young’ to start school full time. He can only attend half a day until the following September. He has been in school since he was three!
I had never learned to drive, and now I had to learn quickly if I wanted to go anywhere. So, in February, 1979, I took my first driving lesson on the frozen streets of the West Island. Slipping and sliding down the streets I go, with the sweat running down my back! I am very, very nervous. I do not even know how to work the wipers, plus, my youngest son is in the back seat – no safety belts then – since I don’t know anyone who could babysit while I have my lesson. Stress after stress for the first few years. Typical of most immigrants, I should think.
The politics too were a bit of a surprise, as it seemed everyone was fleeing down the 401 to Toronto. A few days of reading the newspapers told us why. Apparently a law called “Bill 101”² had been passed the previous August and the ‘Anglos,’ as we soon learned to call ourselves, were leaving Quebec. It appeared we had arrived in a province in turmoil.
The noises in our house were also unfamiliar. At first when we heard the furnace starting up in the basement, we were all startled, but we quickly got used to it. Another puzzler was having to buy a brush for the car and a shovel for the driveway. Why? We soon found out that if we did not copy our neighbours and clean the car of snow and shovel the drive, we simply couldn’t get out!
One night, we heard the city snow blower and trucks clearing the snow very late at night, and we all leapt out of bed to check what the noise was. It was scary; all small things, but so different from living in England and Europe.
We experienced many ups and downs as we got used to life here. Perhaps the hardest thing was to adapt to the extreme cold winter weather, and then to the hot, humid summers (yet again, we needed to buy more appropriate clothing), but despite all that, we like it here. Almost 40 years later, our sons are fully bilingual and attended college and university. I have to say that Quebec has been very good to our family as we continue to build our own little dynasty, in this place we now call ‘home.’
² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_of_the_French_LanguageThe Charter of the French Language (French: La charte de la langue française), also known as Bill 101 (Law 101 or French: Loi 101), is a law in the province of Quebec in Canada defining French, the language of the majority of the population, as the official language of Quebec.