Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Halifax or Victoria?

Victoria, British Columbia or Halifax, Nova Scotia; that is the question. As Katya and I prepare to file her permanent resident visa application to Canada, one question plagues me: where will we live?

The choice of location is only one small box on the visa application, but it is a very important box. As the sponsor, I must show that I can support my wife for three years, which means that I must show I have a job and a place to live. If we write "Halifax" on the application, and I then change locations to Victoria before the application has been completed, we must start the whole process anew.

The decision is entirely up to me, as Katya reminds me every time I think aloud about it. "I don't know these cities, you do." she says. There's a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders in this matter, as I am determined to find one permanent place where we can settle down and never move from again. I am tired of travel and I have been living out of a suitcase for over two years now. I miss having a place that is mine, things that are mine, a stable and steady income and my own car.

The choice of city must meet several criteria that I have thought long and hard about. These are as follows:

1) Job market must be healthy enough to provide meaningful work.
2) Housing prices must be in line with salaries.
3) The city must be comfortable, clean and aesthetically pleasing.
4) The city must have the necessary culture and energy to allow both of us to be happy.
5) Facilities, infrastructure, commerce, government, services and safety must be high (although that will be easy to find in any city in Canada when compared to Russia).
6) The city must be near the ocean and have pleasant scenic views.

Basically, where can Katya, a new immigrant to Canada, and myself live a happy and comfortable life? I was originally thinking of Guelph, Ontario (my original hometown) but have since dropped that from the list of contenders, and it is now down to either Victoria or Halifax. I keep Katya's perceptions in mind as much as I can when making this decision, as I know what it is like to live in a foreign land and I want her to be as happy and comfortable as possible. So here is my comparison of Victoria and Halifax.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax is a beautiful and historic city. As one of the older cities in North America, it boasts a rich historical tradition that is on display everywhere. It served as the main British naval port in North America during the American Revolution, and its massive fortress, The Citadel, dominates every point of the city.

As one of North America's biggest natural deep-water ports, Halifax sees a lot of international shipping and trade every year and the provincial government has been wise over the past decade and has attracted a booming IT and communications sector to the city and thus, the job market is very healthy. A search for "jobs Halifax" brings up page after page of help wanted advertisements, satisfying my first criteria for a city. Score one for Halifax.

Another point in favour of moving to Halifax are the incredibly affordable housing prices. 2-bedroom apartments rent for around $750 a month, and a small starter home in one of the sattelite suburbs can be bought for under $100,000. "Mini-homes" in Nova Scotia, homes that are not trailers but not full-sized houses (2 or 3 bedrooms, kitchen, living room, patio on the side...actually they can be quite nice), can be purchased for under $50,000, including a small plot of land! Halifax scores big on the housing front.

When it comes to my third criterion, the comfort, cleanliness and aesthetics of a city, Halifax doesn't hold up as well. There are beautiful parts of the city, particular near the touristy harbourfront and along the roads that lead to Citadel Hill, but other parts of the city can be downright trashy (especially near the shipping docks and the large naval base). The winters in Halifax are famous for dumping six feet of snow in one night, and during the late summer the hurricanes that batter Florida and the Caribean every year smash into Halifax and die out over Nova Scotia. All told I think Halifax doesn't get a point in this department.

Halifax does have culture and energy in abundance, however. A strong Celtic tradition that has been succesfully promoted by the descendants of the first Scottish settlers is every where. During the touristy summer season, fiddles and bagpipes create a cacaphony of noise throughout the city, and then there is the immensely popular annual Halifax International Tattoo..a big military drum and pipe festival that showcases marching bands from around the world. I'm not so sure how Katya will take the constant sound of bagpipes. Being from Russia, she has never heard one before in her life, let alone 100 blaring in unison. Nevertheless, Halifax meets the criteria in this department.

Halifax is a fairly safe city, depending on where you go. Like all cities there is a fair amount of crime and some parts of the city are best avoided all together. Traffic can get bad in Halifax, especially over the two bridges that span the inner harbour during rush hour. Nova Scotians are, by and large, the friendliest and wittiest people in Canada but in their governance of Halifax's infrastructure it sometimes seems they can't get their act together (it might help Katya feel more at home). Halifax meets some of this criteria but not all.

Finally, my mother lives in Halifax and would be able to help out with our initial relocation, but this is a double-edged sword as anyone who knows my mother can attest to.

Of the six criteria I applied, Halifax meets 3.5 of them. It would be a nice and comfortable place to transition to life in Canada, but not necessarily the place to live, raise a family, retire, and die.

Victoria, British Columbia

Nestled in on the extreme south end of Vancouver Island, Victoria is a young, vibrant and modern city. Stunning panorama views of both the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean create a dreamy quality to this deceptively peaceful city. Victoria is actually a bustling hub of traffic, commerce, construction and yuppy do-gooders.

The job market in Victoria is not as good as Halifax. A search for "jobs Victoria" brings up lots of openings in part-time service roles (waiters, hotel staff, etc) but not many jobs in anything meaningful or well-paying. The company I worked for in Victoria before I came to Russia has been advertising as they prepare for the new fishing season, so there is a chance that I could find well-paying work there. Barring that, a lack of a Masters degree in Marine Biology or Public Policy Planning pretty much relegates the average joe like myself to waiting tables in Victoria, which scores negatively in my search for the perfect city to live.

Also scoring against Victoria are the incredibly insane housing prices. A small 1-bedroom apartment in Victoria rents for around $900 a month! Of course, outside of the city, in communities such as Sooke and Duncan, prices are more reasonable but I must always think of Katya, who will be unable to get around easily while I am at work. Therefore public transportation is a key and neither Sooke nor Duncan offer easy transport to Victoria. Forget buying a house in Victoria, the average price of a starter home is near the half-million-dollar mark! Victoria fails miserably in my second criterion for a good city to live.

When it comes to comfort, cleanliness and aesthetics, however, there is nowhere better on this planet than Victoria. This city is a beautiful testament to man's ability to blend modern life with nature. Although the city is young, modern buildings are designed with an eye to classical Victorian beauty, and the streets are well-planned. The inner-harbour is a peaceful and relaxing place to watch the sunset over the mountains and into the Pacific. Pods of orca whales glide around off the beaches, seals and otters playfully splash water at passerby's on the docks and eagles glide overhead. Because Victoria is situated in a sub-tropical environment, palm trees and tropical flowers bloom all year round (average winter temperature in Victoria: +8)...yes, Canada does indeed have palm trees!

Talking about weather, Victoria can sometimes seem a paradise for someone like me (who abhors both heat and cold...I'm a room-temperature kind of guy). Temperatures in the summer rarely peak +28 and never drop below zero in the winter, and most of the rain skips past Victoria to fall on her unfortunate and much larger cousin, Vancouver. When it comes to the third and fourth criteria, Victoria scores incredibly high.

The culture in Victoria is not nearly as loud (and some would say irritating) as Halifax, but there is a vibrant energy that is easy to feel the moment you enter it. Incomes are higher in Victoria, and a large population of well-to-do yuppies inhabit the scenic outskirts. Retirees are also found in abundance, as old farts flock from Canada's much colder eastern climates for the warm shores of the west coast. Unfortunately, this has also brought in waves of drug-addicts and homeless vagabonds, who find it easier to survive February in Victoria than in freezing Toronto. Crime in the downtown core and in areas such as Esquimault (another naval base) can be high, particular with smash-and-grabs and the occasional mugging at night, although Victoria has so far been spared the rash of gang-related shootings that has plagued Vancouver. Nevertheless, there is a warm, comfortable and cozy culture in Victoria and thus it scores high.

In total, Victoria meets 4 of my 6 criteria, just barely outperforming Halifax. Of course, in the end this means nothing if I can't find a job and a place to live. The choices seem very unfair: be homeless in a paradise city or have a good job in a more trashy city.

As I countdown to my return to Canada (which is soon, so we can get the visa process moving I've pretty much worn out my welcome in Russia), the decision of where to live looms larger and larger in my thoughts. Some nights it's all I can think about. Ultimately I know Victoria would be perfect, but I want security, a good salary and good housing, too, things that Victoria doesn't offer in abundance. I hope Katya hasn't placed her trust in a fool...


  1. Hi Canadian!

    Wonderful that you are an escapee in Halifax, where my mom arrived from Scotland in 1917.

    Spent an hour catching up with Mission to Moscow and consider it one of my favorites. Just request you consider that this reader doesn't like foul language. Enjoyed your escapades!

    Now that you know Halifax is the place, what will you rename the blog?

    Best wishes to you both in God's country,

    Rob MacDonald

  2. Thanks American. Will take your request to heart. Your mother came through Halifax? That's actually interesting. They are investing millions of dollars in a "Pier 21" museum, where immigrant boats from Europe used to come in. They are going to recreate the entire dock to how it looked in the 19th and 20th centuries. Did she come through there?

  3. You post is so interesting as I currently live in Victoria and am considering moving with my family back to Halifax for schooling. You hit many of the main points I think - it really is a fairly well balanced conundrum. Victoria has some natural amenities and weather that you cannot put a cash value on - you can be outdoors comfortably almost every day of the year, observing beautiful scenery - for free. So if you are a nature-loving type or a runner/biker, this somewhat offsets the costs otherwise. This price of housing is dreadful, but it has stabilized somewhat. If you were thinking of buying I would suggest a house with a secondary suite - many many have these. As a result of housing, there is a lot of poverty especially among families and single parents - I find this frankly depressing. I myself know many many struggling families and I wonder if they would be doing better in Halifax, where housing is more affordable. The problems of homelessness and addictions are pervasive and difficult for governments to cope with - even a very brief trip to downtown will confirm that. It is hard to find work unless you are in sectors like government, health care or service industries, and even then there is competition. All this said, if we go, I will really miss it. I've lived with my family in Fernwood for more than 10 years and this community is a warm and connected microcosm in a city which I otherwise find less friendly. Also, if you have children in your future, Victoria is unparalelled for resources for chilren - from parks to rec programs to the wide variety of schools - we've made use of them all. There are many areas you can get around by bike and bus or on foot.
    I'm glad to hear work is more plentiful in Halifax - it certainly wasn't like that when I grew up. Sometimes I think of Halifax as a poorer Victoria, or like Esquimalt. There is a real warmth among people that I miss, and that I haven't found here. Again, something you can't put $ on. Housing is cheaper - and this counts for so much if you want to buy. I have family connections which is significant. I also love the coastline, so weathered and old. My sense is there is quite a bit less crime in Halifax, particularly property crime. I wonder if the school system is comparable. And I'm worried about bugs and wierd weather. Hmmm. Yes, this is not an easy choice, but on the other hand perhaps you also can't go wrong. These are both beautiful livable cities. Good luck!

  4. Not to be anal but its not the Rockies you see from Victoria but the Olympic Range of Washington state which the southern end of the island dips into. I believe that mountain in the picture above is Mt.Baker which is visible from Oak Bay or the eastern part of Victoria. You pretty much nailed it regarding Victoria. I've lived here all my life and while I have a low paying service job and live in a tiny crappy apartment, I like to ride my bike and I can all year round. Its really a beautiful area but there is a big poverty/homeless problem yet I never really feel unsafe. Many of my friends have left for Alberta because of money and cost of liviing and now its difficult meeting new people because of the cliqueness here which is a bummer. I'm sure its far easier meeting new people in Halifax.