| Ralston, Canada
BATUS is, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. You'll arrive at Calgary airport and then drive for 2.5 hours in a straight line down the TransCan through the Prairies. The landscape is amazing the first time you see it. Massive great big skies and flat brown land stretch as far as you can see if you arrive in the summer, nothing but white in the winter. You'll make one turn after your 2.5 hours and end up in Ralston.
Ralston Village is where the main quartering patch is. Ralston does have a shop akin to a NAAFI in Germany. This does sell the essentials, but is expensive so you will have to go to Medicine Hat for your weekly shop. This means that realistically wives have to be able to drive. There are wives who don't, but they generally get very depressed very quickly due to the isolation and reliance on others to go anywhere.
Note that the patch is entirely mixed, in terms of rank and post. Therefore it is entirely possible for junior soldiers to be next door neighbours with their OCs or SSMs. Likewise Prairie Training Staff are mixed in. This is only a concern if you are on the training staff and have small children, as they will ask why everyone else's daddy comes home at 5pm and gets weekends at home in the summer and theirs doesn't. This can be exceptionally hard to explain (I speak from experience).
The quarters are all arranged around the pub, bowling alley, library, Welfare and MFRC (think HIVE but better). The first place to stop when you get settled in is the MFRC where you can grab a gratis coffee and find out what's going on in the village.
Ralston has a gym, swimming pool, ice arena and splash park for the kids. You'll need to get a pass for the gym but it only takes a second and costs nothing.
Camp is further up the Jenner Highway, about 2k away. BATUS shares camp with Canadian Forces Base Suffield so you have a mix of Canadian and British. Camp is on either side of the Jenner, left hand side for the Messes, Med Centre, Dental Centre, Bank, Post Office and BATUS HQ, right hand side for other 'stuff' and access to the training area.
Medicine Hat is the nearest town, just 45 minutes drive away (in another straight line!) from Ralston. There are some quarters in Med Hat, they're bigger than the Ralston properties but they're usually a lot more urban. If you have children it's unlikely that you'll be quartered downtown. Med Hat is classed as a city but don't expect it to be like any city you'd find in the UK. Everything you need, pretty much, is in Med Hat, all the bars, restaurants, supermarkets and the mall.
The accommodation in BATUS is probably like nothing you've ever seen before. There are a mix of properties starting with 2 bedroomed chalet style 'little house on the prairie' sort of houses up to 4 bedrooms on 2/3 floors. The housing allocation is a little different to the UK system as there are so few proper 3/4 bedroomed properties. You will be allocated a quarter based on how many children you have and what is available at the time. Don't be surprised if you have 2 children that you end up in what is officially a 2 bed property, if there is a dining room in the quarter then you'll be expected to turn that into a third bedroom.
It's not all bad though, there is always a huge and fabulously kitted out basement with at least one room down there that will act as an extra room for visitors. In the summer it can get very hot and stuffy and the air con is a bit hit and miss so a lot of people move down there for the summer months. In the basement you'll find a huge utility room with washing machine and tumble dryer. If you're lucky you'll get a front loading machine, if you're not you'll end up with the good old fashioned North American top loaders which just seem to swish your clothes around for 15 minutes and they come out battered to bits and marginally cleaner.
Quarters come fully furnished. There is no option to get more furniture or have stuff wharfed (unless you're the Commander!) so what you get is what you'll be sitting on for the next 2 years or so. If you have visitors staying you should be able to borrow an extra bed for a little while, but as a rule you get the same number of beds as there are people living there.
When you first arrive the odds are on that your shipping is at least 3 weeks away so you'll have a 'get you in pack' so don't worry too much about having nothing to cook with and no bedding. It's not great, but at least you've got something.
In the olden days you used to have to buy all your electricals once you arrived, luckily, BATUS have now provided pretty much everything you might need on a day to day basis. Kettle, toaster, microwave, food processor, Dyson, alarm clocks, lamps etc. Anything you don't find you can get second hand when you get there. People are moving in and out all year round so you'll always find someone trying to offload all the kit they bought which is completely useless once you're UK bound.
The heating in the quarters are all hot air systems and they use a furness, not a boiler. They're very efficient in the winter but useless for the air con in the summer (unless you've still got the wooden floors). There are no radiators, just a vent in the room which chucks out warm or cold air. If you have pets with you, you will have to have the vents all professionally cleaned out before you leave.
Most of the gardens aren't great. They look quite sweet at first glance with the white picket fence, but most are quite small. The grass has hardly any chance to look like actual grass and in the summer you'll find yourself mowing dust and falling down gopher holes. You will need to water your grass but there are only certain times of the day you can do this, first thing in the morning and in the evening. Get yourself a timer so you don't have to remember to get out of bed at 5.00 am to switch the water on for an hour!
You will, effectively, have a front and rear garden. The rear garden is the only part which will be fenced but you're expected to mow both the front and back. And don't forget the golden rule. YOU MAY NOT DRINK ALCOHOL IN A PUBLIC PLACE! Your front garden might be yours to mow but it's classed as a public place so expect to get a royal roasting/fine from the RCMP if they catch you knocking back a G&T sitting on your steps watching the gorgeous sunset. Best stick it in a coffee mug and save yoursef the headache.
There are some rules and regs which might seem strange to us but are perfectly reasonable to the Canadians. Here are a few to get you started:
- You must not drink alcohol in a public place. That includes your unfenced garden, wandering back from the pub with a half finished pint and necking a quick shot at the beginning/end of a hockey match.
- Alcohol cannot be transported in the body of the car, it must be sealed and in the trunk/boot.
- You're not actually allowed to be drunk in a public place but that's generally overlooked so long as you're not getting punchy. But don't fall asleep in a bar/nightclub otherwise you'll be seeing the inside of the drunk tank.
- If you have a temporary swimming pool which actually has water in it, then it must be fenced and any gate padlocked. The fact that it's in your fenced garden is neither here nor there. This rule isn't usually enforced, but be aware of it.
- When driving you should always have your license and documents with you. When you get pulled for speeding the fine goes up considerably if you've left them behind.
- All children must wear bike helmets when they're cycling.
- A British car seat isn't acceptable in Alberta, you need to have the Canadian safety standard car seat to be compliant.
- If you see a police vehicle on the side of the road with his blues and twos on you need to pull to the outside lane and reduce your speed right down.
- You are allowed to go through red lights at junctions if you're turning right.
- Pedestrians always have right of way. Yes, they might be wandering aimlessly through the parking lot without a care in the world, but honking your horn is likely to get you a swift kick in the headlights.
- If you have a cat it should be leashed if it goes outside. This is BATUS's rule to keep the coyotes away from the village, but it's not generally policed.
There is a lot of weather in Ralston! The seasons change very, very quickly. One minute it's summer and 30 degrees, the next it's -5 and snowing which is all thanks to the Chinook winds.
The summers can be very hot, up to about 40 degrees on occasion. The air is very dry so it's not particularly uncomfortable. During the summer there are some outstanding storms. You can literally see them coming towards you. Tornados do appear so make sure you have a master plan with torches and candles down in the basement as that's where you'll be headed if a tornado comes towards Ralston. The weather is so unpredictable that it's been known to snow in August.
Winter is fairly fierce but you soon get used to it. Once the snow comes down and the temperature drops then that's how it'll stay from November until about April. The temperature generally sits at -20 degrees but it regularly goes down to -37 and as low -50 or so with windchill. Make sure you've got good snow boots, snow pants, a serious jacket, proper mittens and a good hat that covers your ears. It is probably best not even to bother trying to buy suitable winter clothing in the UK, whatever you are able to get hold of is unlikely to cut it in the Alberta winter. A better option is to wait until you get there and buy it in Medicine Hat. You don't need to spend much on it (Walmart is a surprisingly good option for winter clothes), and anything you buy out there (in terms of winter kit) is cheaper and of superior quality/warmth than you would get in the UK or Europe. In those sorts of temperatures you will get frostbite within minutes if you don't dress properly. Your body will tell you when the temperature has hit -20 because your nose hairs will freeze and a bit lower than that you'll find your eyelashes get frost on them, at -25 the snow starts to squeek under foot like walking on polystyrene. It looks pretty but when you thaw out you find your mascara down by your nose.
Although there is a lot of snow the roads are usually fine to drive. It's so dry that the snow will blow across the main roads and won't settle, on quieter roads they will just be packed down snow so make sure you have your winter tyres fitted.
Children and Education
Most BATUS families agree that the provision of education at BATUS is very poor in comparison to the UK. Many children find that after two years at BATUS they are a year behind their age group when they return to the UK. For this reason, you should strongly consider how a posting to BATUS will effect your childrens' education, especially if their are nearing an important stage in their education.
In Alberta children start school a year later than we do in the UK, so to counter that BATUS provides and pays for a Kindergarten class run by an SCE teacher for the reception and year 1 aged children teaching the UK curriculum. After that they will go through the Canadian teaching system. All the Canadian teachers expect high levels of personal responsibility, so don't expect the children to be reminded to take home their homework and if they forget there's every chance they'll be treated to being kept in after school.
There is no uniform in Canadian schools and no school meals but there is a fridge which is chock full of muffins, cookies, coke and, if you're lucky and someone has had a pang of conscience, a processed fruit bar. If you want your children to come home during lunchtime then that's positively encouraged, otherwise it's packed lunch for the next 2 years!
In the Christmas term it isn't unusual to have no break and the summer term finishes at the end of June so it's a long old summer!
It gets a bit chilly in the winter and all children will have to have snow suits. It's best not to get the all in one version, good snow pants and a ski jacket should be fine. Gloves and hats are important. When the wind picks up at very low temperatures it's best to have the children wear a neoprene face mask and sometimes ski goggles. Snow blowing violently into little faces feels like shards of glass. Unless the temperature drops to about -30 the children will still be going out to play. The school doesn't close very often for bad weather, but when the temperature hits about -37/-40 or a big snow storm stops the staff getting up the TransCan, then they do tend to close up.
There are schools downtown where you can send your children, but be warned, it's not the nicest of trips from Ralston to Med Hat during the winter when the snow decides to dump.
Transport and Travel
There's no getting away from it, you have to have a car if you want to go further than the village. When you first arrive you can hire a car from the General Fund until you have your own. There are plenty of cars to buy in Ralston itself and the best thing to do is contact the person you're taking over from and see if they've got what you want/need. Prices of second hand cars are a little cheaper than the UK depending on the exchange rate. Any car which is to be taken onto camp has to have the equivalent of an MOT. It's not necessary in Alberta to have an MOT but the British insist on it (and the WKSP will do it for you) so we don't cut around in a death trap. A few of the second hand car lots will let you take the car, have it MOT'd and if it fails you can return it. Just check with them that that's their policy. When you have bought your car you need to get yourself registered. You don't get a tax disc, you get a number plate and each year you renew the plate. The plate will go with you from car to car.
The most popular cars for BATUS families are people carriers (Caravan) and 4x4s. That way you can get all your skiing kit in the back!
The winters are hard in BATUS. When the weather starts to turn then you need to get your winter tyres on and the car checked to make sure you have all the right oils to cope with the very, very cold period. And make sure you have a block heater that actually works so you don't end up with a frozen engine (that would be the voice of experience!).
There is an occasional bus which goes into Med Hat once a week run by BATUS, but it's a bit hit and miss so best not to rely on it.
Although there's a perfectly good rail line running past the village it's used for freight only and very annoying to know that your shipping goes past your door on the way to Calgary and will take another 2 weeks to get to you! The only time you'll see it stop at Suffield/Ralston is when the big green kit arrives. But look out for the Santa Train in December.
There are plenty of taxis to be had up at camp during the summer months but less so during the winter. A cab could set you back about $60 each way.
You can bring your pets to BATUS but it's a costly business. You'll need to have them pet passported and flown out. It's not often either that you manage to get them on the same flight as you so it'll be another trip up to Calgary to collect them. Expect to wave goodbye to your disturbance allowance in both directions!
A lot of people buy dogs out in Canada but you need to be aware of a couple of things. Don't leave it too late to get your pet vaccinated against rabies. They have to have a clear blood test before they can fly out of the country again. Also, if you have very small dogs (which are hugely popular) then be careful not to leave them in the garden alone when it's dark. There are coyotes running around the Prairie and sometimes do come into the village. One teeny tiny dog is a mere snack.
If you take a cat then there is one rule (which is completely ignored). Cats are not allowed to wander around alone, they must be leashed. The reason for that is to try and keep down the number of coyotes coming into the village.
When you're out walking your dog you will see coyotes but they will largely run away. They'll be interested in your dog so if they do approach you/it then make loud noises or pick the dog up.
Medical and Dental
As soon as you get to BATUS you should have had sorted out for you your Alberta Health Card. You're going to need this as you're not covered if you need to go to a civvy hospital/doctor. If your posting is extended then check and make sure your Heath Card is renewed so you don't end up without cover. If you go out of Alberta (although I think now it covers British Columbia), then you will need additional medical insurance.
Dependents can use the Med Centre on camp. If you have anything which needs referring to a specialist/physio etc then you will be sent down town to the Hospital in Med Hat. Referral is usually much, much quicker than anything in the UK. If you need prescriptions then the Med Centre can provide that so long as you're prepared to wait if they don't have it in stock. Otherwise, you can go down to Walmart where they have a reciprocal agreement with BATUS so you're not paying the same rates as the Canadians.
Dependents also use the Dental Centre on camp. Be warned, you can be waiting a long time for treatment. Unless you want to pay privately then you are not allowed to use a civilian dentist no matter how long the waiting list and no matter how much pain you might be in. It would be a good idea to make sure you're completely dental fit before your posting.
The General Fund
The General Fund is where you can go to get your Duty Free booze and cigarettes amongst other things. You'll find it on the right hand side of camp up at the top just before the entrance to the training area. They also sell Clarins and lots of perfumes and aftershave. The one thing it doesn't sell which you're probably going to want is beer.
The General Fund also hires out hockey kit including skates (to the Army, the dependents can get it for free at the gym), the BATUS boat, skis, cars, hire of a TV and arranges discounts to stay at the Windtower in Canmore.
Sports and Leisure
The gym in the village has a good range of CV equipment and a quite impressive weights room which overlooks the pool. The gym floor can cater for floor hockey, football and basketball. Children aged 8 and over can use the gym unaccompanied.
The pool is indoor, not huge, but has floats, basketball nets and a small slide (which never seems to be in use!).
Outside the gym is a very small skate park and a splash park which is lovely in the summer.
The most visited place in Ralston has to be the Arena. If you've never played or watched ice hockey in your life, you're going to start as soon as you arrive. The social scene in the winter revolves around hockey and everyone, including your 4 year old, will end up throwing themselves around the ice at some point. There are lots of teams within BATUS: the Black Oilers, the Orange Oilers, the Flyers, the Chieftains etc., and not forgetting the Devils which is the ladies team and the Ralston Wildcats, the juniors. The Devils have a fab tour to Beiseker every year to go and take part in a tournament. They lose, obviously, but the other women in the competing teams are very, very welcoming and love having the Brits to visit and encourage you to drink lots of beer.
In the Jubilee Centre in the middle of the village has the bowling alley, library and Jubilee Arms (and basement). The bowling alley has 4 lanes and is licensed. The library is very nice but don't expect too many British books and you're at the mercy of the person who orders the books in. If she's a slushy romantic novel reading person then that's pretty much all you'll find in the fiction section. You can rent DVD's from the library and there are plenty of computers there for when you arrive and are without internet connection for the first couple of weeks.
The Jubilee Arms is the local pub. It is open at lunchtimes closing around 2.00 pm and then re-opens at 6.00 pm. They do sell food, but if it's not deep fried then it's salad.
There is a theatre in Ralston but it's seldom used but the MFRC do sometimes show movies there.
There is a supermarket which is the Canadian equivalent of the NAAFI called the Canex. It sells petrol, some fresh food and the general essentials together with electricals and some clothing you wouldn't dream of putting in your wardrobe never mind on your back.
Skiing becomes very very important during the winter months. The General Fund organise Rec Skis throughout the winter so you can learn to ski (if you don't already) at a ridiculously small price. They also hire out skis and poles.
There are loads of places to ski. An hour down the road is Hidden Valley which is small and not very adventurous but good for just a day. Sunshine is about 3 hours away, Lake Louise is about 3.5 hours away and both have great skiing. Fernie is about 4.5 hours and Kimberley is about 6 hours away. Most of the resorts are not ski in ski out with the exception of Kimberley so you'll need your car and will have a pretty early start to get a full day in. If you've gone in the direction of Lake Louise then the majority of people stay in Canmore, which is about an hour's drive away. If you want a cheap rate, clean, large and comfortable room then try the Windtower. Speak to the General Fund before you go for them to authorise your reduction. If you choose to stay elsewhere then don't forget to ask if they have a BATUS rate, if that fails then ask for the Government rate. You'll always get a discount.
Getting a ski pass is the best way to spend your winter skiing. If you buy early enough (July-ish) you get fantastic deals and the right pass will cover all the major resorts.
If you want to dog sled then there's plenty of opportunity for that around the Canmore/Lake Louise area.
The summer is a bit quieter but there's still plenty of things to do and places to go. BATUS have a boat which you can borrow and take out onto the lakes near Medicine Hat if that's your thing. There's plenty of parks etc to visit for long walks and you can get up close and personal with the amazing landscape of the Prairies. Just be careful to stick to the paths because there are rattle snakes around. They don't want to go anywhere near you but if you disturb one and scare it you're likely to be bitten.
There is quite a bit of wildlife knocking around Ralston.
During the summer months make sure you have plenty of mosquito repellent to hand. The mosquitos are horrendous and can carry West Nile Virus which isn't very pleasant. Use a repellent which has a good dose of Deet in it. If you're around still water then the mosquitos will be out in force so try and spray your clothes too. They can bite straight through jeans and it hurts!
Although you will be warned that you could see rattle snakes, it's not very likely unless it's very lost. You will see them further out onto the Prairie but the village is too far from the river for them to travel. You may see other little snakes but they're harmless.
The first thing you will notice when you arrive at your quarter is the gophers. They look cute and sweet, and they are mostly, but it doesn't take very long to be over run by them. They like to dig holes absolutely everywhere and under your front steps particularly. If you're walking across the grass to get to the Canex then be careful you don't jam your foot in a gopher hole!
Coyotes do occasionally come into the village during the day but mostly at night during the winter. They wouldn't ordinarily bother you, but always been wary of them. If you do see a coyote during the day time, report it to the Police. It shouldn't be there and if it's brave enough to be in the village during the day then it's classed as a danger.
Deer/elk are all over the village but mainly during the winter. They're very brave and some babies think nothing of trying to climb up your steps to see what you're cooking. They look beautiful, especially in the snow, but don't pet them as they do have ticks.
There are black widow spiders in Ralston but you'd be unlucky to see one. Don't poke around in the shed/garage without giving it a good rattle before hand. You're unlikely to find them living in your bath though.
Restaurants, Eating out, Places to go
Tim Horton's is the Canadian equivalent of Starbucks and a bit of an institution. Starbucks does exist (and is vastly cheaper than the UK), but pretty much everyone gravitates towards Timmy Horton's. They sell coffee which isn't that great, doughnuts, sandwiches, bagels, soup etc.
The food court is in the Mall pretty basic with A&W, Edo, pizza, chinese etc. If you want better food then there are lots of restaurants around the Mall. Montana's is a great place for burgers; Kelseys is pretty much the same as Montana's, Eastside Mario's does pizza and other italian food and Earl's is good if you want something slightly less burger and chips. A good restaurant for the evenings is Tumbleweeds who do a fabulous steak. The Thai Orchid does lovely thai (unsurprisingly) food too.
You can't live in and around Medicine Hat for too long before venturing out to Ralph's. It's a steak house and nightclub. The food is quite good but the entertainment really starts when the music kicks in. It is very, very country and western and it's not dancing as you would ordinarily know it. The two step is the order of the day and it's amazing to compare the Canadian cowboy 18 year olds to the British 18 year olds.
The nearest place to shop (supermarkets etc) is Medicine Hat which is about a 45 minute car journey away.
To be honest, you won't find a Waitrose or a Sainsbury's unfortunately. The fresh fruit and vegetables have had such a long distance to travel that no sooner have you paid for it and put it in the car it's gone off. The best place for fresh food has got to be Costco which is on the TransCan as you go into Med Hat and you can't miss it.
There are at least 4 supermarkets in Med Hat, the most popular are Safeways, Canadian Superstore, Walmart and Sobeys. If you want to do a week's shop then you'll probably find yourself visiting all of them. If Safeways is best for fruit and Veg, Sobeys will be best for meat. You can't win and you'll spend all day driving from one to the other.
There is a shopping  Mall in the centre of Med Hat with a cinema and a food court. There are a couple of department stores but don't expect the likes of House of Fraser. If you feel the urge to buy clothing from Sears you're obviously coming to the end of your 2 year posting.
Buying decent clothes in Medicine Hat is just about an impossibility. Winners is pretty much the only place the British would shop. Although it's called Winners it's actually TK Maxx but on a much smaller scale. If you want to buy good quality clothes, either get on line and have them sent or go to Calgary or Vancouver.
Shoe shopping is a bit of a nightmare. Children's shoes (and the majority of adult shoes) to buy in Medicine Hat are not made of leather so you'll have to travel far to get decent shoes. It's not all bad because for 6 months of the year you will all be wearing snow boots and woolly socks. Expect to pay about $50 for a pair of children's snow boots that will keep them warm down to -37 or so. You'll pay more for good quality adult boots, around $100 but you absolutely cannot get through the winter without them. Don't leave it too late to buy them as when they run out of stock, they don't always replace it. And don't be tempted to buy them in the UK as they probably won't go down to the right temperature to stop you getting frostbite and if they do they will be extortionate in comparison. The same applies to ski kit and down jackets, snow pants etc. Buy them in Canada as they sell the kit which you will need and at a much, much better price. Pretty much all the stores well winter kit, Sportcheck will give a BATUS discount and Sportmart won't but are cheaper.
Value Village is a monster sized second hand store. You can smell it before you see it, but for all the fancy dress parties you'll end up going to it's the place to get your bad taste kit. If you can brave it then it's worth a trip but don't expect to be popping out with a bargain Chanel suit, you'll more likely come away with a lurid green lycra body suit which someone once wore in all seriousness. Last year.
There is so much to do and so much to see whilst you're posted in BATUS. The winter sports are amazing and summer trips are fabulous.
The USA is not very far away in the bigger scheme of things. If you get the chance get in the car and drive down through the States and do all the things which would cost you a fortune if you travelled from the UK. Las Vegas is a 14/15 hour drive away and once you get past the Prairies (which stretch a long way into the States) then you get some fabulous scenery. You can make a small detour to Yellowstone National Park which is awe-inspiring where you can camp or stay in log cabins. It's enormous and would take weeks to cover everything there. Las Vegas is good for all the family even though it looks like an adults only playground. The hotels are ridiculously cheap and all have great pools, lovely restaurants and lots and lots of evening entertainment. The Cirque du Soleil productions are amazing. Once you get to Vegas it's not too far to California, so if you're that way inclined, take advantage of the original Disneyland being within reach and spend a couple of days there. There are some lovely places to stay on the Californian coast.
The Rocky Mountains are a sight to behold in either the winter or the summer. In the winter it's a silent and imposing place, in the summer it's teaming with life. There's something to do in every season.
Jobs and Recruitment Agencies
There isn't much in the way of employment for spouses in BATUS. If you want to work you'll have to get a work permit which can take a little while to obtain and if you intend working with children will involve getting a medical which takes even more time. Expect that to take at least 3 months.
Once you do have your work permit and your SIN (national insurance effectively) card, then the first port of call, if you're living in Ralston, is to go into the MFRC and check out their notice board and see what's available. A lot of employment is at Little Gophers nursery/pre-school, there are some jobs in the General Fund (for British dependents only) but you'd be hard pushed to get a Canadian job on camp unless it's in the Bank, MFRC or pub.
If you're living in Medicine Hat then you're better placed to get a job, but it all depends on what you want to do.
Be under no illusion, a posting to BATUS will be expensive. Disturbance allowance comes nowhere near to covering the additional costs. The main costs to be aware of are buying a car, losing money on your car in the UK if you decide to sell it or the cost of putting it into storage. Also the electrical voltage is 110v not 240v and the TV system is different, meaning that many of your more expensive electrical items (TVs, kitchen appliances, etc.) simply will not work in Canada.
If you have any sort of financial difficulties you should not be posted to BATUS.
You will need to set up a Canadian bank account when you arrive. There is a bank on camp which is fine for this purpose.
 Looking At website for BATUS will cover just about everything that you need.