Bhutanese Nepali families leaving Quebec City in droves for Ontario

Dozens of Bhutanese Nepali refugees who settled in Quebec City in recent years are pulling up stakes and heading to Ontario. They say a variety of factors are at play, including the difficulty of getting a driver's licence in Quebec.

Entire community moving to southern Ontario, in part because getting Quebec driver's permit is so hard

Saroj Kumar and Bhima Chhetri's son Ryan was born in Quebec and speaks fluent French, English and Nepali. (Kim Garritty/CBC )

Saroj Kumar Chhetri's voice almost breaks when he talks about his life in Quebec, a life that started in 2009 when he and his wife Bhima, originally from Bhutan, were finally settled in Canada after spending 17 years in refugee camps in Nepal. 

"Quebec has given me everything, all my identity, my son," he said.

But the Chhetri family, like dozens of others in Quebec City, is in the process of moving to Ontario.  

"We don't have a choice," Bhima Chhetri said.

The family runs the Marché Nepalais in the Limoilou neighbourhood of Quebec City, a store that specializes in Nepalese and Asian foods and other goods.

Their main customer base has been decimated: Bhima Chhetri estimates there were roughly 165 Bhutanese Nepali families living in Quebec City. Now only about 15 remain.

Their friends have moved to Kitchener, Hamilton, St. Catharines and London, Ont. So the Chhetris are also in the process of relocating to London, where they will start another store.

The Chhetris will keep the Marché Nepalais in Limoilou running while they look for someone to take over the lease. (Kim Garritty/CBC)

Driver's permit elusive goal

There are several factors pulling Nepali migrants toward Ontario, such as wanting to have their children learn English, proximity to Hindu temples and wanting live close to other people who are ethnic Nepali in origin.

But one of the big ones is that many who came to Quebec City have had a hard time getting their driver's licence. Without it, they feel their work prospects in Quebec are limited.

Both the Chhetris passed the practical and written exams needed to get a driver's permit in Quebec. But they say other Nepali migrants are struggling to do the same, and they're finding it easier to pass the test in Ontario.

"The same people, they are getting their driver's licence within a month, and they are driving," Saroj said. 

Bhima Chhetri shared the experience of family friends.

"They [would have] loved to stay in Quebec City. They [were] planning to buy a house because it's been like four years they are working. Their job was prominent. And then they didn't get a licence," she said.

Within six months of that friend's move to Ottawa, he had passed his driver's test in Ontario.

SAAQ's written test confusing?

Nepali migrants are not the first to complain that the struggle to get a driver's licence has slowed down their integration into the community. Last year, Robert Mungu, originally from Congo, told CBC he was forced to turn down a job offer after failing the test.

In 2016, Quebec's automobile insurance board, the SAAQ, said it was reviewing its written theory exam after receiving several complaints from immigrant groups. Some complained the written theory exam was confusing.

That exam is available in five languages: French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. 

Statistics from the SAAQ showed that 70 to 80 per cent of francophones who wrote it in the last five years passed.

The success rate was much lower for Spanish speakers, at 48 per cent, and Arabic speakers, at 38 per cent, according to statistics from January 2015 to September 2016. 
Nepalese grocery store owner Saroj Kumar Chhetri says he's heard dozens of customers complain about failing the SAAQ's written theory exam, partly because the questions weren't clear. (Catou McKinnon/CBC)

SAAQ spokesperson Mario Vaillancourt said the current written test is currently undergoing a review — to make it easier to understand, not to make the test itself easier. He said that should be completed within the year. 

"It's important to have safe drivers on the road, and it's why all the people have to pass the exam to be a good driver," he said.

Saroj Kumar Chhetri said he has offered to translate the exam into Nepali for a friend, but the SAAQ, refused.

Vaillancourt said translators are allowed, but they have to have recognized credentials. He said he can't account for why some Nepali newcomers are able to pass the Ontario test but can't make it through Quebec's.

Store is community hub

The Chhetri's business has been feeling the impact of people moving to Ontario for months.

Like most neighbourhood convenience stores, you can find pop and chips and phone cards. But the shelves are also stocked with spices, teas, hot dalli pickles, brass and other metal cookware, colourful clothing and jewellery.

Aside from speciality spices, pickles and teas, the store also stocks colourful beadwork, clothing and jewellery. (Kim Garritty/CBC)

Colourful flower garlands hang near the front window, the place they're stored when they're not being used for the festival of Diwali. Some shelves stock statues of Hindu goddesses.

Garlands hang near the front window. They are used during the festival of Diwali. (Kim Garritty/CBC)

In the back of one of the aisles is a small table with two black chairs. 

This is where Saroj Kumar and Bhima would frequently sit with members of the community who needed extra help with some of the paperwork that comes with daily life, including utility payments and tax forms. 

The Chhetris see their store as a community hub. They relocated it once before at the request of community members, so they could be closer to Quebec City's Vanier neighbourhood, where many Nepali families lived.

"The old people want to come in the store, and they want to talk," Saroj Kumar said. "They do not know how to buy things at supermarket because they don't know to read and write, so they can come out to the store and they can ask [about] products in Nepali."

The Chhetris offer free delivery for their older clients. 

"We are so happy helping them," Bhima said. 

But with so few people left to help, the Chhetris say they need to move with the community. 

One of the many statues in stock at the store run by the Chhetri family. (Kim Garritty/CBC)

Sad to leave

Saroj Kumar is already in London setting up the new business, while Bhima and their son are still in Quebec. The lease on the Quebec City store is in place until 2018. It's not clear yet when Bhima and their son Ryan will relocate. 

Ryan is fluent in French, English and Nepali and his parents want him to join immersion when he moves to Ontario so he can keep his French language skills.

The store has been gradually losing business as Nepalese families move to Ontario. (Kim Garritty/CBC)

Saroj Kumar said he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about the decision to move, feeling sad and emotional. 

Both Chhetris recall the welcome they received when they first arrived in Canada and were living in Sherbrooke, far from a grocery store.

"At that time we didn't have a driving licence or a car, and we didn't take taxis because it was going to cost money," Bhima said. 

She described how they would walk to the store, buy a week's worth of food and then walk back with big heavy bags. People would stop and offer her a ride home.

The Chhetris say they will keep the name of their new store in London as Marché Nepalais. They always want to be reminded of what Quebec offered them. 

Saroj Kumar said he hopes to return to Quebec when he retires. 


  • An earlier version of this story referred to Saroj Kumar and Bhima Chhetri as Nepalese. In fact, they and the majority in the Quebec City community are ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan and, although they lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for many years, they were never Nepalese citizens.
    May 16, 2017 6:25 PM ET

With files from Catou MacKinnon