Gemma’s Story

Gemma's Story

For me, it was definitely based on instinct. I can’t really explain it but I just felt like I needed to be here.”

Being here

I met with Gemma on a cold evening on Granville Island, She loves the vibe of the place as well as the views. As with all my Brits in Vancouver meets, I was curious about what brought her here. Gemma arrived nearly three years ago, yet her first contact with Vancouver was way before then. 

“I first visited Vancouver in 2005. I was travelling with a friend and Vancouver was the last stop. I fell in love with the city. It just felt like home to me. The following year I came back and spent 3 weeks here. On my return home I remember telling my mum that I wanted to live here someday. Fast forward to 2011 and my parents passed away. I decided I wanted to go abroad - it was either Australia or Canada and I just felt a pull to Vancouver. Eventually, 3 years later, I decided to go for it and applied for a skilled worker visa. 9 months later, I had a visa in my hand and I decided to just go for it.”  

Gemma at Granville IslandIt struck me that we all have our own reasons for answering the call of wanderlust and sometimes life events provide a significant nudge to help us make the decision. As personal as everyone’s reasons are, there also appears to be a common theme developing, the beauty of the city and its setting. “It’s a very pretty, photogenic city. The views, at times, are simply spectacular and I never grow tired of seeing mountains on a daily basis.” It’s difficult to disagree with Gemma’s observation and in particular, those days when the mountains return from the cloak of grey to reveal sugar-coated peaks always bring a smile to my face. 

Research and Resources

Making the move by oneself is a big commitment and, making connections is vital. Knowing people socially can be a great start, having that local support; but what about finding employment? Gemma is a communications and marketing professional and she tapped into very different sources for leads. Having discovered and contacted SOPA Mosaic  a registered charity that serves the immigrant and refugee community, Gemma was pointed to a Facebook Group. “A girl called Sarah, President of the BC chapter of IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) at the time reached out to me. We met up when I arrived and quickly became very close friends. She was really instrumental in introducing me to lots of people and helping me settle in here.”  Gemma now spends a lot of time volunteering for the local IABC Chapter and has served a term as President. Her experience is so encouraging to others that are considering the jump to a new country, “I’ve made so many friends; not just locally but globally, attended lots of networking and Professional Development events as well as leadership conferences in Canada and America, won awards, been a speaker at a Marketing Conference and learnt a lot. It’s something very special that I don’t think I would have ever found if I hadn’t come overseas.”  

Social seen

Another common theme I’m finding when connecting with other local Brits is that despite arriving in an English-speaking, ‘western’, location, culture shock still pops in to say ‘hi’. We all have our own experiences and when asked, Gemma picked up on the socialising out of the ex-pat community.  “I’d say how different the social scene is, and how cliquey/shallow it can be here. Don’t get me wrong I have some wonderful friends, but generally, it’s taken me a long time to build meaningful friendships and fully integrate. Most pubs and bars are table service and Canadians, for the most part, are more reserved than us and work differently to us Brits so it’s been a big adjustment for me at times.” 

Working conundrum 

Gemma Lawrence at Granville Island

Gemma had other great observations and thoughts on how life is not all plain sailing “Vancouver is a very tough, and expensive city to live in. I’ve had to really hustle a lot to make this work. For me, the hardest aspect has been finding and securing long-term employment. After almost a year of unemployment and job hunting, a permanent job with good pay is still a pipe dream for me. Unemployment - and underemployment is high here and salaries generally do not reflect the high cost of living at all.” My mind returned to my own challenge of finding appropriate work back in 2007. The ongoing conundrum of the relocation penalty; not being considered for positions due to having no Canadian experience (and that can be any experience, even something unrelated to one’s profession) was certainly something I went through and it’s disappointing to think that this is still a thing some eleven years later.

Moving thoughts

Before moving on to what Gemma misses since relocation, I asked for advice she’d offer to people thinking about making the move. “Save, save, save and save some more. Honestly. Whatever you think you need or are told that you will need - double it if you can. I wish I had saved harder because money goes like water here.” and I agree. My observation is that there’s a big gap between average wages/salaries and the cost of living, particularly accommodation. With a living wage calculated as just under $21/hour and a minimum wage of under $13/hour, the math is pretty simple, although I do recognise that the living wage is for a family unit, not a single person. I’d recommend browsing this report to find out more about a living wage.

When one moves from another country, there’s always something to miss. Gemma picks up on certain retail stores and foods as the immediate misses, and when asked what else, offers “the history and culture of England. All the old buildings and heritage - and the quiet country villages minutes apart from each other.” Once again, it resonates. The natural environment here may be second to none yet for me, the built environment is largely unappealing. 

Moving on

My final question to Gemma was about returning to the UK. “I’m not sure. It really depends on how things pan out here. You just never know what’s around the corner.” I find that openness and spirit of adventure that I’m coming across so refreshing. I like to think that with that mindset, Gemma and the other Brits in Vancouver I’m meeting will succeed in life, whatever they do. There’s a determination to make things work and that’s admirable.

Thank you, Gemma, it was great to meet, photograph and chat with you. You’re another Brit in Vancouver that’s very welcome to step into my TARDIS.

You’ll find more images from Brits in Vancouver on my photography pages.

Gemma Lawrence at Granville Island

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