Editor’s note: SFGATE is exploring how people’s lives change after leaving the Bay Area, for better or for worse, in a new series. Today we’re focusing on those who have relocated to the Canada. We’ll explore other relocation areas in future articles, so keep checking back.
Lena Dunham said she’d do it. So did Bryan Cranston, Ne-Yo, Larry Flynt and Chloë Sevigny. It’s been more than six months since President Donald Trump took office, and thus far, no major celebrities have moved to the sprawling country up north.
Oh, Canada — that beacon of liberalism and political cooperation, where the winters are brutal and the prime minister amicable. It’s easy for those disappointed with a presidential election to threaten defection, but what is it actually like calling our northern neighbor home?
“Everyone agrees that Canada is the best place on earth right now,” said JaShong King, a PhD candidate in Ottawa and a self-proclaimed expert in the “cross-border experience.”
King, 37, left the Bay Area 12 years ago for a job in Toronto. He stuck around, and now considers himself more Canadian than American.
“After Trump got elected there was a decisive shifting in my identities,” said King, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. as a child. “I decided to put America even beneath Taiwan.”
Mass migration? Not so much
Like the U.S., Canada has a strict immigration policy, permitting about 250,000 global immigrants to enter its borders each year. In 2015, fewer than 3,200 Americans applied for permanent residency status, according to data from Canadian Immigration and Citizenship, which hardly denotes a mass northern migration exodus.
To become a permanent resident, one must live in the country for at least two years and undergo a lengthy application process, which according to estimates from the Guardian, can cost upwards of $4,000 in legal fees. As a permanent resident, one enjoys all the fruits of Canadian citizenship, including universal health care, but can’t vote or run for public office.
SFGATE spoke to Americans who moved north for jobs, college or spouses, like Katie Barnell, 23, who left her native Santa Rosa to study.
“[As an international student], I paid triple of what Canadians pay for university,” she said, “but it was still cheaper than what I’d be paying in the States.”
The same, but different
Having spent her life in Northern California, Barnell said she found Vancouver “pretty much the same.”
“The West Coast is the West Coast,” she said.
That can certainly be said of the comparable cost of living in Vancouver and the Bay Area. Vancouver recently ranked third in the 2017 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which lists the most unaffordable cities for housing in the world. San Jose came in fifth place and San Francisco was ninth.
The high cost of living in San Francisco inspired Jay Rosenthal, 43, and his family to leave their cramped San Francisco home. They landed about 2,700 miles east of Vancouver in Toronto, called there by the idea of urban living — and, of course, affordable health care and education.
“People here have trouble understanding that you can go bankrupt seeing a doctor in the States,” he said. While he acknowledges that Canadians have plentiful other concerns, “health care and education are not two of them.”
King has a pre-existing condition and has navigated the ups and downs of Canada’s universal health care system. It’s not just the price but also the approach that appeals to King.
“The health care system operates as effectively and cheaply as it can,” he said, admitting that doctors are often hesitant to prescribe drugs, which aren’t covered by universal health care. He perceives American medical culture as one that over-prescribes medication, more apt to throw pills at a problem than address its underlying causes.
Which country ranked first? The United States.
A tale of two mythologies
Rosenthal admits he didn’t move to Canada for political reasons, but he’s astonished by how effectively the country runs.
“It’s like northern Europe in its approach to government and services,” he said, “But not in terms of having a homogenous population.”
Nearly 20 percent of the Canadian population identify as members of a visible minority group, according to 2011 census data. In Toronto, often deemed one of the most multicultural cities in the world, 30 percent of residents speak a language other than English or French at home. The country is getting more diverse, too, having welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since 2015.
King, who studies how empires gain and retain their power, believes the country functions as a diverse cultural hub because of its founding mythology. “The U.S. was founded on violent revolt,” he said. “The Canadian system was founded on negotiation.”
While she agrees her adopted country is “politically welcoming,” Barnell says a political system rooted in consensus has an unexpected side effect: “pretty boring” news.
According to the young ex-pat, “Just not that much happens here.” Undoubtedly, many Americans wish they could say the same.