Life as a CA in Vancouver
Karen Finlay CA went to Vancouver, expecting to stay for a year – that was in 2013. Now into her second decade on the west coast, she tells Rachel Ingram about biotech, inflation and Canada’s great outdoors
Vancouver has the best of all worlds. Sweetly positioned between the Pacific coast and the mountains in the province of British Columbia (BC), the west Canadian city is known for its natural beauty, temperate climate and outdoors lifestyle. Its residents rarely sit still. While office workers in many cities make a beeline to pubs and bars after work, Vancouverites are strapping on their skis, jumping on boats or bikes or heading into the hills for hikes. For Glaswegian Karen Finlay CA, it was the prospect of this sporty lifestyle and the promise of a good work-life balance that drew her in – and the reality of both exceeded her expectations.
“You have to be a person who likes to be on the go outdoors to enjoy Vancouver,” says Karen. “There’s a lot on offer that we just wouldn’t be doing in the UK. We love our life here and we’re very settled, but the main issue is the cost of living.” Like many cities around the world, Vancouver has been suffering from rising prices. Although less severe than in much of Europe – Canada’s rate of inflation is currently hovering above 3%, down from a peak of 8% in mid-2022 – cost increases have hit sectors across society, particularly in the rental market. But as Karen celebrates her 10-year anniversary in the city, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
I’m a sporty, outdoorsy person so I thought the lifestyle of Canada would suit me. Through introductions to partners, I ended up getting a position in Vancouver in 2013. I’m very lucky because I was looking for work-life balance, so Vancouver was the right fit. I’ve been here for more than 10 years now.
I left PwC in 2017 and have since been largely working in biotech, which is the precursor work to pharmaceuticals. The industry is generally made up of start-ups, many of which are spin-outs of university research projects that have received funding from VCs or investment banks. It’s an interesting challenge. The first company I worked for was doing clinical trials for a bladder pain syndrome, and the last two have focused on cancer treatments such as stem cell therapy.
I enjoyed the transition from PwC to start-ups. When I moved to Vancouver, I went into risk assurance, which involved a lot of process and control work. I’d been consulting a lot of the time so that helped because I was already putting myself in the shoes of organisations on the other side of the fence. I like working for one company where you can see the improvements, rather than walking in and out the door of different clients all the time
Moving from the UK to Canada, the work itself was very similar. From my memory, the UK was a little further ahead in terms of auditing systems, so I remember feeling I’d gone back in time, but the processes were the same, which was comforting.
Having my CA definitely opened doors as it’s so internationally recognised. There is a law in BC, however, that chartered accountants who qualify with ICAS can’t call themselves a CA here – you’re only allowed to use the credentials in your name if you have a qualification with the Canadian institute. Some people convert their qualification. I didn’t, but once people work with you, they quickly realise your skills and experience. And once you’ve been qualified for a few years, it’s more about the quality of your work anyway.
Above and beyond
Living in Vancouver has greatly exceeded my expectations in terms of work-life balance. People do work hard, but in the summer not many of them work past 4pm, unless they’re on a particularly busy project. And it’s a stunning place to be. The city is right on the water and close to the mountains so there are endless activities available. Many people spend their weekends going hiking, skiing, camping, paddleboarding or exploring. There’s so much for kids to do, too. My son Jacob has just turned three and he’s already done ice-skating lessons and is all set to start skiing. We’ve embraced camping, too – we took our daughter at three months old, and that’s just the norm here.
We’re lucky that Vancouver is a bubble within Canada so our weather is pretty much the same as the UK, although the seasons are more consistent. In July and August, you’ll generally get six to eight weeks of good sunshine and very little rain. And when it snows here, we can make the best of it and go skiing.
The biggest challenge is that the cost of living is so high relative to your salary. I hear the same complaints here that I do from friends and family back in the UK – prices have gone up for everyone, which impacts all businesses. Rent and buying property here is unattainable for most, even with two well-paid jobs, so you’re unlikely to live by yourself. Salaries are a bit higher than in Scotland, but with the cost of living being what it is I think you might be slightly worse off overall.
It’s also expensive to travel within Canada because everywhere is far away. I’d pictured myself flying to Toronto for long weekends, but I hadn’t factored in a 4.5-hour flight with a three-hour time difference. But being on the west coast, you’re well placed for US cities such as Seattle and Portland. And there’s lots to see within BC, too – there’s Vancouver Island, of course, Whistler is only two hours north, and you can go inland to the Okanagan region, which has lots of wineries.
I was pretty naive and blasé about moving abroad. I did it thinking it’s just for a year or two and if I didn’t like it, I’d go back – that was in 2013! If you’re curious, I’d always say go for it because there’s lots of experiences to be had. My advice is to be flexible, prepare to go with the flow and take the opportunities as they arrive. If you come with a very prescriptive idea of what you want, that might be a challenge, because finding jobs here is all about networking. You have to create your opportunities.
The same applies socially. It’s a little hard to make friends in Vancouver and there is less of a drinking culture, as everybody wants to get up and go skiing or running or hiking the next day, so give yourself time. You can also meet people through the ICAS network. There’s a Vancouver group, and we’ve recently joined with Chartered Accountants Worldwide Network USA so we’re hopefully putting on even more events soon.
For more on working overseas, visit icas.com/members/international-communities