Ottawa, December 2012
Ottawa, December 2012

As I explained, working in Canada can be a refreshing experience coming from Europe. But Canadian workplaces also have a number of issues newcomers will spot fast enough.

The “Canadian Experience” catch-22

This is a classic problem for newcomers to Canada—local employers would rather hire a candidate with previous work experience in Canada; but, of course, you need to start somewhere and find someone willing to give you a chance to get this Canadian experience in the first place.

The “Canadian experience” catch-22 can be incredibly frustrating for newcomers eager to enter the job market. And you’d think in a country where over 250,000 immigrants land every year, employers would be used to dealing with foreign degrees, experience and credentials!

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to tackle the issue. You can go through a staffing agency (they are sometimes less picky than employers), have your credentials assessed in Canada or volunteer to gain experience. Meanwhile, non-profit organizations like Hire Immigrants Ottawa work hard to increase the capacity of employers to attract and integrate skilled immigrants.

Vacation time? Three-day weekends, mostly

Canadians do get more vacation time than Americans, but overall, you do not get a lot of time off.

There are five nationwide statutory holidays in Canada, plus a few provincial and territorial holidays. These three- or four-day-long weekends are a nice break from a busy work schedule and most Canadians look forward to them and celebrate them one way or another.

Each province has different rules and regulations with regard to the amount of vacation pay and time each person can take. Generally speaking, employers must grant at least two weeks of paid vacation time (4% of wages) per twelve-month working period. However, keep in mind that employers have the final say and can assign vacation time to employees. You may not be able to take your two weeks in a row and you may not be able to take time off during a busy period (i.e. around the end of the fiscal year if you work for the government, or during the holiday times for customer service industry employees).

From my own experience, I notice Canadians don’t take a lot of holiday time and when they do, they almost feel bad about it. Taking a week off is often noticed and commented on by co-workers, and getting permission to take two weeks off is a real privilege. Taking a day off here and there to have a three-day weekend is much more common and socially acceptable. Unpaid time off is equally hard to take.

The lack of holiday time can be tough for immigrants who may want to visit home once in a while. You can’t really fly across the world for just five or six days!

Presenteeism is a thing

Sick days—or the lack thereof—are another downside of the Canadian working culture. Paid sick leave is an optional benefit granted by some employers but not all. For instance, when I was working as a French teacher, I had four paid sick days to use in any twelve-month period. When I was working for a Crown corporation, we had no sick days but “personal days”—basically, if you were sick, you had to take vacation time.

As a result, a lot of people would rather show up at work sick than take a precious paid sick day or worse, lose a day of pay. It doesn’t do much for productivity in the long run and you can easily catch the flu from your sick cubicle neighbour. That may be why everyone carries a bottle of hand sanitizer around these days!

A flexible work schedule that doesn’t benefit employees

If you are in an office environment, chances are you will work “9-to-5.” But if you work in the customer service industry, expect to work a very flexible schedule. Stores have long opening hours in Canada and they typically open seven days a week. Call centres have to deal with customers across time zones—and there are six primary time zones in Canada, Newfoundland, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zone.

Employers also like to schedule employees at the last minute. For instance, you may get your weekly work schedule on the Friday for the following week, making it hard to plan ahead for family life and time off.

No right to disconnect

These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to unplug from the office. In my last two positions, I was given a brand-new shiny BlackBerry. “Yay, free phone and no strings attached!” you may think. Problem was, I was pretty much always on call and I found it hard to unplug after the end of my work day. I was receiving emails, requests and questions 24/7 and people actually expected me to answer them “because it just takes a minute to check your emails on your phone.” I never seemed to be able to put the BlackBerry down.

Employees in the customer service industry may find themselves “on call” as well. If their workplace gets busier than expected, a manager may “offer” extra hours—it can be a genuine offer or a last-minute call to come work on a scheduled day off else you’re fired.


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  1. Cynthia January 28, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I do get 5 weeks of paid vacation however I am supposed to take three to four weeks during the month of August a month during which prices skyrocket so you end up having to spend some days at home or worst with your in-laws.

    I know some people can take theirs whenever they want but even my BF cannot really choose as he the only person responsible for his customer and depending on the state of the procedure he might not be able to take time off. He still has 60 days of paid vacation from the past years to take!

    1. Zhu January 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm

      Ah French people and they “holy” August holidays…! My dad was the same, he could only take holidays in August when the company closed for a month. It can be a pain.

  2. Klaus January 29, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Oh my… that was not the worst part yet? Now I feel even more grateful that I didn’t have to give up my job when I immigrated.
    Looking forward to reading the last part. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Zhu January 29, 2013 at 7:56 pm

      Yep, the truly ugly is coming…! Well, there was a “good” part too, it’s not all so bad!

  3. shionge January 29, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    We have what you call Annual Paid leave and I get 22 days paid annual leave and can carry forward to the next year if I did not consume them.

    We have 14 days sick leave and if we don’t take it for a year, we have what you call a Healthy Liftstyle of incentives at $550. The sum gets smaller if you take a day or two of sick leave within a year ;D

    1. Zhu January 29, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      That’s pretty cool actually, good perks!

  4. Neeraj February 1, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    I’m not sure if any studies have been done on this but I’m guessing visible minorities are probably most affected by the “Canadian Experience” issue.

    Regarding flex work schedules, it’s badly needed here. For a G7 nation in the 21st century, it’s high time it becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

    If Canada had vacation time like in some European countries, then perhaps Canada too may have gotten heavily debt-ridden!

    1. Zhu February 1, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      I’m sure visible minorities are affected by the Canadian experience catch-22, although probably less than in Europe where people are more conservative.

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