Neil and Hayley Wallstead can't quite get over their basement.
Part of a surge in British immigration to Canada, the Wallsteads and their daughter packed up and moved to Oakville 18 months ago to be close to a busy city and for a better standard of living.
"Both of us have admired Canada from afar," said Hayley Wallstead, who had a pen pal in Mississauga as a girl. "We always planned to do something different with our lives."
Neil Wallstead explained, "A lot of people in England admire the U.S. Canada is that little bit different. It's the more mature, slightly more sensible brother."
What's different? "Most houses have basements for a start," said Hayley Wallstead. "The houses are so much bigger than we would have been able to afford in England."
For the first time in a decade, the number of British citizens immigrating to Canada is way up, with nearly 8,000 arriving in the first nine months of last year alone.
And they keep coming. More than 12,000 British citizens applied to emigrate to Canada over the same period, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
They're skilled professionals and tradespeople with young families pining for more sunshine and snow, better schools and cleaner cities.
For the Wallsteads, who lived in Ross-on-Wye on the Welsh border, the hardest part was the two-year wait, which meant leaving their eldest, a son, behind in England at university. Both have good jobs, he as an accountant in Burlington, she as a secretary in Oakville.
Londoner Peter Giblett and his family were in the vanguard of the surge, arriving nearly three years ago with a $100,000 down payment on a farmhouse in Grassie, a hamlet near Grimsby, Ont. "Britain is going nowhere, the U.K. is a dying country. It's a negative environment. Canada is much more positive."
In immigration consultants' offices in Britain, the phone calls and emails keep pouring in from people trying to escape scary food prices and unemployment numbers.
Eric Katz works in Mississauga with the British-based Overseas Emigration Visas, fielding queries and advising immigrants once they get here. Most go out west, he said. Oakville and Burlington are the first choices in greater Toronto.
The surge picked up, Katz said, after Hector Goudreau, Alberta's minister of immigration, visited Britain last summer to lure Britons to his province. Food costs in Britain had soared 60 per cent from the start of 2008 and fuel, 22 per cent.
"Canada has the strongest economy of the G-8 countries, it's world-renowned for having the best standard of living," said Liam Clifford, director of GlobalVisas in London, England. "It's top of the pops."
British citizens paying GlobalVisas for help to emigrate "is up more than 50 per cent" over the last quarter, he said. Who are they? "People in their mid 20s to 40s, that age group where they're thinking about their families. I wouldn't say they're desperate, but ... the U.K. is sliding into a depression. This is an alternative to struggling here."
From January to September, 2008, British nationals had filed 12,020 applications for permanent residence in Canada, CIC statistics show. In 2007, the total was even higher, at 24,182.
(Modern emigration from Britain hit an all-time low in 1998, according to Statistics Canada. The heyday of British emigration to Canada in the last 54 years was 1957, when it hit 114,347, on the heels of the Suez Crisis. The other spike was in 1967, with 64,601.)
Visa First, based in Dublin and London, started Migration Nights last year and has seen attendance triple, says marketing manager Edwina Shanahan. Each event, rotating through Sheffield, Surrey, London, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, lures 200 or more to hear Visa First extol the virtues of Canada and Australia.
The audience has changed dramatically in the past six months, she says, shifting from mainly 18- to 25-year-olds to 25- to 45-year-old skilled professionals and tradespeople with families. What are the draws? "Canadian schools, the cost of living in Britain is higher, a better quality of life and the weather in Britain lacks proper summers, too much rain and not enough snow."
Still, it can be a struggle. Giblett says he's "10 days away" from losing their farmhouse. "I walked into a job when I got here but 15 months ago, I was made redundant." He hadn't found anything since, despite a background in senior IT work, but came away from a job fair on Friday with a fistful of promises.
What does he miss? Cheese and onion potato chips. "They don't taste the same here."