Teacher Colette Stone is photographed in Toronto’s High Park, on Wednesday, December 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Teacher Colette Stone is photographed in Toronto’s High Park, on Wednesday, December 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

‘If not now, then when?’ COVID-19 spurs some Canadians to make big changes

Here are some of their stories

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of Canadians across the country, causing many to lose their jobs or businesses, or to adapt to a new life spent mostly at home. Some are leaning in to the disruption, however, using these uncertain times as a launchpad for major life changes they may not otherwise have embraced. Here are some of their stories.

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Kristina Chau, 41

In the end it, took only six weeks for Kristina Chau and her partner to pack up their lives, sell their things and move to Nicaragua.

But the change had been many months in the making, percolating since the first wave of the pandemic brought her career running an event production company to a standstill, she said in a recent interview from their new home in Hacienda Iguana, a gated community on the country’s Pacific coast.

When Ontario was put under lockdown last winter, Chau initially planned to ride it out, pivoting to organizing online events and filling the rest of her time with volunteering. But as months passed with no return in sight for the types of events that constituted her bread and butter, Chau decided to step back and take a serious break for the first time in roughly 20 years.

“I was a bit more fortunate because my business is cyclical … so because of that I’ve always had savings set aside for that time period (when business is slow) and so I had … stuff to keep me going, plus CERB, through the pandemic,” she said.

“I’ve always worked really hard, I’ve always been ‘go, go, go’ — this is the first time in my entire life that I can actually probably take a step back and take a look, evaluate my life and what do I want, what makes me happy, what doesn’t make me happy.”

As September rolled around and a second round of closures appeared imminent, the couple started thinking of ways to avoid spending another winter cooped up in their west-end Toronto apartment, Chau said.

During the previous lockdown, they had joked isolation would be more bearable in a warm climate, and suddenly the pair began researching potential destinations for a move, she said. Her partner, a musician, works for an entertainment curation company that allows for remote work, she said.

“What better time than now, somewhere that’s cheaper, that we can live in a way more inexpensive and slower pace of life,” she said.

Chau had travelled to Nicaragua in 2017 and had later connected with a Canadian woman in that country, she said. She got in touch again in the fall and, knowing the woman had Airbnbs, asked about a potential long-term rental. Since COVID-19 has dramatically reduced tourism, the woman agreed to having them as tenants, Chau said.

The final decision to move was made on Thanksgiving weekend, Chau said. In the weeks that followed, the pair sold about $5,000 worth of their belongings, then stashed the rest in Chau’s mother’s basement, she said. They flew to Nicaragua at the end of November.

There were some hurdles with travel — Nicaragua requires anyone arriving there to show proof they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 in the past 72 hours, and flights were at risk of cancellation or delay, Chau said. They ended up flying to Costa Rica and hiring a driver to take them to Nicaragua, she said.

These days the couple goes to bed early, wakes up early, then starts the day with a walk on the beach before turning to remote work and other activities, such as Spanish lessons, Chau said.

“We have a pool outside, the beautiful jungle area, and we’re a two minute walk from the beach,” she said.

Chau is also working with a life coach as she shifts to a career in that field, a process she began before the move, she said.

The couple has committed to staying five months in the bungalow they share with her friend. If they want to stay in Nicaragua beyond that, it may be time to find their own place, Chau said.

“We kind of want to see how COVID plays out. We definitely wanted to experience life here and see what that’s like,” she said.

“We do love it a lot, but I don’t know what five months is gonna be like … And I don’t think there’s any sense in committing to or planning that far ahead on anything right now.”

—-

Colette Stone, 45

Colette Stone had long dreamed of opening up her own school, like the big Montessori schools she saw running out of sprawling old houses in Toronto’s west end.

It always seemed out of reach financially, but the thought of venturing out on her own after nearly two decades of teaching in public schools stayed in the back of her mind, she said in a recent interview.

Last winter brought major upheaval to Ontario’s schools, with teachers forced to pivot to online teaching as COVID-19 put in-person learning on hold.

The pandemic also exacerbated a number of existing issues within the education system, she said, and the prospect of returning in the fall with these additional challenges gave Stone the push she needed to give her dream some serious thought.

In July, she started looking into taking an unpaid leave of absence in order to set off on her own, she said.

Stone then spent the summer setting up her business, a corporation based on a tutoring model, and hiring an accountant to handle the finances.

The program, called Elevate Literacy, launched in September with online math and language classes for kindergarten to Grade 6, and an in-person, distanced, outdoor education course in Toronto’s High Park.

“It’s sort of like being on a field trip every day, and that’s what I would do once or twice a year with my class when I was a homeroom teacher in elementary,” Stone said of the outdoor component.

Currently, eight to 10 kids are enrolled for the math and language classes, while the outdoor education groups tend to include fewer than five, Stone said. Still, she’s had to hire an additional teacher to keep up with demand for online teaching, she said.

“I think there was already a need for for supporting kids learning outside of the classroom (before the pandemic),” and that has only increased given how much children are missing out on in light of the restrictions, Stone said.

Eventually, when health guidelines allow, Stone said she hopes to start in-person programming at the space she’s rented across from the park.

Ideally, the program will one day become a franchise with locations all over the city, she said. But it’s still early days, she said, noting she’ll have to see next year whether it’s possible to extend her leave of absence.

“I have the security to go back (to public school) in September, if I have to, and that’s a very lucky position to be in,” she said.

Still, “it’s not even four months in and I feel like it’s the best decision I could have made, even if this doesn’t end up being long term.”

—-

Steph Payne, 33

Steph Payne and her partner rang in 2020 with hundreds of others at a massive party marking the closure of the immersive art installation project their company produced in west-end Toronto.

The project, called Funhouse Toronto, had run for months and the pair was hoping to export it to Singapore, said Payne, the creative director of their company Mondo Forma. They’d received a grant to travel through Southeast Asia and elsewhere to help make that happen.

The couple had visited six countries over six weeks, attending conferences and other events, when COVID-19 brought their plans to a grinding halt.

Since they had given up their apartment in Toronto to travel, the pair holed up with Payne’s parents in Texas for a few months, she said.

That’s where they began to seriously consider — and eventually plan out — fully embracing nomadic life, complete with a home on four wheels.

A recent trip to New Zealand had introduced them to a number of Canadians living the so-called “van life,” Payne said, and that idea firmly took root as the pandemic tightened its grip on North America.

“The Toronto rental market is just insane and not affordable… And, you know, work was totally remote remote so we weren’t really tied to to our location and naturally we’re both pretty nomadic,” she said.

“I think in times of crisis you sort of revert revert back to your natural most authentic self. And it seemed like the best timing to do it — if not now then when?”

They watched countless van conversion videos on YouTube, with the initial goal of going back to Toronto, buying a van and transforming it themselves, she said.

Instead, Payne stumbled on a 1985 vintage van that had already been converted while searching on an online reselling site, she said. All it needed was some renovations, which the couple carried out over the course of a month — again with the help of YouTube tutorials.

They redid the whole plumbing system and installed solar panels so the van could be totally off-grid, she said.

“I’m a plumber now… After numerous mistakes and lots of YouTube videos I can like confidently say I could totally install your kitchen sink for you,” Payne said with a laugh.

In late August, they left Toronto in their newly revamped van, nicknamed Sunny, and drove across Canada for three months until closed borders and increasingly wintery weather forced them to stop, she said.

On the road, daily life involved morning coffees watching the sun rise, then a couple hours of work and emails before going for a hike and eventually getting back behind the wheel, she said. They had a route loosely planned but travelling in a vintage RV means you have to be prepared for breakdowns and other unexpected occurrences, which makes sticking to a plan difficult, she added.

Not only did they gain the freedom and adventure they craved, but the couple also cut their monthly expenses in half, Payne said, noting the financial advantages were a “pivotal” part of their decision-making.

Sunny the RV is currently in storage outside Vancouver while Payne and her partner spend the winter in Texas, she said. But come spring, they plan on getting back on the road.

“Everything has definitely changed,” she said.

“I feel like work is not the primary focus right now for me. It’s become a secondary thing, and nurturing other areas of my life, like my family, my friends, my relationship with myself, my relationship with my partner … is more important.”

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press


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