Much ado has been made in the media over the last few days regarding the Mercer Quality of Living Ranking, which was released on February 23rd. This annual survey is primarily used to help multinational employers compensate their staff fairly when placing them on international assignments (while everyday people seem to like to use it for bragging rights about their hometowns).

The 2016 ranking lists Vancouver, where I usually call ‘home’, as having the 5th best quality of life in the world (other top ranked North American cities included Toronto (15), Ottawa (17), Montreal (23), and San Francisco (28)). In contrast, Kingston ranked 151st out of 230 cities (for my Brazilian friends, Sao Paulo ranked 121 and Rio 117).  When personal safety was singled out, Canadian cities all rank high, with Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver sharing 16th place, whereas Kingston ranked 199th (no US cities make the top 50).

According to Mercer, personal safety is an important metric when determining expat quality of living: “Safety… is a key factor for multinationals to consider when sending expatriate workers abroad, both because it raises concerns about the expat’s personal safety and because it has a significant impact on the cost of global compensation programmes.”

The specific rankings of each city are qualitative enough for anyone to be critical of the survey results. What is more poignant to me is the stark contrast in ranking between home and here. While I have yet to experience anything that feels threatening to my personal safety, the signals warning me to be careful are all around.

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My front door, minus the padlocks. Downstairs there is another iron gate to enter the apartment block, and the entire complex is surrounded by a barbed-wire topped fence and staffed with 24 hour security.

During our in-country orientation with Cuso, we spent over 8 hours discussing safety; the entire Cuso security plan had to be read out loud. We are not allowed to walk anywhere at night – taxis only. I live like a caged bird in my apartment, with every opening shielded by iron bars; it isn’t lost on me that the fear of whatever is ‘outside’ is supposed to be greater than the risk of not being able to escape if there is a fire inside.

So far, this focus on personal safety (or the lack of it) has made it harder to settle in and integrate, rather than easier. The safeguards are designed to protect, but instead they add an additional level of fear to the pre-existing, natural sense that comes with being in a new place. I feel suspicious when I would naturally feel curious, and worried when I need to be brave. I don’t have enough personal experience to calculate risks for myself yet, so I have to rely on the influence of others. Today, on day two of sheltering in place due to the federal election, all this caution feels a bit like overkill. The privilege of coming from a place where the quality of life is considered to be nearly the best in the world makes it difficult to fathom the reality of life in a place where the quality of life is considered to be so poor.

While I have no interest in taking silly risks or putting myself in harm’s way, I am far more interested in what Kingston has to offer than the things that make it rank so poorly on the Mercer survey, or in the eyes of Kingstonians or expats. It may not be as idilic as Vancouver, but there is beauty and goodness here, and I intend to find it and celebrate it. And I’ll do it while making sure I am home before dark.

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