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4 Mistakes I Made When I Came to Canada (Avoid Making Them!)

Takeout on Bank Street, Ottawa

One day, during a job interview, a hiring manager—who, I kid you not, had a copy of Managing for Dummies on the bookshelf behind him—asked the most common question ever, the one about your greatest strengths and weaknesses.

“Well, I never make the same mistake twice,” I replied after a five-second pause.

The manager nodded appreciatively, completely missing the fact that I was referring to the ongoing interview. Indeed, I didn’t repeat the mistake—I learned to avoid call centre “opportunities” and their excruciatingly long and useless interview processes for minimum-wage jobs.

I made many mistakes over the years, especially when I first came to Canada. I blame them on being young, new and naïve.

Maybe these “lessons learn” can help you?

Mistake #1—Takeout for lunch and dinner (and store-bought snacks too!)

I came to Canada in 2002 as a poor student. In France, I was making my own sandwiches (i.e. baguette and salted butter, and maybe ham and cheese if I had money). “Eating out” meant buying a kebab once a month and I never went to “proper” restaurants. There weren’t many options back then—few fast food places, no delivery except for pizza and almost no cheap restaurants.

It all changed once in Canada. Food was cheap, food was everywhere. I could eat out for less than $5 and believe me, I did. I tried all the fast food places—McDonald’s, Burger King, A&W, Harvey’s, Subway, Tim Horton… And then, I started getting takeout from any place that offered the option. I’d grab soup and a salad at noon, buy a couple of cookies or a muffin later, then for dinner Feng and I often ate out too. My excuse? The same as everyone else. I was working two jobs, I didn’t have access to a fridge or a microwave at work, I was too tired to cook and I had no time to shop and damn, I needed a break during the day.

At one point, I smartened up and started packing lunch. We ate out less often. Suddenly, I realized that I had stopped gaining weight and I had money left at the end of the month.

Lesson learned: “Convenience food” is everywhere in Canada. You can skip cooking for weeks and eat whatever you crave pretty much anytime. But these takeouts add up both on the scale and on your monthly expenses.

Mistake #2—Fighting a lost battle

Any French who come to Canada invariably spends a few weeks (or months) commenting on Quebec French. It’s not so much the accent but a vocabulary that sounds exotic and a grammar that feels extremely wrong at time. However, at one point, you have to realize that you aren’t supposed to “teach” locals how to speak their language. This is not even a lost battle—it’s a battle that shouldn’t even be fought in the first place. You weren’t sent to Canada to enforce proper use of French as decided in Paris.

Other lost battles include complaining about the weather (I’m guilty of that but realistically, it won’t make Canada any warmer), multiculturalism (you are an immigrant!), distances (… aim for Liechtenstein next time?) or typical North American attitudes (remember socialist America? Yeah, me neither).

Lesson learned: I find it’s best to find cultural differences entertaining and to embrace them rather than trying to correct what you feel is wrong.

Bank Street, Ottawa

Mistake #3—Feeling pressured to spend money

Unless you’re from North Korea (welcome here!), you’re probably familiar with advertising, marketing and other tricks to make you spend money. But I find the pressure to buy is intense here. Winters are long, so we hang out at the shopping mall. There’s always something to celebrate—it’s still October and Christmas merchandise is already in the aisles. And if you don’t have money right now, well, there are financing options available…

In Canada, household debt is around 170% of disposable income—the average Canadian owes about $1.70 for every dollar of income he or she earns per year, after taxes (source: Bank of Canada). Scary, isn’t it?

Lesson learned: Don’t spend money just because you’re bored. Don’t feel like you need a big house and several cars to live the Canadian dream. Live within your means. Seriously. It gets ugly when you don’t.

Mistake #4—Expecting help

Canadians are friendly but few of them are your friends (unless you have a really large social circle). It can be disconcerting at first to be asked how you are doing twenty times a day and to be on a first-name basis with pretty much everyone you meet. But don’t get fooled—no one cares if you’re having a good day (it’s just a greeting), the waiter doesn’t find you that funny (he just wants a good tip) and “Bob” your manager can fire you tomorrow if needed.

“Build a network!” is usually the advice given to newcomers. It’s true, a network—acquaintances, people in your field of work, parents who have kids the same age, etc.—are a great resource. However, these relationships are developed to be mutually beneficial, so don’t expect your network to help you out every time you need it, especially if you reach out too often.

Don’t expect much support from the government either. The government of Canada is more generous than the American government (come here for healthcare!) but it doesn’t exactly offer the French welfare system.

Lesson learned: Canada is an individualist culture. Don’t rely too much on acquaintances or on your network. Make friends, real ones. Help others and learn how to ask for help efficiently.

Did you make any mistake lately? Did you learn any lesson?

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