Most immigrants learn to handle the “so, what brought you here?” question pretty fast. Curiosity isn’t inherently rude or malicious—once in a while, you’re probably also wondering why people chose to live in your country or city.
I give different answers depending on how the question is phrased. What brought me to Canada? “Wanderlust,” “it just happened,” “a Rio-to-Toronto Continental flight,” “a Canadian guy”—I know, it sounds like a creative writing prompt. Just read the blog, damn it, I write better than I speak.
But the true question is: why did I stay in Canada?
The answer is simple—because I could.
At 16, I realized I didn’t have to live in France just because I happened to be born in France.
At 18, I graduated from high school and promptly moved to Hong Kong. I had a job, a place, Chinese language skills but very little common sense. I did learn to be street smart because I managed to survive in Kowloon for a while, go figure.
However, I quickly realized staying in China wasn’t a great long-term plan. I was a foreign, a westerner and a very young woman, to boot. Even if I managed to overlook the legal aspects of my situation—I didn’t exactly have a work visa…—there was absolutely no way I could “blend in” in China. I would always be a 外国人, and that’s the least pejorative expression for foreigners who can’t fit into Chinese clothes.
And then 9/11 happened. I left China, Feng left the US (he was working in LA) and we decided to meet in Mexico to go travelling together. Technically, this is when I discovered backpacking. Accidentally and luckily, I bought a backpack before flying to Mexico City—I had a duffle bag for my three previous trips to China!
Backpacking solved all my immediate problems. I didn’t have to pick a place to live, I could just go from one country to the next and stay in hostels. I didn’t need a plan, most backpackers just go with the flow. I was free!
But I was also broke. Tiny detail 18-year-old me didn’t want to acknowledge—money is a necessary evil. My family doesn’t have money and the small travel fund I had built ($3,000) was running low.
Back to square one. I needed money to travel, I needed a job to make money, I needed to find a place where I could work.
Getting a job in France seemed difficult. I know, millions of French people manage to find an employer, but many are also unemployed and in the early 2000, it wasn’t easy for a young, inexperienced student with an impractical major (Chinese studies for me) to find work opportunities. Seasoned job seekers were also competing for the same minimum-wage jobs. Besides, my siblings were 9 and 13, my parents were barely making ends meet and I didn’t want to impose on them.
I followed Feng to Canada.
“Are these for real?” I asked him, pointing to the “help wanted” signs downtown Ottawa.
Feng was applying for jobs. He got one. Then he got a slightly better one, so he quit the first one.
I was absolutely amazed.
I wanted a job too. Unfortunately, I had entered Canada as a visitor, which meant I wasn’t legally allowed to work. I didn’t have any Canadian ID, anyway—no SIN, no bank account, none of the regular paperwork HR ask for after a successful interview.
Still, I managed to find an employer who couldn’t care less about my legal status as long as I was willing to spend a few hours on weekends and bank holidays selling flowers and get paid in cash.
The fact there might be people willing to hire me in Canada sounded very exciting. However, I strongly suspected applying for permanent residence was a major commitment and a long adventure. I wasn’t ready for it and I probably wasn’t eligible anyway.
I successfully applied for a visitor visa extension. That same summer, I researched my options—cue the AOL jingle—and I discovered the Working Holiday Visa (WHV) program.
Good news—I was eligible for a 12-month work visa to Canada. It sounded almost too good to be true.
I flew back to France to take my university exams in September 2004. One morning, I showed up at Canadian embassy with a WHV application. “Come back in a couple of hours!” At noon, I picked up my passport with a WHV stapled to a page. This was my chance to “pretend” to be Canadian for a year.
I came back to Canada and applied for my first SIN—it had an expiry date but I was proud of it. I got my first “real” Canadian job in a call centre. At the end of the two-month contract, I was offered a permanent position. I took it knowing I hated the job—I quit a few weeks later. I worked as a receptionist, an event usher, a data entry agent and an exam supervisor. I improved my English skills. I survived winter, a few arguments with Feng and overall I found Canada was an okay place to live.
I started the permanent application process in spring 2005. Feng and I got married. I spent months gathering the documents and then refreshing the “application status” page.
I was granted permanent residence a few days before my WHV expired.
And this is how it started. I came because reasons but I stayed because Canada gave me the chance to.
If the beginning of my story looks like yours—”I want to go abroad but I don’t know where to start!”—check out the Working Holiday Visa program right now. You may be eligible to a one-year work visa to one of the 60 countries currently participating in the program.
For instance, citizens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine and the United Kingdom are eligible for a Canadian working holiday visa.
I’m not getting into more details because I know people who do that much better than me. They are a fun and friendly team of experts, travellers (hi, Isa!), often former Working Holiday Visa holders who put all the info you need online for free. Start with the Guide to the Canadian Working Holiday Visa Program for a complete overview. PVTistes.net also published a wonderful Guide to a Working Holiday in Canada (you can download the PDF version for free or read it online) that covers absolutely everything, including where to go in Canada, how to look for a job, finding accommodation, etc. Disclaimer—I can probably quote the guide because I translated it from French to English, one of the best assignments I got recently! And when you’re ready to apply for a WHV to Canada, follow the step-by-step guide with screenshots.
Now grab your chance, go explore the world and write your own story.