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5 Steps to Make Friends in Canada When You’re New to the Country

Ottawa, October 2022
Ottawa, October 2022

Starting a new life abroad requires tons of paperwork, patience and sacrifices—including leaving everyone and everything behind.

That’s right. Let’s face it, chances are you won’t have anyone to hang out with for the first few weeks or months of your adventure in Canada, except maybe your partner.

Socializing can be a secondary concern for many newcomers—“I need a job and a place to live, I’ll just log into Facebook if I need a virtual hug!”—and making friends as an adult can be tricky because we lack the spontaneity of children, yet somehow kept a taste for drama. However, it should be one of your priorities because it helps ease into Canadian culture and feel at home.

Extravert or introvert, make meeting new people and potential friends one of your priorities—trust former 20-year-old me who felt very lonely as a new Canadian twenty years ago!

Here are five steps to get you started.

Get ready for your first culture shock

Each culture and age group views friendship differently. It often boils down to “mutual trust and support” but expectations can vary greatly. As you’re building relationships in Canada, it’s a good idea to understand a few common personality traits and social norms in English-Canadian culture.

Canadians have a reputation for being friendly but as you will quickly realize, there’s a long, long bridge to cross to transition from pleasant small talk to actual friendship—hint, this is a culture where “how are you?” is merely a greeting, no truthful answer expected.

Canadians tend to value their personal space and privacy. Getting invited into someone’s home is rare and special. It’s mostly for formal occasions, like a housewarming party or a baby shower. Friends often meet for a drink or a meal at a coffee shop, a bar or a restaurant. Showing up uninvited would be a major faux pas unless you’re ringing your neighbour’s doorbell to bring back a misplaced Amazon package.

Finally, Canadians tend to be enthusiastic and generous with superlatives. It’s always great to hear that you’re “awesome” and to get an awkward North American hug with the promise to meet up again soon, but it doesn’t mean you’ve made a friend… yet. Sorry, eh.

Understand the difference between a friend and a network contact

Much like Americans, Canadians are big on “networking.” Your network is basically a group of people you know and share a connection or mutual interests with—colleagues, neighbours, other parents, your landlord, professionals in your industry, etc. These are people you can turn to for advice or occasional help. However, remember that network contacts haven’t graduated to friend level yet—and they may never will.

You can reach out to a former manager for a professional reference, you can ask a neighbour to recommend a family doctor and you can turn to a colleague for advice about local schools. However, it would be strange to contact them for more personal matters or call them just to vent. With network contacts, conversations are purposeful rather than casual. 

Leave any bias at home

Canada is a very multicultural country and you’re bound to meet people from all walks of life and corners of the world.

I’m a staunch atheist but various religions play a big part in the life of five of my close friends. I’m 39 and my friends can be 30 or 65. Some of them grew up in Ottawa and have never crossed the border, some of them came to Canada from countries that don’t even exist anymore as such. Some of them have dreadlocks, some of them wear a hijab, some of them eat spicy foods for breakfast, and some of them eat a very British “dinner” at 5 p.m.

We all have implicit bias. Making friends in Canada and meeting other cultures from all over the world is a precious chance to deconstruct any stereotypes you may have.

Tap into the power of communities

“Community” is a keyword in this huge, sparsely populated country spanning six time zones where it’s too cold to comfortably hang out in outdoor public spaces for six months of the year. “The community” can be your city, your town, your neighbourhood or your block. It’s basically a small-scale version of Canada, a bite-size population group, an easy-to-join informal organization where it’s easier to meet new people.

There are communities for just about anything. Your local gym, school board or place of worship are communities. And in doubt, there are… ta-da, community centres, most of them offering regular events and activities!

Connect with people

I’ve seen “free hugs” posters taped to traffic lights but I have yet to spot a sign that says “free friend, available immediately!”

… and come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t recommend calling this number, anyway.

If you want to make friends, you will have to connect with people. Go ahead, say hi, make conversation, ask questions, be genuine and foster breeding grounds for relationships.

  • If you’re a parent, hang out at the playground or at the park.
  • If you’re a student, sign up for as many on-campus activities as you can.
  • If you have a hobby, find local groups of like-minded people.
  • If you don’t have a job yet, volunteer.
  • If you do have a job, show up at “mandatory fun” events (not only management will approve but making fun of such events with coworkers is a bonding experience!).

Chances are, plenty of people are feeling as lonely as you are. Developing friendship takes time but it’s worth the effort!

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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