Meet Helga, a photographer and graphic designer who is both relentlessly positive and passionate about Ottawa. Helga immigrated to Canada from Columbia in search of adventure and snow; ten years later she’s still just as excited about living here as the day she arrived.
Read on to learn more about Helga’s life in Ottawa, her fascination with Canada, and her immigration experience.
Helga, thank you so much for meeting with me. Can you introduce yourself to Hello Ottawa readers?
I’m a photographer, graphic designer, and communications professional with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Overall, I consider myself an artist. I’m from South America; I lived there until I finished university. In my late teens and early 20s life got exciting and there were definitely some adventures. That’s what that time of your life is all about, right? Anyway, a big adventure was about to take place for me, and that’s when I decided to move to Ottawa.
That sounds exciting!
I guess! My family is from Colombia. There are ten million people living in Bogotá and that felt very overwhelming to me. My dad was in the military so we lived on military bases and travelled all over the continent. We lived in the States for a while, but we were relocated every two years. I think that lifestyle became embedded in my psyche. I just wanted to travel all the time.
After my dad retired, I couldn’t wait to actually live on my own - on my own terms, able to do whatever I wanted. Just before I graduated from university, I told my dad, “Listen, I want to go somewhere exciting and start a new life, have an adventure - but I need your help.” And he agreed! So I started this hunt for the perfect place. I immediately thought I would move to a Nordic country.
What was the draw to Nordic countries?
It was the exact opposite of what I had grown up with – tropical sandy beaches, palm trees and warm weather. I wanted snow, and to experience winter blizzards. I wanted winter gear, a winter sleeping bag, to build an igloo – all of the clichés! Of course I had really romanticized the idea. I had no idea what was fiction and what was fact. This was in the 90s, so I was able to look up a little information online, and I learned as much as I could about Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland you name it – all of the top-of-the-world countries. And, of course there was Canada, the biggest one. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that Canada fit the profile of who I wanted to become. It was just this big, beautiful idea of a perfect place to me, and I could see myself living here.
There is a lot of documentation, a lot of forms and stuff to do before you can even dream about immigrating to Canada. The whole process took over two years. I was very lucky that I had applied just a few days before the world changed on 9/11. I was worried, I had no idea what was going to happen; nobody knew. I thought, “The world is closing its doors, but I’ve worked so hard for this.” It wasn’t fair.
Part of the process included getting medical exams, a psychological assessment, and all sorts of stuff. It’s a tough process. The immigration officers at the embassy actually told me, “Don’t make any plans, carry on with your regular life. We can’t guarantee anything.” I was 22, willing to do whatever it took just to make this adventure happen.
Two and a half years later, I finally received notice that I had been accepted as a permanent resident. I was only given 30 days to get to Canada.
Were you ready for it?
I certainly was not. I never thought they would only give me 30 days to completely relocate my life. I was somewhat mentally prepared, but I had to wrap up 24 years of life in just a month. I was still living at my parents’ house; I had a boyfriend, a car, a good job at a publishing house. I even had a maid! I still really wanted to live in Canada, though, and it was so satisfying to go through such an intense process and have Canada say, “We want you. You are skilled and an asset to our country. Welcome to your new home.” That’s such an incredible feeling.
I know I’m really privileged. Coming from a class-based society, I knew I wanted to experience the world by myself. Getting through the process was very important to me, because there is so much stigma attached to people coming from different countries. So getting into Canada as a skilled worker was very important to me. There’s so much self-esteem and self-worth wrapped up in that.
Anyway, I landed in Ottawa during the summer of 2003 with just the essentials. Well, along with loads of energy, hopes, and dreams!
Had you seen Ottawa before you landed?
No, at that point I had never been to Canada. I had only seen it on TV and movies – you know, the iconic Mountie, the flag, igloos, snow, seals, and polar bears. I really didn’t know much about Ottawa. I remember choosing Ottawa because it was the capital – in my mind that meant a gigantic, magical urban landscape where everything happens. It took me about a week to realize, “Oh, this is it? This is the downtown core?” The population is like a tenth of what I was used to. I was never disappointed, though. I was really excited to be here.
The first thing I did after I arrived was to visit all of the big tourist spots I could get to. I toured Parliament’s Centre Block, went to Toronto, saw Niagara Falls in all their glory. I remember taking an obscene amount of pictures. Toronto was really more of what I was expecting from Ottawa, but I knew right away that Ottawa felt right, better. Felt like home.
I got a job pretty quick, taking photos in a portrait studio. I started volunteering, networking, meeting people. It didn’t take me long to feel like I really belonged here. When the first three years were up and I got to file for Canadian citizenship, I was incredibly happy.
What was the citizenship process like for you?
It was interesting, to say the least. I went to the best private schools my parents could afford but I never learned a thing about Canada. Going through the citizenship process provided me with the opportunity to learn so much about this part of the world, and I fell in love with Canada all over again. I felt like, as a new Canadian, I was truly becoming a valuable part of this country during this time and place in history.
I recall spending lots of time learning about Canadian history, although I must say there were some things that broke my heart. I learned about plenty of beautiful and wonderful Canadian moments, but when I first read about Residential Schools I couldn’t believe it. It was heartbreaking. Still, when I finally got to take that oath and say, “I swear I am going to defend this country,” at that very moment my life changed. Without a doubt, becoming Canadian is by far the most important thing in my life, and I treasure it very much.
And just like that - and almost a decade later - here I am.
And what is your life like now?
Well, my career has improved! I’ve come a long way from working for minimum wage in a portrait studio. I work for a non-profit now, and I have my own freelancing business where I do work as a professional photographer. As a person, I’ve grown so much in the past ten years. I have a beautiful apartment, a career as an artist, and I get to live in Ottawa. I’ve seen this city grow so much since I arrived, too. It’s practically a different city. It’s hard to keep up with all the cool things that are happening. The arts and creative scenes are just booming.
Professionally, my greatest success was having my photos exhibited at the Ottawa airport. That was not only an amazing experience, but so thematically appropriate. I mean, I landed as an immigrant in that airport; the moment those doors open and you walk into the country is like being born. If someone had told me that less than ten years later I would be a photographer with an exhibit at that very same airport I would have said, “You can’t be serious!” Just like walking through that airport for the first time launched my new life, I feel like this exhibit was an opportunity for me to truly launch my life as a photographer.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go on holidays to the Yukon and Alaska, which was a dream come true for me. I went dog sledding, saw glaciers, wildlife, and visited hot springs when it was minus 40. I told my friend who was hosting me, “The beauty of this place is so overwhelming that I just want to fall down on my knees and cry.” They call it the spell of the Yukon for a reason. One of my dreams is to live north of 60 for a couple of years.
This adventure has surpassed my own expectations. I’m glad I’ve gotten to spend the last 10 years doing things my way. I feel like I’ve accomplished certain level of success, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Thank you, Helga! Some of Helga’s photography can be found on her Flickr page.