Playing Life on Easy

When we decided to move to Canada, I remember the reaction of many friends both when we left the US, and our new friends. “Wow, you guys are so brave! Starting off in a new country and all? I wouldn’t dare do it.”

Let me be clear how it went:

  • We decided we wanted to live in Canada
  • I applied for a few jobs and had an interview after one month of searching.
  • I had an offer and a work permit (facilitated by the company’s immigration lawyer)
  • The company sent a moving company to put all of our things in boxes and load the truck and drive it to Canada.
  • They gave me money to pay for relocation expenses, incidentals, etc.
  • They flew me to Toronto for a weekend to look for an apartment.
  • We drove our car and cats to our new apartment
  • The truck arrived and movers came a few days later with our things, loading the elevator to bring all of our worldly possessions up to our 36th floor apartment, gently placing them in the rooms we told them to.
  • Thanks to paperwork from my company, we were able to get health care immediately – only needing to fill out a couple of forms.
  • Our American drivers licenses were accepted as equivalent to Canadian ones and we traded our US licenses for Ontario ones.
  • Our poor credit was left behind at the border. We started with a brand new and clean slate.

Pretty easy. No bravery required. I’ve had a more difficult time moving between US states. Nearly every other immigrant in this city has had a harder time than this, many managing this without even speaking English. It’s as if, thanks to accidents of our birth, we get to play all of the game of life on the easiest level.


This awareness is part of why I volunteer to help people who, for any number of reasons, thanks to their own circumstances are playing at a much higher difficulty level than we are.

I ran in to a great example of this this week. Daegan is applying for university next year and so he’s also filling out OSAP (financial aid) paperwork. It looks like he’s actually eligible for grants to save a bit of money which is great – he should almost be able to pay for it entirely himself.  The application requests lots of biographical information and expects various attachments to prove things like birth date and immigration status. No problem. We have all of that in a little black folder in our house. Just fill in the forms, print, scan, sign, done.

At the same time as Daegan is working on his OSAP application, I’m also working with a family from Syria. The father would like to take an intensive English as a Second Language program at a nearby university. By all accounts it is really excellent. We’ve put through the application which wasn’t too hard. Then we moved on to the OSAP forms. And here’s where it gets complicated. In our life, everything is in a binder in our home. We understand what they’re looking for (e.g. a birth certificate) and then scan it and we’re done. But what if you have no birth certificates? What if you don’t have a marriage license? Well, for me that might be a hassle but not a huge problem. In fact, before I got my original work permit, I had to get a new birth certificate. I wrote the city clerk where I was born, gave them my date of birth and some money and in a few days a nice new birth certificate came in, notarized and ready to go.

But what if the government were busy dealing with a war instead of simple tasks like printing new birth certificates? What then?

How do you satisfy agencies who expect all of the people working with them to be on the same “Easy” or “Medium” difficulty levels? How do you manage when you find someone whose life circumstances make everything extra difficult? I didn’t even know where to start?

Fortunately, I have some friends at the Together Project, the folks who linked me to this family and some of the other families in our neighbourhood. After some digging around we did come to an answer. It wasn’t the easy answer I’m used to (“Why can’t I just scan the immigration paperwork for the kids that has their birth dates on it instead of a birth certificate?”) but there are ways.

So, for the curious, here is what you do when you haven’t got birth certificates or marriage licenses but you still want to apply for OSAP:

Tomorrow we’ll be heading over to our local Legal Aid clinic. There, we will meet with an attorney who will prepare affadavits (sworn statements) that each child is theirs and were born on their respective birthdays. They will prepare another one that says that they’re married. Everyone will sign these and then we’ll send all of that to OSAP. I suspect there will be pushback. The first person looking at it will likely be someone who is trained to immediately reject things unless there is exactly what is prescribed, but hopefully, in the next few days, it will all be sorted out.

But it really makes me think. How hard must this be for people who don’t have folks willing to try to sort out the paths through the system? This isn’t just about language, but about culture, class,and customs. I know when I was in India, I found many things incomprehensible: even getting my plane ticket and getting past the armed guards and in to the passenger terminal was far from easy. But imagine when so much more of your life depends on it.

In any case, my hope is that if you see that, thanks to your privilege or experience, you’re able to “play life at an easier level” than others, you do what you can to share that experience. It can really make a difference in someone’s life.

14 thoughts on “Playing Life on Easy

    1. Yeah – that was a nice one. No credit was better than bad. I suspect nowadays the information exchange is probably better but 13 years ago it was different.

      It reminds me of when a friend of mine was a summer student living in the US with me in the late 80’s. He did the Columbia House music club thing. They’d give you something like 8-10 free CDs and you had to agree to buy like 5 over the next 2 years. He got the free ones then contacted them “OK, I’m moving back home to Canada.” Their response: “Oh, we don’t send things to Canada. Enjoy your free CDs, you don’t need to buy any more.”

  1. My church added a second service for refugees from a handful of different African nations, so I am getting to know people with a far different life journey from my own. I am told that some cultures do not make note of birthdates, which upsets people here who like boxes to be checked off just so. If censuses show a spike in people born on January 1st, I think I will know why.
    I also learned that in some cultures, telling time is based on Hours Since Sunrise. This works well in equatorial nations where sunrise is rather standard throughout the year. Come north quiteaways and it all falls to pieces. Throw in Daylight Saving and you might as well just stay in bed. 😉

  2. This post resonates with me …. interestingly I don’t have a marriage certificate. We got an affidavit done after being married for 10 years and that’s what we have used since. Krishnan and I don’t have a birth certificate :). But we have proof because the school leaving certificate mentions our dates of birth. India is also moving towards complete identification – from birth, life events to death. Fascinating to see the change. And love your point on helping those who by circumstance or place of birth are having a tough life. Awesome post, Todd. Bahut badhiya.

    1. Thanks. It is so interesting to hear that you don’t have birth certificates. It is so easy to just assume, living in the bubble I live in here, that of course everyone has these things. Especially since it is so difficult to get anything else without them. The birth certificate is especially important since that is what enables you to get other documents from passports to drivers licenses to health cards. As our country becomes more of a country of newcomers (about 22% of people living in Canada are immigrants), I suspect we’ll continue to get better at finding easier ways to get people in to the system without quite so many bureaucratic challenges.

    1. Yeah – it usually is for just about everyone. Americans have it a little easier – for example, many newcomers have to start over with their drivers licenses, getting the equivalent of a Learner’s Permit, and working their way back to a full license. Imagine moving to a new country, not speaking the language very well, your credentials as a doctor are not accepted here and you need to support your family. But before you can drive to work you have to find a driving school and do all that over again. And of course you have to get all of the usual paperwork over again, health card, social insurance number (like social security), immigration paperwork, find a job, learn a new city and country, maybe find somewhere to learn/practice English (or French in Quebec). It’s like having to do all of the things you did to get from being a child to a fully functioning adult in the space of a few weeks!

      This is why I’m happy to help folks navigate this. It’s tricky in my native language in a place very similar to where I grew up. I can’t imagine doing it somewhere where, for example, people exclusively spoke Hindi or French – two languages I’m able to muddle through but definitely not to a level to navigate government forms or find a job other than in simple manual labour.

      1. I know, right? This is why the whole “lazy immigrant” stereotype (who apparently also take our jobs, what??!?!) bugs me to no end. Even to GET here takes tremendous effort and financial resources, and then once you’re here, just to have a basic level of survival is hard also. You have to be really motivated and work incredibly hard just to get by.

  3. Ah, you had such a smooth transition into Canada. I especially envy the fact that you were able to leave your credit behind–that’s amazing! I think it’s wonderful that you’re helping the family from Syria. ❤ I love your analogy of playing life on the easy level. It reminds me of the privilege walk they made me do in Sociology class my senior year in HS.

    1. Interesting – it’s cool that people are teaching privilege in school nowadays. Some of the more progressive teachers in my school might have mentioned it in passing. “So many others have it harder than you do…” but not focusing on many of the subtleties. They would talk about race and gender, but there are so many other factors in play from class to ability to even one’s self confidence.

      So yeah, it’s so important that those of us who have a few of these ‘powerups’ (there I go with video games again) share their abilities with others around them. It makes the transition easier for them and in the bigger picture if many people do the same thing, it makes our cities better places to live.

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