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5 Surprising Things Canada Taught Me as an Immigrant

Street Art in Ottawa

It’s only when I travel to France that I realize how “Canadian” I’ve become. Indeed, the first few days are not easy as I struggle between my Canadian way of doing things and my innate “Frenchness.”

Years after years, I take the pulse of the population and I can’t help comparing France to Canada. While the former is still a great country in many aspects, there are many reasons why I won’t come back to live in France anytime soon. On the other side, I recently realized that Canada taught me a lot more than I expected.

Canada taught me…

To have a positive attitude towards life

Looking back, I can’t help thinking that the French are slightly neurotic. Sure, the economy sucks, unemployment soared and the cost of living is higher than most can afford. It gets worse every year and while many French predict a revolution will occur sooner or later, they are afraid of change. French are more pessimistic and worried than ever: the consumption of tranquillizers in France is the highest in Europe! Canadians are certainly more down-to-earth and generally have a “can-do” attitude. Sometimes life sucks but you work hard to make it better. I somehow embraced this positive attitude and learned to develop my abilities rather than complaining that I couldn’t do such and such. I’m more open to change and definitely less negative.

To speak both French and English (sometimes simultaneously)

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien famously said “It’s not a problem if you don’t speak English very well… it may sound stupid, but the more mistakes I make in English, the more I feel like your average Canadian.”

The French have extremely high language standards—spelling and grammar are of paramount importance and are used as a general indicator of someone’s education and social status. Similarly, French pick on foreign accents, criticize bad grammar and even dare each other to complete Pivot’s famous “dictée,” a yearly national dictation contest with complicated less-used words. French language is seen as a key element of French identity and a part of French culture.

Although Canada has an ongoing argument about bilingualism, Canadians are much more relaxed when it comes to their official languages. First, a lot of English Canadians have to take French at school and they realize how hard the language is. “Bilingualism” standards are lower than they would be in France: in Canada, you are often considered bilingual if you can communicate in both languages, even if you make mistakes. Second, Canada is an immigrant country and people generally understand that a large part of the population may not speak English as a first language. Making fun of accents and mistakes is very much frowned upon and emphasis is put on actual communication rather than on grammar/spelling.

To see citizenship and immigration differently

In France, you are considered French if you speak the language fluently, if you completed your education in France, if your relatives are French, if you have been living in France for several generations, etc. The checklist is endless. It always annoys me when second- or third-generation French kids are seen as “immigrants” simply because they have a foreign name. Examples of “integrated” immigrants are often examples of second-generation immigrants who are French anyway.

On the other side, Canada welcomes many newcomers, many of them from countries that are culturally far from Canada. Yet, most seem to adapt and embrace the Canadian way of life, even if they keep some of their culture, which is encouraged.

To adapt to change

First, I learned to adapt to a new country, a new language and a new way of life. Second, Canada is the land of change. Weatherwise, you go from harsh and cold winters to hot and humid summers in no time. In this huge country, cities range from European Montreal to business-centred Toronto and you don’t have to drive long to find small towns, a truly different world. The population is multicultural and you can say “hello” in quite a few languages as you explore areas such as Chinatown, Little Italy and other ethnic neighbourhoods.

To treat people well

I always feel that relations with people are generally less conflicted in Canada than they are in France. Canadians are more polite—it’s not a myth. They are also good at chit-chat, are quite civil with each other and value consensus.

Don’t get me wrong, the French are not rude. They are simply taught to respect the people they know well (family, friends) and to distrust strangers. For instance, the relationship between customer/client and employer/employee is totally fucked up in France. It’s a power game rather than a win-win exchange. Similarly, social classes still influence daily relations between people: liberté-égalité-fraternité, maybe, but people are quick to judge you based on your job, your education or your accent.

How about you? Did your country teach you anything?

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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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