Newcomers move to Canada from different parts of the world. Many come from tropical and temperate countries where the weather and way of life are different. Canada is often regarded as a cold country, but in reality, depending on where you live, you could enjoy four seasons during a year: spring, summer, fall, and winter.
During your initial months in Canada, adjusting to local weather conditions, figuring out food, medications, and wellness may seem challenging and even confusing. In this article, Dr. Sangeeta Oza shares tips, advice, and insights – based on both her personal experience as a newcomer and her professional experience as a practicing physician, to help you maintain your wellbeing and have a stress-free transition to your new home, Canada!
Getting started with the basics: Health insurance and family doctor
Canada has a publicly funded, universal healthcare system. A portion of the taxes paid by residents is utilized by the government to administer health services. This enables eligible individuals to receive basic health and medical assistance for free or a fraction of the cost.
Healthcare in Canada is administered at the provincial level, and each province operates differently. For instance, permanent residents (PRs) in provinces such as Ontario or British Columbia have to wait for up to three months from the time they land until they’re eligible to receive health benefits. On the other hand, provinces such as Alberta do not have a waiting period and PRs are covered from the day they land.
Note: At the start of the pandemic, some of these restrictions were lifted, and eligible individuals are now covered from the day they move to Canada. The latest guidelines can be found on the respective websites for each province or territory.
In Canada, to get access to medical services, you need a health insurance card. One of the first things you should do as a newcomer in Canada is to apply to the provincial government to get your card. You will need to show this card whenever you visit a hospital or a doctor. If you’re in Ontario, you should visit Service Ontario to submit an application, or if you’re in Alberta, you should visit Service Alberta. The application processes may have been modified to comply with COVID-19 safety precautions. Therefore, it’s advisable to check the instructions online before you physically visit the place. Once your application is verified, the health card is mailed to your residence.
Read Healthcare in Canada: Basics for newcomers for information on obtaining your provincial insurance card and understanding more about Government health coverage and free medical services in Canada.
Along with enrolling in provincial/territorial insurance, finding a family doctor is also recommended. Dr. Oza suggests that you not wait until you’re sick to find a doctor, but find one as soon as possible and make an appointment to get to know your doctor. Most Canadians have a family doctor as a primary point of contact whenever they need medical care or advice. A family doctor provides you and your family with basic care and will also be the one to provide a referral if you need to see a specialist.
During your first appointment, the doctor will make a note of your health history and any chronic illnesses you have that may require continued follow-up. The doctor may also want to do some blood work if you have any chronic conditions that need monitoring.
Wondering how to find a family doctor?
See Family health 101: What newcomers should know to learn more about family health basics such as the process of finding a family doctor in Canada.
Getting immunized and vaccinated
This is a very unusual year for all of us. Dr. Oza highly recommends getting your flu vaccination in a timely manner each year. Flu shots are usually available from late September or early October, depending on when the vaccines arrive from public health and throughout the winter. You can get the flu shot at the doctor’s office or at a pharmacy. If you have children, make sure you take their vaccination record with you to the doctor.
Generally, during your first visit, your family doctor will recommend vaccinations that are deemed essential for yourself and your family. Depending on your age, the doctor will check to see whether you are due for any preventive health screenings. For women, this would translate to a pap test, a mammogram, and/or a stool test to screen for colon cancer. For men, this would mean a prostate test and a stool test. Your doctor will also make sure you are up to date with immunizations and vaccinations for tetanus, shingles, pneumonia, and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination (to prevent cervical cancer).
Tip: You can keep track of all your vaccination records and find provincial vaccination schedules on CANImmunize. The app also provides access to information and resources about vaccinations from trusted Canadian health sources so you can make informed vaccination decisions for yourself and your family.
All school-going children are required to receive certain vaccinations based on their age and the provincial vaccination schedule. These vaccines are usually administered free of charge and tracked in a document called an immunization record. The immunization record is required on various occasions, such as when you register your child for school or daycare, if your child needs emergency treatment or when you register your child for summer camp or other children’s programs.
Staying active and maintaining physical and mental fitness
A sedentary lifestyle, especially during recent times when most of us are working from home, can lead to weight gain and can trigger or even worsen illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Physical activity is important both for physical and mental health. You don’t have to get a gym membership or enroll your kids in multiple classes, but simply moving around and reducing the time spent sitting should work well. Get outside, enjoy the weather, spend time in nature, and walk everywhere you can, all year round. Walking is the best form of exercise to start with. You can progress as your health permits.
Tip: Choose an exercise that you enjoy doing – this will ensure continuity and keep you motivated. If this means joining a team, then look at your local community centre or YMCA for classes. As the weather gets colder, it can be harder to stay active outdoors. Go walking inside a mall or check out your community centre to stay active. If you live in a house or a condo, then stair climbing is a great form of exercise, as long as you have no medical contraindications. If you prefer sports, you may want to embrace Canadian sports and learn to ski, skate, or play ice hockey.
Coping with stress
Starting over in a new country can be challenging and exhausting as you constantly miss your life or community back home. Additionally, the search for a job or an apartment can sometimes take a toll on your health and even cause you to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Therefore, being proactive about mental health is crucial. If you are concerned about any serious mental health issues such as severe anxiety or depression, please see your family doctor to get appropriate help.
Dr. Oza says, “It is important to find your community. This means to socially connect with the community that you live in so that you develop a support system over time. Humans are social creatures; when leaving your community behind, it is vital to start a new community for yourself. This can be through your neighbours, your local community centre, or your faith-based community. If you have children, you can meet other parents through the school system. These are all great starting points. Canada is full of newcomers, and you are bound to come across someone who has already navigated the landscape before you and can provide you with support, comfort, and guidance.”
Stress and anxiety can often make it hard to focus on the right food choices, exercise, sleep, find a job, and generally navigate the new systems.
If you are experiencing stress, here are some tips that could help:
- Have a support system in place – find someone you can talk to, someone who is willing to sit and listen and acknowledge with no judgement.
- Become aware of your stressors and consider: Can I do something to resolve my stressor? Can I develop an action plan?
- Learn some coping skills such as deep breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, walking in nature, problem-solving, and communication skills.
- There are plenty of free apps such as Calm, Happify, Headspace, Sanvello (Pacifica), etc. that can help with stress and anxiety; explore some of them.
- Explore provincial health programs. For instance, Ontario Health has a program called BounceBack Ontario – recommended for individuals who have stress, anxiety, or sleep issues. This is free and accessible to anyone with a health card.
- Have a morning routine. Start your day with gratitude. Maintain a gratitude journal and write down three things you are grateful for – this allows you to develop a positive mindset to start the day. During winter, the days get shorter. So, having a daily routine in place will help you to stay motivated.
- Step out in nature or get some fresh air in the morning – this clears the mind, reduces stress, and exposes you to natural daylight which will improve your sleep.
- Focus on your sleep. This can be hard when you have so much to think about but getting a good night’s sleep improves your ability to function the following day.
Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can be challenging to talk about with others, especially when it is not in your first language. Check out PsyMood, a digital tool designed to help you find the support you need in the language that you are most comfortable with. Psymood considers cultural background, geographical location, interests, and personal needs, amongst other factors, to pair you with service providers for either online or in-person therapy sessions.
Eating healthy and nutritious food
Eating fruits and vegetables is comparably easier in summer months as compared to winter – when many people prefer heavy foods to cope with the cold. Try to limit packaged and processed foods while going grocery shopping. Instead, try home-cooked meals which are more nutritious and healthier and involve the kids in cooking to instill these skills in them at an early age. Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can help boost your immune system and help you stay healthy. Canada’s food guide has plenty of helpful information and recipes that you can refer to.
Moving to Canada does not mean you have to change the way you eat. It also does not mean the standard diet here is healthier – there are many reasons why people here live long and healthy lives. Dr. Oza encourages you to continue eating your traditional foods as in a new environment; there is always comfort in consuming the meals that were common back home.
Tip: Buying in bulk from bulk food stores can help reduce your grocery spend. You can cook in bulk and freeze the extra. The frozen foods section in the grocery store will likely have good choices of frozen fruits and vegetables, which can be cheaper and also healthy, especially when the vegetable or fruit is not in season.
Taking nutritional supplements or nutraceuticals when necessary
Canada is located in the northern hemisphere, and as a result, during winter, sunlight is limited – this translates to a limited natural source of Vitamin D. Therefore, it becomes essential to rely on Vitamin D supplements to meet the daily recommended dose. Consult your doctor or a pharmacist for the dosage.
Coughs, colds, and viral infections are more common in cold weather. Dr. Oza says, “I am not a huge fan of supplements or vitamins unless your medical condition requires it. Getting our vitamins and minerals from our food is the best way to do it. If you have an unhealthy diet, it is recommended to first focus on improving your diet – in this case, taking a multivitamin daily would be beneficial. Eat at least five servings of vegetables, at least three servings of fruit, and at least one serving of berries daily. Also, include greens in your daily diet. If you can do this, you should be able to get most of the vitamins and minerals you need, unless you have medical conditions that may compromise this.”
Adjusting to seasonal changes
The onset of winter also marks the start of the flu season. A few proactive measures such as getting flu shots, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and wearing appropriate winter wear can help you stay fit.
Cold weather makes the air very dry, and that can sometimes lead to minor nosebleeds. Having a humidifier at home will help maintain healthy humidity levels indoors and prevent nosebleeds and static shocks. Avoid stepping out in cold weather without proper winter wear, as it can lead to frostbite and hypothermia.
The start of your journey can be difficult and sometimes feels lonely and overwhelming, so take one step at a time, and you will make it. When things get tough, remind yourself daily of the positives and focus on the five pillars of well-being: social connections, good health, staying active, timely stress management, and quality sleep. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is key to having a great start for your life in Canada.
About Dr. Sangeeta Oza (MD, DipABLM):
Dr. Oza is a practicing family physician for over 30 years in the UK and Canada. She moved to Canada 29 years ago and in April 2017, founded Mindful Medicine to help patients manage their own health and reduce reliance on prescribed medications when possible. Dr. Oza is a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners (UK) and certified by the College of Family Physicians (Canada). She has completed her American Board of Lifestyle Medicine Certification and is also a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She is passionate about improving quality of life through healthy eating and believes in following a whole food plant-based diet.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect RBC’s opinion or position.