“We woke up in the morning, and we heard the results on the news, and the first thing we said was, ‘let’s move to Canada.’ ”
Sarah Woolley, a 38-year-old British paramedic, is describing the morning after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. She was living in Chelmsford, U.K., an hour’s drive from London, with her husband, Stuart, likewise a paramedic. They expected their house would devalue by £80,000 ($135,000) once Brexit takes effect in 2019, and they were both anxious about the economy and disturbed by rising racism.
“It suddenly became okay to make racial comments about people in the street,” says Stuart, 33, “to say what would have, a few weeks before, been wholly unacceptable.”
I associate the country now with just sadness and bleak memories
Accepted to the provincial nominee program in British Columbia, the couple moved to Fraser Valley, B.C. Stuart moved last December, and Sarah followed in January. They have no children but do have two cats, which Sarah sent to Stuart on a flight by British Airways.
“If the cats couldn’t come here, then we wouldn’t come,” says Stuart. “They got a direct flight from London.”
After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Americans talked about moving to Canada in a so-called “Trump bump,” and to flee the effects of Brexit, Brits including the Woolleys are following through. Couples and families have moved to Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa; they have left jobs in law, film and medical research, seeing Canada as culturally similar to the U.K. and geographically closer than New Zealand. These expats have not created a Brexit bump in immigration data, but there are individual cases for whom Leave means leave.
“We received a lot of calls from America after (the 2016 election) happened as well, but they kind of fizzled out,” says Harjit Grewal, an immigration consultant with Sterling Immigration who works in Vancouver and London. “It lasted about two or three days. I think it was a very knee-jerk reaction, and then it fizzled out into nothing. Whereas the U.K. one … some people actually follow through.”
Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada did not see a bump of note. It received nearly 12,900 work permit applications in 2016, compared to 10,600 the previous year, and fewer applications for permanent residency. Still, Grewal says he receives nearly 80 inquiries per month from Brits looking to move to Canada, double the number of inquiries prior to the referendum, a spike that began “literally the next day,” he says.
Elizabeth Mavor is a dual-citizen who was born in Canada and lived in London for the past 12 years as a journalist and video producer. She heard the referendum result in her flat in London at 4 a.m. with her four-week-old child.
“Our house won’t be worth as much,” she thought at the time, as she recalls. “Our money won’t translate into Canadian dollars. We have to move before Brexit. So we did.”
She and her partner sold their flat and transferred their money to a Canadian bank account. They moved to Ottawa this spring with 14 suitcases and their toddler. They had initially booked their tickets for Mar. 29, the day that Britain was expected to leave the E.U. before the date was pushed to Oct. 31.
“We were due to fly out like seven hours before Brexit,” Mavor says. They moved even though her husband does not yet have a work permit — “that’s how important it was for us to move our money before Brexit day.”
Immediately after the referendum, the pound dropped to its lowest level in 30 years. The British economy expanded this winter but is expected to shrink again approaching the new Brexit date.
Money was not the main motive, though, for Kim Morral, a public health researcher who moved to Vancouver in 2017 with her husband, a chemist who had been working as a community pharmacist in a town in northern England. Her husband is Spanish, and they became worn out by hearing racist comments, even though most were not directed at him.
“He ended up not feeling welcome in this country anymore, and I feel the same,” Morral says. “The decision to move to Canada at that time was most certainly due to Brexit.”
It suddenly became okay to make racial comments about people in the street
For others, the referendum resulted in existential stress. Joey Stanford, 25, is training to become a lawyer in Bristol. He was studying Russian, German and French with the mission to become a lawyer-linguist for the European Union. This prospect disappeared the morning after the referendum.
“Once I got through the hours of sobbing and chain-smoking, I sort of had to sit there and decide what to do with my life,” he says.
He researched Toronto and created a 36-slide PowerPoint presentation, then decided to move this fall with his childhood friend, which he describes as half rational, half whimsical.
“I associate the country now with just sadness and bleak memories,” he says. “It’s culminated in this kind of running away.”
In the Fraser Valley, the Woolleys have associated Chilliwack with home ever since Stuart picked up the cats from the airport. They have applied for permanent residency through the IRCC website (“It was the most complicated website I have ever had the pleasure of navigating,” says Sarah). Sarah is no longer a paramedic but rather works as a wedding photographer and copy editor. Stuart teaches at a college in Chilliwack, and as long as his job keeps him employed, they don’t plan to ever move back.