In the ten months that I’ve lived here, people have asked me, more than anything else, why I moved here. To Winnipeg. From Vancouver. Telling them the truth, “I just really like the city”, hasn’t been very convincing, and so this post attempts to explain something that’s a little bit unfathomable: Why on Earth I would move from Vancouver to Winnipeg.
When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to get out of Lethbridge, the medium-sized town where Aaron and I grew up. I hated how conservative and “small-town” it was. I hated what I perceived was its lack of cultural activity. I hated having to drive to Calgary to see a decent concert. I thought to myself, “It’s too bad this is where my family is, because I will never live here voluntarily.”
I wound up going to school in Calgary and after that, I decided, more or less on a whim, that Vancouver would be a great place to live and made the big move. I was born in that neck of the woods, and longed for its humid and temperate climate; its liberal attitudes; its acceptance of people who don’t like red meat. I spent five years in Vancouver, made some good friends, and enjoyed my work enormously. I lived in many different neighbourhoods, and was exposed to the wonderful things that big cities have to offer. I’d never tried shawarma until I lived downtown, I’d never shopped at a green grocer until I lived in Kitsilano, and I’d never been on a culture crawl until I lived on the east side. There is nothing quite like jogging along the ocean! I worked downtown at what I felt was an enviably Good Job. I felt quite cosmopolitan.
But living in a big, desirable city like Vancouver has its costs. When people talk about BC being the “best place on earth”, visions of snowboarding and windsurfing and eating sustainably-harvested wild salmon come to mind. But here’s the thing: very few people in my age bracket could enjoy any of those things with any regularity unless they had a Really, Really, Really Good Job.
Or unless they racked up a lot of debt, trying to keep up appearances.
Housing costs in the Lower Mainland are prohibitively expensive. I was a renter the whole time I was in Vancouver, and when I look at all the money I was spending on rent, it’s no wonder I was just scraping by. According to Century 21, the average home price in Vancouver in March 2009 was $636,785; in Winnipeg, it was $209,628. That’s a third of the price. Now, I know I’m making less here than I made in Vancouver, but I can tell you I’m making significantly more than 1/3 my old salary.
People might be surprised to know that Vancouver’s liberalism extends to their tolerance of marijuana, but that might be about it. The focus on consumerism in the name of wholesome living — green consumerism, baby consumerism, local foodie consumerism, fitness consumerism — was fundamentally paradoxical. Only in Vancouver could a company make millions by selling $100 pants and other gear for a 1000-year old practice that actually requires nothing more than a body and a mind (I’m talking about yoga, in case that wasn’t apparent!). It felt like everything was a competition. Who can be greener? Who has the biggest and most ridiculous mortgage? It felt like a rat race. In ways that I still can’t explain, it didn’t feel like I was living in Canada anymore.
I became increasingly aware of the superficiality and pretense of it all. Yoga-mania. Dogs wearing human clothes. Starbucks literally steps apart from each other. This isn’t an exaggeration: that’s Yaletown (ask Laurel, who lived and worked there for some time). But it was bigger than that: in contrast, the divide between rich and poor was becoming more and more perceptible and harder and harder to bear (Canada’s richest and poorest postal codes are just across the Burrard Inlet from each other, but you see evidence of it almost everywhere you go).
After all those years of thinking I’d never live in a small town, a funny thing happened. I started noticing that in the Lower Mainland, parents had to camp out overnight to get their kids into French immersion. This was somewhat of an epiphany for me. I started the think that maybe a place like Lethbridge wouldn’t be such a bad place to raise a family. Then, the friend who I’d moved to Vancouver with and her fiancé decided to move back to Alberta. They realised that they’d never be able to afford the kind of house they dreamed of as long as they lived in Vancouver, and wanted to be closer to family once they started their own. That was another eye-opener for me. Around me, my friends were making decisions about their quality of life, and increasingly, staying in Vancouver wasn’t a part of those decisions.
Ultimately, these were the things that made me realise I did not want to settle in Vancouver. If I had grown up in that area, and had immediate family there; if I’d grown up with those strange contradictions as my reality, I might have felt differently. But I grew up in a small city where the biggest difference I could perceive between someone like me and someone whose family was significantly wealthy, was that I didn’t have a Club Monaco sweatshirt or Guess jeans in junior high. Maybe what I was really longing for was the homogeneity of my childhood.
My fondness for my new city, Winnipeg, is a result of many things. Almost all of my relatives live here, and a close girlfriend of mine had moved here a few years ago to be with her fiancé. But much like my decision to move to Vancouver five years prior, my move to Winnipeg was based on a gut instinct and an indescribable desire: I’d been to Winnipeg many times, I liked the province’s philosophy on summer vacation (read: lake life), and I knew the cost of living was significantly lower. I’d heard that almost anyone could afford to buy a house (my girlfriend told me that virtually everyone she’d met since moving to the ‘Peg owned their own home). But it was sentimental, too. My parents lived here as children, and it was here that they met and married. My two brothers were born here. Sure, the family had moved away by the time I was born, but I’d always felt somehow that my roots were in Manitoba, despite never having spent more than two weeks at a time here. In the pit of my stomach; in my heart of hearts, I’d always felt that I would someday wind up in Winnipeg.
Yes, Winnipeg has its own set of problems. The issue of poverty is extremely evident in the downtown core. The car culture is entirely too alive and well and the public transit system leaves a fair amount to be desired. I hear people say that there’s nothing to do here. Nothing going on. We all know that’s not true. I’ve now lived in three major cities, and it’s the same everywhere you go. A town is what you make of it. Winnipeg does have a vibrant arts scene – but I don’t think it’s particularly better than any other large city’s arts scene. Conversely, Winnipeg has a big problem with crime – but so does every other major city in Canada.
I guess what I like about this city is that here, I don’t feel the need to be anyone other than me. People here don’t glorify workaholism. People wear BlackBerrys but they seem to know when to turn them off. It feels like a small town with the conveniences of a big city, which is the best of both worlds. Strangers talk to each other in grocery stores. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other. And that’s pretty awesome, in my books. (The last one especially, because I just signed the mortgage papers for my very first house.)
All this is to say, I understand feeling like you hate your hometown. That was me, once, too. I’m not writing this post to be critical of Vancouver. It’s a wonderful city with amazing variety. There is a lot going on, and it’s very hard to ever be bored there. I think it’s important for all young people to live away from home at some point before they get too settled. Vancouver was a great place for me to have that experience. It’s a place I look forward to visiting twenty years from now — I know I will love revising my old stomping grounds.
When I hear people saying how much they hate Winnipeg – and it’s never a mild dislike, it’s always a hatred – I think to myself, “What’s keeping you here?” I understand that everyone’s situation is different, but let’s get serious: once you’re an adult, you can do anything you want. If you hate a place so much, why don’t you leave? But if people truly realised what the quality of life is like here, relative to other cities, I think they might feel differently about Winnipeg.
Like any place, I think you really need to get away from it to be able to appreciate it.