Fifteen years ago, halfway across the world, a very drunk and possibly high backpacker gave the following advice to my sober eighteen-year-old self. “Just go for anything that remotely interests you. Learn whatever there’s to learn and become fucking knowledgeable about it.”
I don’t remember his name or what he looked like, but the advice stuck with me. I guess this was a lesson in itself—sometimes, drunk people can be surprisingly insightful, and it pays to pay attention. Not that I could have ignored him, mind you, since he was sitting on my bed because he was too drunk to find his assigned bunk in the dorm.
I came to Canada as a newly graduated French student with a four-year university degree. One of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make when applying for permanent residence was to give up on a master’s degree. I knew it would be years before I could afford a Canadian degree—tuition is expensive in North America and the application process is complicated.
It may sound silly to you, but formal education meant a lot to me. In hindsight, though, I don’t regret my choice. Even if I never completed a master’s degree, immigrating to Canada, being in a multicultural relationship and travelling the world gave me the chance to learn other skills.
Among the many learning opportunities newcomers have, here are five you could embrace.
Learn French (or English)
According to the 2011 Census, 17.5% of Canadians speak both English and French. “That’s it? Why should I bother, then?” you may think.
I get it. You can live a happy life in Canada speaking only French or English and as a newcomer, your priority is settling successfully and finding a job that matches your skills. Take your time, make yourself at home and don’t see learning the other official language as a chore but as an opportunity to better understand Canada’s other culture, to add a skill to your resume, to learn a global language widely spoken around the world.
As a newcomer, you may be eligible to participate in the free Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program funded by the Government of Canada. Affordable language training classes are often offered in colleges, community centres, libraries, etc. and there are plenty of ways to improve your French or English skills for free in Canada.
And if you already master French and English, feel free to explore other languages—Inuktitut, for instance!
Learn to drive
Even if you don’t plan to own a car, even if your partner is the designated driver, even if you’d rather rely on Uber for rides, get a driver’s licence. The process is very straightforward and cheap compared to many countries (looking at you, France…) and a valid driver’s licence can come in handy at work or at home.
Take it from someone who’d rather be a passenger, I was glad to have a driver’s licence when Mark was a baby or when Feng wasn’t able to drive. Besides, your driver’s licence is your default government-issued photo identification document since Canada doesn’t have a national ID card.
Learn about a minority group in Canada
No matter where you settle in Canada, there will be established immigrant communities around you. Canadians with Chinese, Italian, Afghan, Portuguese, Somali, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean or Haitian roots may be your new neighbours. Get to know these communities and these cultures! Go eat in ethnic restaurants, celebrate Chinese New Year or Diwali, explore a small grocery store full of imported products and attend one of the many festivals (in Ottawa, we have the Greek Fest, the Italian Festival, the Festival of India, Chinatown Remixed, the Italian Week, etc.).
If you grew up in a country at odds with another culture or with another minority group, this is a great opportunity to meet again on neutral grounds. Most communities coexist peacefully in Canada and you may realize that any prejudice you have was passed down to you—it’s never too late to overcome stereotypes.
Learn about your rights and duties in Canada
I’m not suggesting the Criminal Code of should be your bedtime reading—Canadian laws revolve around the usual concepts, “don’t kill, don’t steal, and for fuck’s sake, be a decent human being.” However, there are Canadian laws and rules you should know. For instance, in Canada, the legal drinking age is enforced and yes, you will be carded. Impaired driving carries stiff penalties and cars must stop for school buses as long as the red lights flash or the stop arm is out. As a permanent resident, don’t forget to comply with residency requirements.
You should also learn about your rights as a tenant, as a worker, as a consumer and as a citizen.
The federal government and the provincial/territorial governments make information available online—when in doubt, do research or ask!
Learn to make peace with your past
Putting physical distance between you and a country you want to leave, a job you hate, national problems you have no power over or toxic relatives is both a way to get a new start and gain mental distance.
After a few months in Canada, you may realize that you do miss a few aspects of life back home because you had always taken them for granted. Maybe your old job wasn’t that bad. These national issues may feel inconsequential now. You may find you’re communicating better with your relatives over the phone (and also, feel free to hang up anytime).
How about you? What did you learn as a traveller or as an immigrant? What learning experience was the the most useful to you?