Leaving began to feel like a comfort; if the country couldn’t get out of its rut, then at least I could get out of mine.
The biggest, most urgent worry I felt was for my own future as a trans person in the UK.
Take Brexit. In 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. That vote, and its lead-up, reintroduced a virulent strain of anti-immigrant sentiment to the political landscape. The actual referendum result prompted a crisis of leadership in the governing Conservative Party that has yet to be fully resolved. The UK has now worked through four Conservative prime ministers in six years, and the third of them lasted an unprecedented forty-five days before her economic mismanagement forced her to resign. But hey: At least we’re a sovereign nation now, right?
All of this weighed on my mind when I finally made that application to Canada. But the biggest, most urgent worry I felt was for my own future as a trans person in the UK. Since leaving, I have struggled to explain to Canadians the stranglehold that the culture war around transgender rights has on the UK’s national conversation. This particular flavor of bigotry is now de rigueur in most major news outlets. It’s pervasive enough that I used to see a person wearing a transphobic dog whistle on a lanyard around their neck on my bus route to work. An effort to reform the Gender Recognition Act, which requires trans people to transition medically in order to have their gender legally recognized, fell apart before it got off the ground. Meanwhile, medical transition on the NHS is increasingly hard to access, with wait times stretching into years. People die on those waiting lists—and that’s when they can get onto the lists at all. I’m nonbinary, you see. The NHS wouldn’t have known what to do with me, even if I’d thought I stood a chance of timely support.
I have relatives, albeit distant ones, in Canada. When I visited them as an adult for the first time, in 2017, they suggested that I apply for a Canadian working holiday visa. It would authorize me to work in the country for up to two years, with the potential for extension. I laughed it off at the time, but as a visitor, I really liked Canada. The prospect of going back stayed with me long after I’d boarded my flight home.
Unknowingly, I had timed my 2019 panic attack to perfection; I had applied just as the so-called “application pool” opened to government consideration, which meant that I was fished out and accepted with incredible speed. I went through the motions of immigration bureaucracy one by one: a trip to London to provide biometric data, a request for a certificate confirming that I had never committed a crime. I’m not sure I was all in on Canada, at that stage. Part of me still wanted to cling to the steady, predictable life I’d spent years building, even as its conditions became increasingly hard to bear. I could back out, I told myself, if I changed my mind.
My port-of-entry letter arrived in the autumn of 2019, with an expiry date of September 2020. That winter, the opposition Labour Party lost a general election to Boris Johnson, a man best known for getting stuck on a zipwire and occasionally telling a joke in Latin. The party proceeded to oust their left-leaning leader and regress to the neoliberal centrism of Tony Blair’s era—this time without a hint of success in the polls to show for it. I felt perfectly desolate, convinced that the UK was past the point of changing for the better. Leaving began to feel like a comfort; if the country couldn’t get out of its rut, then at least I could get out of mine.
In February of 2020, I came within a week of quitting my job when the novel coronavirus brought the country—all countries—to an abrupt and screeching halt.
Canada closed its borders to discretionary travel with the speed and efficiency I had come to expect from the country. My life became a stopped clock; I was largely confined to my tiny studio flat, with no idea when I might be able to get on with leaving. It was some consolation that I hadn’t made any irrevocable changes: I still had my flat, as well as a job that could be done from home, and I hadn’t yet booked a flight. And the door hadn’t closed entirely: As long as I kept petitioning the Canadian government for extensions to my port-of-entry letter, roughly every three months, then the prospect of leaving remained on the table.
But the delay felt endless, and in real terms, it was indefinite. I had been prepared to rush headlong out of the country. I was less prepared to sit with my decisions for two frustrated, isolated years. England had never felt more like a quagmire, rainy mud sucking at my boots to keep me tethered.
And even as trapped as I felt, I couldn’t stop worrying about my access to health care as a temporary foreign worker in Canada, and my employability as a non-Canadian, and the viability of throwing over a stable career to freelance in a new country during a pandemic. Forced to stop and think, I was afraid that I’d made a choice guaranteed to wreck my mental health.
England had never felt more like a quagmire, rainy mud sucking at my boots to keep me tethered.
Not that any of this deterred me, in the end—my personality responds to uncertainty and fear with meticulous (probably overzealous) preparation. By the time Canada finally reopened its doors, I had planned every aspect of the move and had committed to making it work.
Of course, I booked my one-way flight to Nova Scotia just in time for Canada to have its own horrible moment in the political spotlight. I watched through my fingers as a convoy of populists in trucks brought their protest against pandemic restrictions to mainstream attention, blockading crossing points on the US-Canada border and bringing Ottawa to a halt for a solid week. It was a sharp and necessary reminder that no country is perfect, and that believing otherwise does a disservice to the people who have to live there every day. It’s one thing to know in theory that this is true, which I like to think I did. It’s another thing entirely to come up against it as a would-be immigrant, putting yourself through bureaucratic and logistical misery in the hope of a better life elsewhere.
Canada faces many of the problems I recognize from the UK. The new leader of the Conservative Party has been uncomfortably cozy with the protestors who invaded Ottawa. The housing crisis in Halifax, the city I chose, is on par with the housing crisis in Oxford, the city I left. I try to be alert to these things because I’ve never wanted to be the asshole who moves to an idea of a country, rather than the country itself. Canada, in particular, has long benefited from the shadow cast by its more obviously chaotic southern neighbor. The myth of Canadian “niceness” and the myth of “British values” do a great deal of the same work.
And yet I’m still happier here. Maybe it’s the change of scenery; maybe people are just being kind to me as a newcomer; more likely, it’s the continual, startled thrill of living a different sort of life. Giving up on England meant giving up on a stable lifestyle that brought me no real pleasure or satisfaction, in a country whose slow collapse had left me hopeless. In Canada, at least, I am trying something different. Perhaps there’s something to be said for that—for dragging yourself out of the quagmire you’ve been stuck in, even if the place you end up isn’t everything you hoped. It’s still a place where you can try to rebuild. It’s still a place you chose, instead of one that you were given and told to accept.
Theresa May—one of the post-Brexit flurry of UK prime ministers—said in 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It’s just another dog whistle, of course. But I’d rather be a citizen of the world, imperfect as it is, than a citizen of any one place that treats the world with such suspicion. My life in England was a price I paid willingly.
Waverly SM is a speculative fiction writer currently living in Nova Scotia, on the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. A 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow, their work has appeared in venues including Reckoning Magazine, Stim: An Autism Anthology (Unbound, 2020), and the Ignyte- and Locus-award-winning anthology We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020 (Neon Hemlock, 2021). Find them at www.waverlysm.com.