Canadian culture 101
The four stages of culture shock
Will you experience culture shock in Canada? Probably…but it may not hit you immediately.
Oh, sure, you’re not landing in a mysterious land and you probably did research before your trip. Besides, Canada is a developed Western nation, been there, done that. Maybe your mother tongue is one of the two official languages or maybe you think you can fit in easily because like Canada, you have British or French roots. Maybe you’ve travelled all around the world and visited exotic locations, so you think Canada should be a pretty straightforward place.
But at one point, regardless of your background, it’s pretty much guaranteed you will be completely confused with the way people interact, work or behave. You will experience a range of emotions—puzzlement, amusement, excitement, confusion and frustration. There you go—that’s the culture shock we were talking about.
The first thing many newcomers note is how friendly Canadians are. They greet you! They ask you how you’re doing! They smile at perfect strangers! However, a few weeks down the road, you may also notice that developing friendships isn’t that easy. Locals may think that it’s a bit of a waste to become friends if you’re not going to stick around. The very definition of “friendship” varies from one culture to another—Canadians are friendly but they aren’t your friends (yet).
Brits in Canada might get annoyed that everyone is commenting on their accent. French in Quebec might find local vocabulary, grammar and syntax puzzling.
Not matter what, you have to adapt. Canada isn’t going to change because you feel that XYZ is wrong, inefficient, or just plain stupid. You have to take a backseat and observe how Canadians behave to ease your way into the culture and avoid basic blunders.
Once in a while, you’ll spot a complete Canadian cliché. The rest of the time, you won’t be seeing many moose, hockey players and lumberjacks.
In fact, there isn’t one homogenous culture in Canada but many cultures and many differences between communities, provinces and territories. The most obvious “divide” is probably Quebec vs. the rest of Canada. It may be wise to avoid calling your new friend in Montreal a “Canadian”—“je suis Québécois! ” he’ll probably correct, half-offended and half-amused. You will also notice that many Canadians are proud of their city, their province and their community and they identify with it.
It’s also wise to keep in mind that Canada wasn’t an empty land when the French and British came. First Nations and Inuit communities have been living in what is now called Canada since time immemorial. Read Indigenous people and communities to discover more about their distinct cultures.
One cliché is true—most Canadians enjoy the great outdoors. A typical Canadian long weekend is best spent at the cottage or by the lakeside, canoeing or swimming. Case in point, you’ll see kayaks and other outdoor equipment strapped to the roof of SUVs all summer long! In winter, ice skating is a popular activity and there are outdoor rinks in many neighbourhoods. In Ottawa, the frozen Rideau Canal is the world’s largest skating rink in the world, 7.8 kilometres of fun fuelled by Beaver Tails—fried pastries—along the way.
Sports is another shared passion. Going to a baseball, football, curling or hockey game is a way to spend a fun evening with friends and relatives. Take a seat, grab a slice of pizza, a hot dog and beer and enjoy the next few hours from the goofy mascot to the half-time show. Ask someone to explain the rules to you before the game, especially for baseball and curling. Tickets for minor league games can be as cheap as $10 but you may have to splurge to see an NHL game, especially if Montreal or Toronto is playing!
You can start discovering Canadian culture right now through the many writers, musicians and filmmakers who are famous at home and abroad.
This is what you may notice during your Canadian adventure.
During your first few days, as you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar city, locals will probably offer help and advice. You’ll notice that, generally speaking, Canadians seem easy-going, polite and eager to please.
You’ll soon realize that prices are always before tax and that tipping isn’t optional. The calculator on your phone become your new best friend—what’s 15% of $12.99, already? Fortunately, a few restaurants calculate the tip for you and offer several options, e.g. the meal + 10%, +15%, +20%, etc. But gee, do I really have to tip everyone?
You may find it strange that a bag of chips is cheaper than a litre of milk—and why is milk sold in bags at the pharmacy, anyway?
It’s 5⁰C and Canadians are still sporting shorts and skirts without leggings. How do they do it? Don’t worry, 0⁰C will feel warm for you as well after a week or two with -25⁰C temperatures! Around the same time, you’re getting used to the beep-beep of snowplows and you’re working on your balance when navigating icy sidewalks. Funnily enough, it’s business as usual when it snows!
After a few weeks, little details you found charming and colourful are getting on your nerves. Prospective employers all claim you’d be a good fit but they never call you back. You almost wish they would reject you screaming “NO! Next!” instead of being so friendly. All the bars in town are broadcasting yet another major hockey game—you feel lonely in the crowd because you really don’t care who’s winning. Your Canadian coworkers are mildly annoyed with you because apparently, you keep on comparing Canada with “home.”
Welcome to the second stage of culture shock! After the initial honeymoon, you’re feeling frustrated.
The good news is, the next two stages are adjustment and acceptance. It does take time to adapt, which is probably why the WHP is a 12- or 24-month work permit.
Canada isn’t exactly like you pictured it. Not all Canadians are nice, honest, welcoming and polite. Finding work isn’t that easy. Some days, it’s actually really cold. But it’s okay because now, you’re focusing on fitting in, which is more realistic than trying to make Canada fit your ideals.
You’ll get your Canadian dream. It’s just that it may not follow the scenario you imagined in your head.
Four seasons of Canadian traditions
Sugar-shack season (mid-March to the end of April): Head to Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick for a complete meal of foods drowned in maple syrup—pea soup, baked ham, baked beans, sausage and deep-fried pork rinds are among the favourites.
Stanley Cup playoffs (starting mid April): All cities with an NHL team (and many without one!) follow the games and cheer until the finals (and then cry if an American team wins).
Pow wows (summer months): These ceremonial celebrations of cultural pride are an opportunity for indigenous communities to gather. Many of these events are open to the general public as long as proper cultural etiquette is respected.
Thanksgiving (second Monday in October): This harvest festival features a hearty Thanksgiving feast with roasted turkey and pumpkin pie.
Halloween (October 31): Sugar-fuelled kids go trick-or-treating in their neighbourhood while adults dress up for work or house parties. Get your candy bowl ready!
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (June 24): Quebec’s national holiday is celebrated in the province and in all Francophone communities in the Americas.
Cottage season (May to September): From Victoria Day (May 20) to Labour Day (first Monday of September), many Canadians spend most of their weekends in national parks or by the lakeside. Popular activities include swimming, drinking and BBQing.
Canada Day (July 1): Canada’s national day is celebrated throughout the country with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities.
Fall colours (September and October): In Eastern Canada, Mother Nature works to paint a beautiful display of fall colours with fiery-red and bright-yellow foliage.
Winter (from November to May in most provinces): Don’t hide indoors, enjoy ice hockey, skating, skiing, watching Northern Lights, maple taffy and the many winter festivals across the country.
Main articles about the WHV to Canada
Step-By-Step Guide to International Experience Canada Work Permits
Introduction to the Canada Working Holiday permit
Guide to Working Holiday in Canada (free download)
16 Good Reasons to Apply for a Working Holiday Visa
Globe WHV insurance policy highlights
The duration of your insurance coverage directly impacts your WHV
15 Tips for a Successful WHV Experience
The Working Holiday Visa Adventure as a Solo Traveller