Mathieu, from a Working Holiday Permit to Canadian Citizenship—A look back at 16 years in Toronto
Mathieu came to Canada with a Working Holiday Permit in 2005—16 years later, he’s still living in Toronto, but as a Canadian citizen. In this interview, Mathieu shares his personal and professional journey.
Hi there! Can you introduce yourself?
Hello, bonjour! My name is Mathieu, I’m 39 years old and I’m from Nanterre, a city in the Greater Paris Region. I came to Canada with a Working Holiday Permit almost 16 years ago and… well, I’m still living in Toronto!
What’s your background? Where did you work before coming to Canada?
I studied computer science to become a programmer. Right before applying for my Working Holiday Permit to Canada, I was working as a call centre agent at Free, a French telco provider. I was basically troubleshooting Internet connection issues at an inbound call centre.
Why did you decide to go to Canada?
Well, honestly, I wasn’t exactly planning to go to Canada in the first place! In 2005, Julie, my girlfriend back then, called me and said she had found a way to work in Canada. The magical three-letter word was “Working Holiday Permit.” I had no idea how much her call would change my life…
At that time, I was 22, I had always lived with my parents and I had just found a job with a pretty good salary. I didn’t want to leave France, especially because I was looking into getting my own place. And to be honest, I had never pictured myself living abroad. But Julie insisted it was the right move and we talked about it for several weeks—she had just graduated from university and she had a brand-new foreign language degree, so work experience abroad would be an asset on her resume. “Hey, why not?” I told myself after a while.
Back in 2005, applicants could go to the Canadian embassy in person and get their Working Holiday permit the same day. Obviously, we didn’t know that, we sent everything by mail and it took a few weeks for our application to be processed. One day, Julie called me—she was ecstatic over the phone, she had just received her passport with the permit in it. I checked my mail as well—I had gotten mine too. I had neutral feelings about it. I guess I didn’t quite realize what getting my Working Holiday Permit actually entailed.
Then we had to pick a destination and buy plane tickets. Montreal wasn’t a great option since we were two native French speakers eager to practise English. The other two obvious options were Toronto or Ottawa. Someone told me that Ottawa was a very bilingual city, so again too much French around for us. So Toronto it was!
How did you get ready for your Canadian Working Holiday Permit experience? This is when you started brainstorming pvtistes.net, right?
Julie and I started “exploring” Toronto online, checking rent prices, etc., trying to picture ourselves in Canada, but we quickly realized there wasn’t much information about Toronto, or at least not much information about practical life stuff. Did prospective tenants need guarantors to get an apartment? Where were jobs advertised? How about public transit and transportation in general? What was the cost of living in Toronto? These were questions we wanted answers to. Back in 2005, I had failed enough classes that I wasn’t able to graduate—let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly the most hard-working student…—so I was leaving France without a diploma and I didn’t speak much English. Going to Canada was a scary leap into the unknown, and I would have felt better being able to chat with other Working Holiday Permit holders for some reassurance and tips. And that’s how pvtistes.net was born. It was a very small blog-style website at first. A few weeks later, I turned it into a forum… fast forward a few years and it turned into a “proper” website (you can see the full timeline here). Clearly, it filled a need right away because in just three weeks we already had around 100 registered members, all looking for info and hoping to share experiences and pre-travel jitters.
And then you kept on working on Pvtistes.net once in Canada…
Yes. Julie and I would check the website daily to answer questions, share snippets of our life in Canada and offer tips, from rent prices to… anything, really. What was great back then was that there weren’t that many members, so we all “knew” and helped each other. Then once in Canada, members would meet in real life. In 2006, French Working Holiday Permit holders in Toronto went to Montreal for the weekend (and local Working Holiday Permit holders hosted us), then we switched and hosted them when they came to Toronto. We also had a weekly Working Holiday Permit holders meeting every Friday in Toronto and every week more people would show up. A French intern at L’ Express, a French-language weekly newspaper in Toronto, wrote an article about our little group, which he likened to a “surrogate family”—and that’s exactly how it felt! We lost this intimacy as the website grew bigger but these are great memories. And today, it’s always rewarding to see that current or former Working Holiday Permit holders take the time to answer questions from worried Working Holiday Permit holders-to-be, and that everybody has the same fears and questions before the big trip—we’ve been there too!
So, what did you think of Toronto when you first came?
The first thing I noticed was how multicultural the city is. There are dozens of ethnic neighbourhoods and people seem to get on well. Toronto is a city you really get to appreciate when you actually live there because you have to soak up the atmosphere, explore various neighbourhoods and meet local people to really enjoy it. If you like North American architecture with tall buildings and wide streets, well, you’re gonna like Toronto! And there are beaches as well—okay, kind of out of the way, but hey, it’s an option in summer. I liked the atmosphere of the city and how safe I felt. It’s not scary to walk home alone, even if it’s very late, and even if you’re a woman.
How did you manage to survive in Toronto if your English wasn’t really good?
My English sucked at first. Part of it was kind of a mental block—I didn’t want to speak and I didn’t understand anything. I thought I was pretty much hopeless. Fortunately, Julie helped a lot and that’s how I was able to settle in an English-speaking city fairly smoothly. That said, I have mixed feeling about whether coming to Toronto to learn English is a good idea, a question many people ask.
I’d say that it is a good idea if you plan to take intensive English classes for a month, for instance. That way you can just dive in and practice what you learn in class. This option requires additional savings, though, because you’ll have to pay for classes and survive without finding a job for a little while. But life can get really complicated if you come to Toronto without speaking much English and without taking classes. Julie helped me open a bank account, find a place to live and apply for my SIN—I’m not sure how I would have handled all that alone. The vast majority of people in Toronto do not speak French at all. As a result, once these initial “tricky” steps (“tricky” for someone who doesn’t speak English, pretty straightforward if you do), I somehow found my way in this new English-speaking environment without feeling stressed out. Stakes were lower when I was talking to a cashier, a bus driver or a neighbour, so I wasn’t too stressed out about my English. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to live in an English-speaking city when you don’t speak English. I would say that it took me two years to get over my mental block and speak English more naturally. It’s also good to keep in mind that there are immigrants from all over the world in Toronto (Asians, Indians, Europeans, etc.) so nobody is going to make fun of your accent—it’s just one more accent in a city where many people speak English with an accent. People are cool with that. Your accent isn’t an issue (and I was lucky because somehow, French accent is somehow “valued”!). French speakers take note—your accent is seen as “classy”! Basically, my advice is to just get used to speaking English right away. Don’t try to be perfect, nobody is going to laugh at you. The first few weeks are crucial—practice, otherwise you may develop a mental block and it takes a while to get over it.
Did your English get better over time?
I can understand everything now, even on the phone—talking over the phone is really tricky at first! My English isn’t perfect but I can handle chitchat without any problems, like when I play squash with English speakers or when I spend an evening with my neighbours and their friends. Jokes and slang… yeah, that’s still difficult sometimes, I don’t always understand everything. But still, I’ve come a long way in 16 years.
Can you share your immigration timeline? How did you go from being a Working Holiday Permit holder to a Canadian citizen?
Until the 2014 season, French nationals could only get a one-year Working Holiday Permit, so my own Working Holiday Permit expired in September 2006, a year after I landed in Canada.
After that, I had several work permits through the job I had found.
I started the permanent resident process in 2009 and it only took me a few months to get it. I applied through the Canadian experience class (CEC), later integrated in 2015 into the Express Entry system.
I applied for Canadian citizenship in 2014 and the process took a few months. For more practical information about the citizenship process, you can read Becoming a Canadian citizen (in French).
Let’s talk about work! What kind of opportunities did you have during your Working Holiday Permit and after?
Julie and I had a pretty hard time getting a job when we first arrived. We weren’t familiar with Canadian-style job applications and we didn’t have much work experience in the first place. In two months of job hunting, we only had a two-day contract at the Toronto Book Fair, setting up booths and taking them down at the end of the event. The whole job hunting process was pretty disheartening, plus we were living off of our savings. I worked as a freelance programmer for a while, but I stopped pretty quickly because I found it difficult to work with English-speaking clients.
Eventually, Julie secured a position as a French-as-a-second-language teacher for adults at Berlitz. The Canadian job market is all about networking, so she recommended me for an interview and I also became a French teacher. The best part was, as a teacher, I could join English classes for free—basically I was making money and working on my English.
We also signed up with several staffing agencies about two months after arriving in Toronto. My first contract was as a French-speaking outbound call centre agent—not exactly my dream job but I was getting paid $14/hour, which was pretty good at the time. I found a part-time position in my field three weeks later—I moved on to a junior IT specialist at the Collège Boréal.
I was eventually hired as a full-time IT specialist nine months after we arrived in Canada. The company I was working for was hiring many French Canadians—it helped me land the job and it was also a great environment to learn more about Canadian culture.
Working Holiday Permit holders I’m talking to often report that it’s much, much easier to find a job when you speak both French and English. And if you’re not comfortable in English, well, it’s a bit of a gamble. Some are lucky, others aren’t and there’s a bit of a stigma to admit that you just can’t find a job. I can’t stress it enough, this is an English-speaking environment and if you’re not comfortable in English, life gets complicated pretty fast. Just making a call is difficult. It’s a vicious circle. French speakers can always head to Montreal as a “backup plan” but many Working Holiday Permit holders are discouraged enough to go home.
Oh, and on a somewhat unrelated note, people often ask me about freelancing in Canada. I find this option much easier to manage than in France.
What was the hiring process like for your first “real” job in your field?
The job offer was actually for a graphic designer position, which is not my field at all. I was called for an interview regardless, probably because I had put the pvtistes.net project in my portfolio. The interview went so well that the manager told me I wouldn’t be offered the designer position but a soon-to-be vacant programmer position. At the end of the interview, I remember he told HR, “Man, this guy sounded like a true French in his interview!”
During the interview, I showed him Pvististes.net and all the work I was doing on the website, which was basically just a side project. I think it was an asset during this interview.
Now keep in mind that in Canada, you can get hired very quickly, but you can also be laid off very easily. There’s less at stake during interviews for HR and management. You’ll get hired if the first impression is positive and if it doesn’t work out, well, you’ll be shown the way out.
I eventually moved on to another position a year later and I started with a much better salary.
Pvtistes.net became your full-time job a few years ago. What’s your role, exactly?
Pvtistes.net was a side project for years but we eventually turned it into a company with full-time work opportunities thanks to various business partnerships.
I’m the IT guy. I handle technical issues, I implement new features, I worked on our mobile app, etc. I also help out for specific projects like our 2016 Pvtistes Tour and our 2016 and 2019 Salons du PVT. I worked on the event website.
What were your biggest challenges in Toronto?
Finding a job when we first arrived, living in an English-speaking environment, failing interviews because my English wasn’t good enough… Yeah, it was hard at first, but you can’t lose all confidence, you have to hang in there. Three months after arriving in Canada, Julie and I had less than $100 left in our checking account. We were this close to just going home, then we got paid for a small job and we both found full-time jobs, the outbound call centre positions. Everything changed for the better after that. We quit this job when we found a better one—I moved on to IT and Julie got a contract as a bilingual receptionist in a government ministry through Quantum, the staffing agency.
I don’t regret a thing. Sure, times were tough but it ended up being a constructive experience. It gives you confidence afterwards because hey, you managed to overcome challenges and work things out. I wasn’t as self-motivated when I was living in France. Back then, if I had no money, I would just stay home instead of going out with friends. I was living with my parents, my basic needs were covered. But in Canada, running out of money meant having to go home. The stakes were higher.
Do you think the required $2,500, the minimum required to help cover your expenses in Canada at first, is enough to survive in Toronto?
It’s going to get tricky if you don’t find a job in the first month—maybe before that if you’re travelling alone. Shared housing in a decent location can be up to $1,200 in Toronto. Sure, you might find cheaper rent if you’re not too picky, but still. You’re going to need furniture, a phone plan, and it’s tempting to just enjoy the city and various activities. So, I would say that you need at least $5,500. And when you don’t speak English, you have to budget extra to take English classes.
What’s your best memory?
Tough question, I’ve been there for 16 years…! Maybe when I found my first full-time job in my field because it made my life so much easier. My previous job had been a temporary part-time position and my job wasn’t very interesting. My Working Holiday Permit experience started to get more interesting from this job on.
Anything “typically French” that you miss?
Yes, food and also the fact that France is so easy to explore—beaches, mountains, and plenty of other European countries just within reach. Once you’ve explored the region around Toronto, you pretty much have to fly or take a long, long drive to see something different. I didn’t realize how lucky I was in France and I didn’t explore my own country enough before coming to Canada.
Now 16 years later, I find I don’t have many friends left back there—long-distance friendship isn’t easy over the years. I can count my French friends on one hand. I miss my parents as well, I wish I could be there to help them from time to time. And it’s hard picturing myself as a dad without my relatives around.
Would you say it’s easy to forge real friendship with Canadians?
It really depends on whom you meet. Some people are very nice at first, but they just sound friendly because it’s the polite thing to do—the relationship won’t turn into friendship. Then you have people who behave more like French friends—basically, if you get on well, then you’ll get invited at home for a drink or dinner or whatever. Many people have been friends since childhood in Canada. They grew up together and they stick together. You’ll also see couples who met in high school or college. These people often stick to their circle of old friends and they don’t try to make new friends, they don’t feel the need to.
I know, this is probably anecdotal but this is my personal experience. I play squash with people I’m friendly with, for instance, but we never see each other outside of squash. On the other hand, I met one of my friends at a gas station. I told him his car was cool, we started talking, exchanged email addresses and now we see each other often.
Do you meet a lot of French people in Toronto?
Yes, I have French friends here and we do a lot of things together.
Some Working Holiday Permit holders avoid fellow citizens because they claim they didn’t come to Canada to hang out with people they would meet at home. That kind of attitude only lasts so long, though. After a few months or a few years in Canada, you tend to get closer to your community because relationships are easier in many ways. Even if you’re perfectly bilingual, chatting with other French people if you’re French comes easily because you’re sharing the same sense of humour—especially the art of being ironic—, the same background, because you can discuss French politics, etc. It can be tricky to talk about “touchy” matters with Canadians, they don’t like to debate as much as French and they tend to politely agree. French people can argue about politics and yes, get into heated discussions but remain friends. Speaking your mother tongue feels good as well. It just rolls off your tongue, you don’t have to think about the best way to express yourself. Spending a night out speaking English if it’s not a language you’ve mastered can be exhausting—maybe you’re not expressing yourself well, maybe you didn’t get the joke, etc.
That said, it’s worth keeping in mind that people in Toronto come from all over the world. There’s a real mix of cultures here. The other day, someone told me about a French guy who complained on Facebook that Toronto was “too cosmopolitan.” I really don’t understand what he meant. It’s the opposite mindset of a city like Toronto… Sure, there are ethnic neighbourhoods, entire communities of Italians, Portuguese, Greeks, etc., but people mingle in daily aspects of life. This is one of Canada’s big asset—“fitting in” is pretty easy. There are French communities too, and I don’t think hanging out with people from your community is a problem when you’re also trying to fit in as a new Canadian. One thing I like here is that during the World Cup, for example, people cheer for a variety of teams, often their home country team. They put two flags on their car—home country and Canada. You really feel that people are proud to be Canadian, no matter where they’re from originally. To them, immigrating to Canada is an opportunity, they’re kind of grateful, I would say.
What would you miss the most if you were to move back to France?
I would say Toronto’s lifestyle and atmosphere. I find it less stressful. I’ve always lived in Paris so maybe it’s a bit of a unique French experience, there are probably less stressful cities in France than Paris. But Toronto is the perfect place to me because it’s a big city with a pretty laid-back vibe.
Do you ever wonder how your life would have been if you had stayed in France?
Yes, once in a while, and the thought of it scares me a bit. I’m not sure I would have been successful in France. I left the country without a university degree and this wasn’t an issue when I started looking for a job in Canada. I did eventually graduate—I went back to France during my Working Holiday Permit—but nobody ever asked for my credentials. Having a degree or not doesn’t really matter here, except in a few fields where it’s really required. My French degree isn’t widely understood by HR anyway. Showing what I did with Pvtistes.net was a much better way to back up my skills during interviews. I think I would have had to take formal education more seriously in France to land the career I wanted, so I’m a better fit in Canada where it’s not required.
What did you learn through your Working Holiday Permit experience?
: I’m going to quote Julie who wrote about our first steps in Canada. “‘Children’ is the word I’d use to describe Mat and me at this precise moment. We boarded the plane as if we were going on vacation, blissfully unaware of the adventure to come and quite careless too. If we could have foreseen challenges ahead in our lives, careers, and relationship, I’m willing to bet we would have been much less relaxed—but I guess this is part of the beauty of this adventure, not knowing what the future holds…”
We lived with our parents in France. We didn’t have bills to pay, life was easy. And suddenly we had to handle life as new Working Holiday Permit holders. It was a very formative experience. If you fail, well you learn and don’t fail again.
I mean, I wasn’t exactly the perfect fit for a new life in Canada and to find work in my field but it ended up working out. I don’t want to sell the “Canadian dream” but I’d like to tell people who don’t speak English well or who don’t have a degree that being resourceful and proactive may be more important than having the perfect background.
What advice would you give to future Working Holiday Permit holders who are coming to Canada?
Once in a while, I meet Working Holiday Permit holders who can’t handle being far from their loved ones. They didn’t know it was going to be so difficult and suddenly it hits them. There are also people who don’t like Toronto, who think it’s an ugly city. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend planning your year in Canada too much because the more you do, the more you could be disappointed. Keep expectations low and see what happens. Also try not to compare everything to France, tell yourself that a lot of things are different in Canada and that you’ve come all the way to discover what’s different.
Do you have any project right now?
I don’t know, maybe having a child. Having a child here has pros and cons. Money-wise it’s not a great move because everything is very expensive—the baby years but also later on since education is very expensive in Canada! Ontario doesn’t exactly subsidize parents. People who have several kids are people who can afford it because you’re basically on your own. However, Canada seems like a good place to raise a child because it’s a very open-minded country. And my kid would speak French with us at home and English at school. It’s an opportunity and I’ll be proud to have my child correct me because I made a mistake in English.
Memory of your own childhood?
My father is Vietnamese, he came to France when he was 20 years old, so about the same age I was when I came to Canada. He built a new life in France from scratch, he started a family and he had a great career. So I tell myself that my child will make fun of my accent, much like I used to make fun of my father’s accent.
July 26, 2021, edit: I am now the father of a 3-year-old toddler born in Toronto. Her English accent is already better than mine—in a few years, it will be her turn to make fun of my French accent!
Je suis parti en PVT au Canada à Toronto en septembre 2005 et j'y suis toujours après 13 années...
Si mon parcours m'intéresse, vous pouvez consulter mon interview : https://pvtistes.net/interviews/interview-pvt-canada-citoyennete-canadienne/
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