June 15 will mark the 13th anniversary of my moving to Canada. I was a few months shy of 26 with a little over 5 years of work experience. My whole life (books, CDs, photos, clothes) fitted into 3 large suitcases, a carry-on bag and 3 boxes. I was anxious, happy and very hopeful. My plan: study, build a life and see the world. And I did exactly that.
I had made the decision to leave Haiti a few years prior. Canada was #2 on my list, second to the US of A. At 21, social security and universal healthcare were not things I worried about. What I dreamt of was to live a fabulous life in New York City. But staying in the US without the proper papers was not an option. Plus, Canada’s immigration program was wide open. So, I went with my second choice. And, boy, am I glad I did!
I slowed down the process as much as I could—I took my sweet time sending the documents that were requested from me. Until one day, I had enough. I had lost my sense of safety and stability. I had started to become a bit paranoid. Life in my hometown had become unbearable, at least for me. I had a way out. I took it. And haven’t (really) looked back.
My decision to immigrate, like any big decision a young Haitian adult who isn’t married has to take, became a family debate. At least, that’s how things work in my family. My aunts and uncles who had immigrated, some of them decades before, chimed in. I wanted to go to Toronto, but the family didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t want to go to Montréal. 1) Too much distraction: at the time, everyone I knew lived there. 2) I wanted to improve my English. The family suggested Ottawa; my grand-father’s cousin—whom we all call auntie—had moved there in the 1970s (or was it the 1960s?).
On June 16 (or 17), 2005 I arrived in Orleans, a suburb 20 minutes away from downtown Ottawa.
2005 was a year of firsts. My first solo trip. The first time I drove in North America. My aunty gave me the keys in Jersey and I drove right up to Montréal. Not an ounce of fear or doubt. It was my first time in Ontario. I had been visiting my family in Canada since the 1980s, but I had never been outside the Greater Montréal Area. I was meeting my grand-father’s cousin for the first time as well. She had left Haiti before I was born. More importantly, it was the first time I was living without my mom and my sister.
Before I left, my mom reminded me to make my bed in the morning. I didn’t when I lived in her house. During my entire stay at my auntie’s (a little over a year) I made my bed every day. The minute I move in my own place, I stopped. I still don’t. She also reminded me that I could always come back home if things didn’t work out the way I planned. I never felt the need to. But I’ve always known that if I failed, I’d have a place to go.
I’ve been here for 13 years. Most of my adult life. Actually, I like to say that I became an adult in Canada. Sure, I came of age in Haiti and I started my career there. But I also had the liberty to quit my job without having another one lined up (which I did!) because my mom was there to support me (which she gladly did). A liberty I could no longer afford when I moved here. And that, believe me, is a good thing because not having that safety net helped me grow in ways I never could had I stayed in Haiti.
I’ve been gone for 13 years. And Haiti has evolved, changed, worsened, progressed and regressed. All at the same time. I’ll never be able to describe the feeling of going back home and feeling out of place. That feeling of familiarity and foreignness. The annoyance I feel when people quickly pin me for the dyaspora that I am. The frustration of being taken for anything other than Haitian. (Yes, I still feel some type of way about that driver who was surprised that I understood and spoke Creole. Ugh.)
It has also been 13 years of discovery, learning and growth. Immigrating is hard. I believe it’s a never ending process. I’m still learning about Canada, its history and its culture. I will never really get used to Ottawa winters or its humid summers. I have yet to explore my adopted country the way I want to. But it feels as though I’ll have plenty of time to do that.
People often ask whether I think about moving back to Haiti.
My answer. One should never say never, but I don't plan to. Not because I don’t love my homeland. I do. It’ll always hold the most special place in my heart. But because I’d most likely prefer to move to another country and experience building a life there. Again.