Quality of Life in Canada
US News & World Report’s survey ranked Canada as No. 1 of 78 countries for quality of life in 2021. The study gave it near-perfect points for political and economic stability, a good job market, family-friendliness, safety, and well-developed education and health systems.
Canada also scored No. 1 for “social purpose,” thanks to the country’s commitment to human rights, social justice, racial equity, religious freedom, trustworthiness and balanced distribution of political power — all important issues for people thinking of leaving a troubled homeland for a better life.
What makes for a high quality of life varies from person to person, and often involves intangible factors such as family connections, weather, culture and adventure. Important indicators that can be measured include factors such as health and safety, jobs and income, education, and even some subjective issues such as happiness and social engagement. We’ll look more closely at some of these indicators below. Nevertheless, statistics only give a rough idea; each individual’s experience will be different.
Be realistic with your expectations
Of course, no country is perfect. Immigrating to Canada can be a slow, difficult and costly process. Many immigrants who came to Canada hoping to find “streets paved with gold” have been disappointed. In past decades, the “taxi-driving doctor” became a cliché in Canada, because many professional immigrants were discouraged to find that their foreign education and experience were not readily accepted by Canadian employers or professional organizations. Average income and other quality-of-life factors for recent immigrants and refugees lag behind those of Canadian-born residents.
For this reason, Canada has made efforts in recent years to ensure that its immigration screening process more closely matches job-market needs — and that immigrants accepted to Canada have a good chance of finding satisfying job opportunities and settling quickly and happily into Canadian life.
Let’s take a look at some major quality-of-life issues and how Canada measures up.
Canadians are proud of their tax-paid universal health care system, which promises equal access to doctors and hospital care for all its citizens and permanent residents, who merely need to show a card to receive services. Provinces administer health care and may vary slightly in what is covered, but generally doctor visits, tests, surgery, medications in hospital and hospital care are free, while other services delivered outside of a hospital, such as dental care, prescriptions, eye glasses, chiropractic care, or physiotherapy, may not be. People often receive extended health care benefits through their employers that fill this gap, and people who are children, seniors (over 65), poor or disabled may receive additional free benefits from the government. National support for the system ensures that basic care is available free to all Canadians regardless of which province they live in.
While not perfect, the system has helped raise life expectancy for Canadians at birth to age 80 for men and 84 for women, about 2 years higher than the average in the 38-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to the OECD Better Life Index. When asked, "How is your health in general?" more than 88% of Canadians surveyed said they were in good health, one of the highest scores among the OECD countries.
Mandatory vaccinations for children, and more recently a high rate of uptake among adults for COVID vaccines, mean that infectious diseases are rarely a factor in the health of Canadians. The leading causes of death are cancer and heart disease. Canadians are no longer big tobacco smokers (12%), and smoking is banned from all indoor public places and some outdoor areas. Cannabis has recently become legal and regulated for adult use in Canada, but other “recreational” drugs remain illegal. Opioid addiction has become a big problem in recent years. However, in some cities “safe consumption sites” have been created to reduce the harm caused by drug addiction.
Although doctor visits are free, Canadians may find it difficult to actually see a doctor, especially in more remote areas. Canada has only about 2.7 doctors per 1,000 residents, around the average among the OECD countries, but much fewer than some, such as Australia (3.7) and Norway (4.7). Complaints about crowded emergency rooms and long waits for elective surgeries such as knee replacements are a longstanding issue in some provinces. Progress was being made in reducing backlogs but the pandemic made this more difficult. However, the pandemic has had the positive effect of making telemedicine more accepted, since the system now pays doctors for conducting virtual appointments.
The desire for an excellent education for their children is a powerful driving force for many immigrants.
Canada prides itself on providing an excellent free education for all residents, usually starting at age 4 or 5, depending on the province, and continuing through secondary school, at about age 18. And indeed, Canada is a top performer in terms of the quality of its education. Teacher salaries are also among the highest in the OECD, leading to a high degree of professionalism. Canadian schools consider it important to teach critical thinking and work hard at ensuring equity among students, regardless of social or economic background. The emphasis in schools tends to be on individual work, such as essays, projects and presentations, rather than on standardized tests.
Some 91% of Canadian adults aged 25-64 have completed high school, far higher than the OECD average of 78%. Newly immigrated students, particularly in larger cities, will often be offered English as a Second Language and other programs to help them adjust to the Canadian school system.
Canada’s universities are highly regarded, with 26 top Canadian universities appearing on the QS World University Rankings list for 2021. Unlike some countries, Canada’s best educational institutions are publicly funded, which keeps their cost low. Canadian education is cheaper than study in the US for residents of Canada, although visa students will pay higher fees in Canada. Community colleges provide vocational and skills training in diploma and certificate programs at relatively low cost. As a result, Canada’s population is among the best-educated in the world. In 2019, 63% of Canadians aged 25-34 had at least a bachelor’s degree, ranking first in the OECD.
Canada has a robust and diversified economy, which contributes to its reputation for having an excellent job market. As in the rest of the world, the pandemic has disrupted Canada’s economy, but indications are that the rise in unemployment produced by prolonged shutdowns is quickly reversing; in fact, there are increased job openings in many fields. The unemployment rate in September 2021 was 6.9%.
According to the OECD Better Life Index, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is equivalent to US $30,854 per year, per capita. The minimum wage is set by the relevant province or territory, ranging from CAD $11 to $16 per hour.
Growing income disparity is an issue in Canada. There is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest, though not as large as in some countries such as the United States. The top 20% of the population earn about six times as much as the bottom 20%.
Employees are eligible to participate in a national pension program (Canada Pension Plan) as well as Employment Insurance (EI), with employers paying half of the worker’s contributions. People entering their senior years receive additional support through the Old Age Pension, which is paid on the basis of years living in Canada rather than contributions through employment. Mothers are entitled to paid maternity leave of up to 15 weeks and both parents can enjoy parental leave of up to 40 weeks (shared between them) after the arrival of a baby or adopted child, with 55% of wages (up to a certain maximum) paid through the EI system.
Many large employers and unionized workplaces offer extended health benefits beyond what the government pays, as well as life and disability insurance and other perks. Benefits are an important consideration if you have a choice of employers.
According to the OECD, just 4% of employees work very long hours, considerably fewer than the OECD average of 11%. Hourly workers are generally eligible for overtime pay of 1.5 times the regular rate beyond a certain threshold, but there are exceptions.
Canada can be a great place for entrepreneurs; US News & World Report ranked it No. 6 in its global survey, with high marks for its well-developed infrastructure and legal framework, a well-educated workforce, connectedness to the world, and easy access to capital. Canada received middling marks for innovation, technical expertise and entrepreneurial qualities. Many of Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs started out as immigrants.
All that said, immigrants may struggle to find their rightful place in the Canadian economy. The lack of Canadian job experience has historically been a barrier to many newcomers for resuming their careers, especially those in regulated professions such as medicine. Recent reforms in immigration screening help ensure that immigrants admitted to Canada will find it easier to find opportunities and settle successfully.
Perhaps the biggest current struggle with quality of life in Canada—for citizens as well as newcomers—is the soaring cost of renting or owning a home, especially in the biggest urban centres. Often there are years-long waiting lists to get into government-built affordable housing, and many lower-income immigrants find themselves cramming with family or friends into a small apartment that they can barely afford.
Canada’s home ownership rate is around 66 per cent. Canadians generally live with their parents until their 20s, and then rent until their 30s or later, when they mortgage a house or apartment, typically with a spouse. Large mortgages contribute heavily to high rates of indebtedness of Canadians.
In July 2021, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment was CAN $2,000 in Vancouver and $1,700 in Toronto. The situation in smaller communities and cities less popular with immigrants was much better. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada’s heartland, for example, the cost was only CAN $1,060, and in Regina, Saskatchewan, it was $910. This alone may be a good reason to consider settling in a province or city that has a smaller immigrant population but still provides great services, lively culture and a good job market. The growing number of immigrants in such communities, and a migration of Canadians to them from other cities during the pandemic, is testimony to the excellent quality of life in Canada’s smaller centres.
Homes in Canada are generally built to high standards, including good insulation and central heating to keep them comfortable through Canadian winters. Housing standards are governed by a system of provincial and local laws to ensure safety and decent living conditions.
People who don’t know a lot about Canada often think it’s a “land of ice and snow.” That is both true and not true! Canada’s vast territory in the north is sparsely populated and indeed quite cold for much of the year. But most Canadians live within 200 km of the US border, in southern temperate areas that enjoy four balanced seasons and may in fact be milder overall than some famous US cities such as Chicago, New York, or Denver. The west coast cities of Victoria and Vancouver, for example, don’t see much snow at all, but get a fair amount of rain. Toronto sees far less snow than New York, despite being slightly farther north because its climate is moderated by Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes that make Canada a land of abundant fresh water.
Summers can range from mild and damp (west coast), to hot and dry (prairie provinces), to hot and humid (southern Ontario and Quebec). Canadians take full advantage of this time to enjoy a multitude of festivals and fairs, swim in one of the thousands of lakes, go camping and canoeing or kayaking in wilderness places, enjoy barbecues and picnics, and play baseball, soccer, tennis and other summer sports. During the months of July and August, life in Canada slows down; children are out of school, and many families take cross-country trips or retreat to a “cottage” in a forest or by a lake. In autumn, life speeds up again, but Canadians enjoy the beauty of coloured leaves, the fall harvest time, and cooling temperatures.
Canada enjoys a relatively clean environment when it comes to the health and wellbeing of its citizens. More than 80% of Canadians live in urban areas, but many love to visit the “unspoiled” wilderness that seems to abound in this huge country. A 2016 study from the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy gave Canada a comprehensive 85/100 environmental quality score based on a host of variables, including air and water quality, putting the country in 25th place of 180 countries.
According to a Fraser Institute report, Canada ranks ninth among the 33 high-income OECD countries for air quality (based on average exposure to fine particulate matter) and third for water quality (based on access to sanitation and quality drinking water).
However, Canada’s North is among the parts of the world suffering the greatest damage from climate change. Canada contributes around 2 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and while that seems small for such a huge country, on a per capita basis it’s far out of proportion. Canada’s cold winters and long distances between cities present special challenges for reducing use of fossil fuels.
Canada has done well by some environmental measures: the country’s vast forest cover, for instance, has remained constant over the past decade. Canada ranks third best among 33 OECD countries on limiting fertilizer use and eighth best on limiting pesticide use.
According to the OECD Better Life Index, “there is a strong sense of community but only moderate levels of civic participation in Canada.” Some 93% of Canadians surveyed said they know someone they could rely on if they were in need, better than the OECD average of 89%. In smaller communities and local neighbourhoods, especially, Canadians put a high value on being “neighbourly” and helping others. Immigrants who engage with their neighbours in a friendly, open and cooperative way will generally find a warm welcome.
All Canadian citizens over 18 are eligible to vote in Canada, but it’s not mandatory to do so. Voter turnout, which offers a signal of citizens' participation in the political process, was 68% during the 2019 federal elections, in line with the OECD average, although it dropped considerably during the “pandemic election” in 2021. The gap in voting between the top 20% of the population economically and the bottom 20% is smaller (at 70% vs 66%) than the OECD average gap, suggesting there is broad inclusion in Canada’s democratic institutions. Established immigrants and visible minorities have been quite successful in recent years in being elected and rising to the top ranks of the Canadian government.
Another measure of social engagement is volunteerism. Almost half of Canadians (47%) regularly do unpaid volunteer work with charities, faith groups, youth or social organizations, or political groups. Immigrants often find volunteer work is a way to help others and feel more deeply a part of Canadian society.
Canadians enjoy a relatively safe, free, and peaceful life. Worlddata.info’s quality of life index gives Canada a score of 97 out of 100 for safety, 94 for rights, and 87 for stability. The Global Peace Index ranks Canada as the 12th-safest country in the world in 2021, scoring high for lack of internal conflicts, low crime level and political stability. Canada’s crime rate is almost one-third that of the United States (1.6 incidents per 100,000 people, vs. 4.5 per 100,000 respectively). In a 2018 Gallup Global Law and Order survey, 84% of Canadians surveyed said that they felt safe in their country, ranking eighth on the list of 142 countries. Canada has a small, highly professional volunteer military, rarely seen in public except at official ceremonies or rescue efforts.
That does not, of course, mean that safety can be taken for granted. Thanks in part to stricter gun laws than the US, mass-violence incidents are rare in Canada, but violence involving gang activity or domestic partners is not uncommon. Four-fifths of crimes in Canada are non-violent, such as home robberies, traffic crimes, public “mischief,” and crimes involving banned drugs.
Typically, Canadians may experience petty thefts, such as having a bicycle or a package left on the doorstep stolen. In most communities, people keep their outer doors locked, at least when they’re away, and homes often have alarm systems. In cities, it’s best to be cautious when walking at night in certain areas. It’s worth checking out the crime statistics in a particular neighbourhood before you choose to live there.
Accidents in various forms, including car accidents or on-the-job fatalities, are responsible for around 5 percent of all Canadian deaths. Driving in Canada is generally safer and less chaotic than in many countries, thanks to general observance of licensing and traffic laws, but intoxicated and distracted driving (e.g. using devices while behind the wheel) remains a problem.
Natural disasters can occur anywhere. Canada is less prone to them than some other parts of the world. The main potential earthquake/tsunami danger lies along the west coast, particularly in the Greater Vancouver area. Hurricanes sometimes make their way along the east coast, striking Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Blizzards (winter storms with extremely heavy snowfall and wind) can be hazardous for people who are on the road or without shelter, or when the storm knocks out electrical power for extended periods. Tornados are not as common as in the United States, but can occur in some parts of central Canada. Climate change is increasing Canada’s potential for natural disasters such as flooding, drought, and heat waves, but the country’s generally moderate climate and stable government help to mitigate the risks.
Canada’s rule of law — which promises equal treatment for all residents under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — is backed by law enforcement that may include city police, provincial police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, known as the RCMP or the Mounties, the national police force that carries out duties similar to the FBI in the US.
Canada’s criminal laws provide for extra penalties for “hate crimes,” in which the motivations for a criminal act such as vandalism or assault include hatred for a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group, or a person’s gender or sexual identity. Verbal assaults and harassment because of a person’s identity can in certain cases result in criminal prosecution.
Canadians are generally happy people, ranking 14th in the 2021 World Happiness Report, behind Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand but above a host of others including Australia, the UK, Germany and the US. These rankings are based on various factors, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and low perception of corruption. Research cited in the report suggests that the happiness of immigrants in various regions in Canada approaches that of longtime residents.
According to the report, the keys to happiness include a “well-functioning democracy, generous and effective social welfare benefits, low levels of crime and corruption, and satisfied citizens who feel free and trust each other and governmental institutions,” factors by which Canada comes close to the Scandinavian countries at the top of the list.
Will you be satisfied with your life as a new Canadian? That largely depends on good preparation, realistic expectations, and a positive can-do attitude! If this article has kindled your interest in moving to this wonderful country, contact our team, and we will be glad to help you explore that immigration opportunities for Canada that may be suitable for your situation. We will assess your credentials and assist in choosing a realistic immigration route for you and your family.