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Against All Odds

Postcards from #Canada150  

I grew up in the inner western suburbs of Sydney through the 70’s and 80’s, and was the 4th eldest of 11 siblings.  We were extremely poor and our upbringing was highly dysfunctional, to say the least. Life was a matter of a day to day struggle, getting through each day and not giving any thought for “the future”.

My parents never encouraged us to dream or foster ambitions, never taught us to reach for possibilities outside of our little sphere… with the exception of one.  I still have vivid memories of my mother, trapped in her little decrepit kitchen, apron around her waist and baby on her hip, describing the Rocky Mountains – their natural beauty and how it would be wonderful to see them.  She never gave any indication of wishing to see anything else in the world, just the Rockies.  What drove her fascination and awe? When did it start and why? I have never known, but to hear her talk about something that was so majestic and remote from our day to day squalid lives stuck with me.

Due to our living conditions, as each child turned 16, we needed to leave home. It did not matter whether you were still in school or working.  I had attempted to achieve my Year 12 (senior year) of high school, a feat that my older siblings had not achieved.  Unfortunately, I turned 16 half way through my Year 11 of school, and left school as an A Grade student.  I got a job, found a place to live and got on with life.

With this independence, I soon realised that I had a measure of control in my life, that I could make decisions for myself and drive myself towards goals.  I had this burning desire to broaden my world, to go and experience life outside of the box.  Mum’s words had always stuck with me. So after working for four years, I applied for a Canadian Working Holiday work permit.

I remember the day the letter came to say it had been granted.  I still recall it being a monumental and proud day in my life, to that point, the fact that I had achieved this on my own just before my 21st birthday.

I secured a job as an Office Manager for a small Book Bindery in Kelowna within two weeks of arriving in Canada, and had also picked up a second hand car so that I could get around.

Although I was working full time, I still took advantage of weekends and holidays to visit around British Columbia and Alberta as much as I could.  I drove to Banff one long weekend, and standing in the Cascade Gardens looking around me, I had this sense that I was finally “living”.  I remember crying, I was “not in Kansas anymore Dorothy”!

Back in those days, the Australian accent was still a rarity in Kelowna, though I know that’s not the case anymore, with the Big White Ski Resort being run by the Aussies and the world becoming a far smaller place in the last 20 years.  But my accent, on the back of the Crocodile Dundee fame, certainly seemed to attract people.  I made some wonderful friends who supported me and gave me a feeling of belonging, and which to this day I still consider dear friends.

I have been back to Canada twice in the past 25 years, the most recent visit just in April 2016.  With the advent of the internet and social media, keeping these treasured friendships alive is so easy, but there’s still nothing quite like seeing each other in person.

My year in Canada gave me a new sense of strength, an understanding that you are NOT what your environment tries to mould you, but rather, you have the ability to mould your environment.  I learned that I had control of my life, no matter what I had been born into, no matter how I was raised.

When I returned to Australia it took me a while to settle back into what was to be a different life.  I had changed.  I had more confidence and experience, more knowledge and wisdom, all in one year!

I have faced ups and downs in my life since then, but the inner knowledge and sense of self-worth and confidence that I gained through my Canadian experience has always been able to lead me through the trials of life and to a better place.

These days, I am a mum to two gorgeous children who are 14 and 11, I have a successful career, and I love to travel.  I feel that I am in a blessed position and I have been able to instil in my kids the wonder of travel, to broaden their minds, to be open to stepping outside their comfort zone.  The lessons I teach my children now stem back to what I have learned since I first posted that application for my Canadian Working Holiday work permit.

Contributor: Helen Briggs (nee Cook)
Occupation: Senior IT Infrastructure Program Manager
Hometown: Canberra, Australia
Working Holiday in Canada: 

Start your life-changing International Experience Canada (IEC) adventure today!

This is one in a series of stories shared by International Experience Canada participants from the 1970s to present to celebrate Canada 150.

IEC began in 1951 as a reconciliatory cultural exchange between Canada and Germany following World War II.  Today, IEC supports Canada’s interests by administering Youth Mobility Agreements (including Working Holiday) with 33 countries and territories. The agreement between Canada and Australia started in 1975 and is currently reciprocal in the number of inbound and outbound participants.


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Canada Down Under is an on-line portfolio of Canadian-Australian stories produced by the Consulate General of Canada in Sydney and other contributors.

Canada Down Under est un portefeuille en ligne d'histoires canado-australiennes produites par le Consulat général du Canada à Sydney et d'autres contributeurs.

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