It’s mid-afternoon in June and I have been awake for nearly 20 hours but luckily, the atmosphere in the Vancouver International Airport immigration queue is surprisingly relaxed. The queue is comprised of dozens of pale Irish students, and there is a certain feeling of camaraderie in the air, a sense of shared pride in the fact that we’d all finally “made it”.
The Canadian immigration officer, stamping an Irish girl’s visa documentation, nearly pronounces her name correctly – “Seer-shaw” – and gets a few laughs when he remarks: “There are so many of you guys! I’ve already had four Seer-shaws today!”.
The surprise expressed by that particular immigration officer is symptomatic of the current feeling amongst many Canadians at the moment, who cannot figure out what has lead so many Irish students descending on their cities this summer. In a post entitled “Sudden Irish Takeover?” one bemused Reddit user asked: “Is there an Irish Convention on I don’t know about?” Another shop-employee asked me “is it a big Irish school trip?”.
The truth is that Canada is experiencing an explosion in popularity as a summer destination for Irish students for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an expression of the preference shift away from the US summer J1 visa trips that have been the classic choice for Irish students. Administration requirements play an important role here – the J1 visa can costs thousands of euros, requires complicated documentation and a visit to the US Embassy, in addition to a recent stipulation, which requires the participant to have a job organised before travelling to the States.
Comparatively, the Canadian IEC visa costs a mere $250 CAD (around €160), and the straightforward application process can be completed almost entirely online. With a very relaxed policy – for example, you don’t need to have a job organised before arriving to Canada – the Canadian IEC visa stands out as more accessible and cheaper than its convoluted US equivalent.
Added to the accessibility of the Canadian visa is the bonus relief that students can avoid a summer in the US living under the Trump administration. Though it’s not a necessarily a deciding factor for students, there is a choice to be made: whether to live in Trump’s right-wing United States, the gun-violence capital of the world or Trudeau’s Canada, with a total crime rate that is five times less than the US, and much more liberal socio-political laws. Parents of young travelling students certainly will sleep easier at night knowing that their son or daughter doesn’t live in the same country that averaged nearly one mass shooting per day for the past five years.
Setting crime rates aside, Canada trumps the States on various policy grounds, which further contribute to establishing Canada as the clear winner in the minds of the young travelling student population. Importantly, the legal drinking age in Canada is 19, compared to the States where the bar is set at 21.
Progress and sustainability are key Canadian cultural values. For example, in Vancouver, it’s illegal to resell a bicycle to a shop – only donations of bikes are accepted. This works in a two-pronged fashion; not only is theft of bicycles effectively prevented by preventing resale, but the donations system also promotes sustainability and recycling. Canada’s progressive laws on marijuana use also stand out; through strict regulation and decriminalisation, the country is paving the way that many Western countries will likely follow in years to come.
What’s struck me about my short time in Vancouver is how sensible and forward thinking the system is. Public transport is efficient, cycle lanes are everywhere, and pedestrians also have right of way crossing all roads, making it a much safer city to get around. Littering is non-existent. Law enforcement agents are reasonable. The beaches and woods are as breathtaking as they are well-maintained.
Canadian culture, overall, is one of respect and friendliness. The general reaction of awe and excitement is shared amongst the vast Irish student population here – as in the immigration queue, there is a shared sense of communal “hitting the jackpot”. We have made the right choice.
The question of Canada’s future as a summer location for Irish students seems clear – what is unclear, however, is whether these ideal conditions will remain the same. For example, there are more Irish students in Vancouver this summer than any summer before, which is already proving problematic. Over-saturation of Irish students in Vancouver means that housing and employment have become incredibly scarce, leaving many students crammed into houses far too small, slowly running out of money.
This experience is not uncommon for students on any summer working visa, however Canada has been hit particularly hard this year by its sudden flux in popularity – undoubtedly, this will result in changes for future Irish students hoping to travel here.
The reputation of the Irish in Canada is at stake, and this summer will prove whether the Irish will successfully integrate and be accepted by Canadians, or end up with a bad name. Issues have arisen already as students wreck their summer accommodation, or take on long-term jobs only to abandon them after a few short months.
Regrettably, this is a common pattern of young Irish persons on working visas across the globe, and can have knock-on effects for our reputation in certain countries. As illustrated in Australia and popular J1 locations across the US, young Irish people now often encounter difficulty securing jobs and accommodation simply by virtue of the “bad rep” of the Irish.
In my quiet suburban Vancouver neighbourhood, we were greeted with homemade cookies and Canadian beer by our landlady – a greeting akin to one found in clichéd movie. One neighbour lent us a pump for our blow-up mattresses, but the friendliness was accompanied by some stern warnings – apparently, the Irish students in the area were particularly bad last summer, and now, “the whole neighbourhood is worried about what to expect”.
Canada has accepted the Irish student population with open arms, and only time will tell whether the Irish population will return the favour. There are many shared cultural values between both nationalities; the Canadian characteristics of genuine kindness and respectfulness meshes well with the Irish sense of craic and friendliness. The future is bright for Irish students seeking to summer in Canada, but attempts must be made to behave accordingly, in order to preserve and sustain co-existence in such an ideal location.
Problems like overcrowding of major cities could be solved by dispersing the Irish population more broadly throughout Canada. Noise and parties are part and parcel of the young student experience, and that particular battle is a common one for all young people globally.
The real question is whether the Irish presence in Canada will only serve to do more harm than good – or, will it go further than parties, and actually contribute something to the locality. I certainly hope for the latter.