Written by Meadhbh Monahan, a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, for the first official Irish Heritage Month in Canada.
Emigrating to a new country gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself and energizes you in a way that staying in your home country cannot replicate. The transition to life in Vancouver has been relatively easy because Canada is an English-speaking country home to many different nationalities and is seeking more immigrants to boost its economy.
When I decided to up-sticks and move from Northern Ireland to Vancouver almost four years ago – with no job, friends, or place to live – I was consoled by the safety net provided by the large Irish community here. A quick google of Irish community groups and festivals in Canada shows a swathe of Irish organizations right across the country. This is hardly surprising given that the Irish have been immigrating here since the 19th century, first as homesteaders and then in a desperate flee from the disastrous potato famine of 1845.
Learning about my new home
I didn’t utilize the Irish connections in the early days because I was determined to immerse myself in the Vancouver way of life. I got busy hiking, camping, touring and securing employment. I gradually met friends, mainly through work. Despite my best efforts to befriend more Vancouverites, my friend group is mainly Irish with a sprinkling of British, Kiwi and Canadian.
I began to learn more about Canada’s colonial past. I saw parallels with Britain’s colonization of Ireland, which ultimately left a bitter divide between unionists (who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and nationalists (who want a united Ireland) living within Northern Ireland. In the past year, the discovery of hundreds of unmarked First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children’s graves, who were forced into Canada’s residential schools, raised the uncomfortable spectre of the role of the Catholic church in running these institutions. It felt eerily similar to Ireland, where the Catholic church ran notorious ‘mother and baby’ homes (institutions where unmarried mothers were forced to give birth and undertake unpaid physical labour). The discovery of the unmarked graves of 9,000 babies caused uproar in Ireland and resulted in a highly criticized government investigation. I understand that I have a lot more work to do in order to educate myself and become an ally to the indigenous people in Canada.
It’s only now, as I approach my fourth year in Canada, that I have reconnected with my Irish roots by volunteering with Irish in BC, a non-profit which connects and supports the many Irish individuals, businesses and organizations in the province to help foster a more vibrant sense of Irish identity. I now see Vancouver as my home, so it’s become more important for me to access the community support systems that I would have automatically had back in Ireland.
A taste of home
Taste has such an important connection to memories. The longer I’m away from home, the more I miss certain food and drinks. As a result, I’m now a frequent visitor to the Celtic Treasure Chest Irish/British shop at Dunbar, where I can take my tastebuds on a trip down memory lane. I’m more than happy to pay a little extra for a taste of real Irish chocolate! There are also a number of Irish bars to fill the void if we are ever feeling homesick. It’s usually at Christmas when I’m most wistful about Ireland that you might find me in Johnnie Foxes, Donellans or the Irish Heather with a pint of the black stuff.
True North strong and free
Canada is full of opportunities for healthy and hard-working Irish immigrants who have secured their permanent residency (PR) or citizenship. But, until you have your coveted PR card in hand, life can be quite stressful as you navigate getting to know your new home while ensuring you satisfy the stringent entrance criteria set by Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The Irish do get a “leg up” in terms of assimilation into Canadian life due to reciprocal agreements between Ireland and Canada, e.g. access to a two-year (IEC) visa (many countries only get one year) and exchange of driving licences.
Career opportunities are abundant here, and that’s a huge draw. Irish people can be found in many leading positions across the country.
Canadian healthcare and extended health benefits are also a wonderful addition to my life. It makes for a more comfortable existence with mental and physical wellness as a priority — a service I’ve never experienced in the past.
But, of course, it’s those magical Canadian mountains that have truly captured my heart and made me fall in love with this unique country. The first time I went on a proper Canadian hike, I knew this was the place for me. I feel alive in the abundance of nature that Canada offers, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.
As the pandemic travel restrictions ease, I look forward to visiting as much of the True North as possible.