A Canadian experience: Culture shock for East Coasters headed west

By Guest Writer Liz Hadfield

It’s that look of wide-eyed anticipation that makes me play along.

“Ok” they say, “now say ‘I parked my car in the car park’.” So I oblige. And with my now-diluted New Brunswick accent I repeat the phrase to their howls of delight. When they try to mimic it, as a friend from home said, ‘their version is always more pirate than Maritimer.’ I truly don’t mind, to be honest; I like anything that puts the East Coast in the spotlight.

“You’re from the East Coast? Oh, it’s so beautiful there, I really want to go one day.” And I want to go back, I think to myself.

When I think of home, it’s family and friends who first come to mind. I think about sitting by the water’s edge with my childhood home behind me, watching the ferries cross back and forth. I think about the smell of fresh seafood in the market and the fiddler on the street. Idyllic? Absolutely. Ideal? Not exactly.

The Maritimes is growing beautifully – in business, culture, diversity. Some cities faster than others. But when you move ‘away’, you realize that other cities are already there. And have been for years. And when you go home, your childhood town is thrown into sharp relief – and it’s a tough pill to swallow. So tough that some stay ‘away’ because of it. What some see as an old-fashioned way of life that’s worked for years appears to others as rigid and regressive.

Where a lot of shops are still closed tight on Sundays (though the churches aren’t any fuller for it), doors are held open, and cars quickly stop to let pedestrians cross. There’s a lot of good mixed in as well. Cue the dichotomy.

“Oh you Maritimers are all so friendly!” Perhaps the East Coast’s number one claim to fame. We’re nice! I will gently sidestep why this isn’t applied to the rest of Canada, but for it to be an identifier for the East Coast is no bad thing. Yes, we are friendly. The first time I moved, it was to Toronto, which is perhaps not the best place to try out friendliness.

When I wished a passerby a ‘good morning’ I got my first don’t-make-eye-contact-and-they’ll-go-away brush off. The subway – hundreds of people crushed together in every inch of each other’s personal space and not a single word spoken. It was a whole new world for me and it felt very cold.

I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. My old college roommate, a Newfoundlander, said “one of the main differences between home and here is the lack of contact with strangers in the street. People give me strange looks when I say ‘hi’ when I’m passing by.”

Why the friendliness? Perversely, it may be because there’s nothing else to do. That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful cultural events, delicious restaurants, great bands and art galleries – there are! But it doesn’t always make the tour schedule for the Big Names in music. There aren’t huge productions of blockbuster musicals or plays always available. There’s no opportunity to see the CFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL (no offense Halifax Mooseheads). And the fact is, there’s not a lot of money.

Obviously, that is a broad sweeping statement. The Irving’s, the McCain’s are prominent families who built huge companies that have swelled (and employed) the East Coast. But the majority bump along somewhere between ‘comfortable’ and ‘maybe not this month’. With fewer distractions and not much money, there’s less of a tendency for people to keep to themselves. And thus, thriving communities and friendly neighbours are born. You won’t be lost in the East Coast for long, pull over on the side of the road and you’ll be amazed at the people who take the time to stop and ask if you need help.

My research for this article led me to reconnect with old friends who also moved ‘away’ and who I haven’t spoken to in almost 20 years. Few things display the innate and permanent friendliness than 7 East Coasters, who haven’t met each other, immediately chatting together through emails about their experiences in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

The weather – it’s not just for the elderly! Right away our chat pivoted around the climate difference and everyone had a unique point of view. “It’s a dry cold vs the damp cold [of back home]” said a friend now in Slave Lake, Alberta. “Winter is typically really long and cold here”, said another in Edmonton. Another friend who has been living in Calgary for eight years said, “people out here wouldn’t know what do if they received 30+ centimetres of snow!”. Everyone did agree on one thing and said: “I don’t miss the fog and the rain.”

But soon we came to the meat of the matter and I asked them several questions. What do people expect from you being from the East Coast? Why did you leave? Will you go home?

“Opportunity” is the one crushing word that came back over and over. The one defining draw that continues to drain the East Coast of its younger generations.

I’ve been hard on Ontario, it’s true. Perhaps it’s my own resentment that I couldn’t find a job (in my industry) in the East, and had to move. Others knew it wasn’t worth the time trying to rustle up a full-time job in the East and left promptly for Alberta.

While there are immediate and fulfilling jobs waiting in the rest of Canada, friendly neighbours and the raw beauty of the region haven’t stopped people from watching the harbour lights disappear below them as they fly west. And now, to the Maritimes great loss, many who have left now embrace their new Province as their home, with no plans of returning. “I get the same feeling being in the mountains as I do being by the ocean”. “I have no plans in the near or distant future to move back”. “This is my home now.”

A sobering thought indeed. But for those determined to see the glass half full, is it not also an inspiring indication of trans-provincial relationships? A tribute to the opportunities offered to strangers? A comforting knowledge for a Canadian on the move?

Many of those who had moved to Alberta are now impacted by the dropped oil price and many have lost their positions. Is this the opportunity the East Coast needed to call its young people home? Perhaps. Perhaps there is a shared onus between looking harder for jobs and more jobs being available. Or perhaps, the exchange of residents between provinces is no bad thing and will help us learn more about each other.

For example, I was informed of the valiant effort East Coasters across the country are making by gently providing tips on origin and geography. Several now-Albertans conveyed that many assume someone from the East is a Newfoundlander. “I have nothing against Newfies but when you’re not from there and everyone tells you that you are, is gets old fast.” One friend told a story of someone saying to her “Oh! I love the east coast! It’s so beautiful. You know, Toronto is my favourite city.” “It would seem that I’m surrounded by people who think that east of Toronto is just ocean until you end up in Ireland.”

But nothing more prepares you for life away from the East Coast like the pace. The pace of life, the pace of traffic. “I hate to rush and I am in a city of 1.3 million rushers.” “Traffic is way worse and the public transit is much better”, “I get pretty impatient when I drive [at home] now so they’ve rubbed off on me a bit.” For myself, the escalator was my defining moment. Stand on the right, pass on the left. What’s the hurry? Doesn’t matter, just pick a side.

The East Coast, or the West Coast. Fishing village or bustling city. Seeing where your feet will take you or hanging on to your roots. Saying “aunt” (as in taunt) or “aunt” (as in can’t). Does it matter? Not really. The East Coast identity is no more special than any other region of Canada. It may come across as chattier and easygoing but like each Province, it has its own benefits – and concerns for the future. So whether it’s beside a pounding ocean, under the lee of the snow sprinkled mountains or near the stars in a sky-scraping condo, what matters most is people feeling like they’re home.

About Liz

Liz Hadfield is an East Coaster who has learned to rush around in Ontario. She’s spent ten wonderful years working in television before switching industries, but has always kept a pen close to hand in case a story suddenly needs to be written. An avid reader, moderately tattooed, and always ready to make a list, Liz is now three years into the dog scene and has met all kinds of pet parents with many different challenges. One thing remains the same though – she will always laugh at the dog in the stroller.


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