Immigrating: How to Be Canadian

by Sabine Ehgoetz

Sabine Ehgoetz currently lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance journalist, foreign correspondent and translator. In December 2005 she will celebrate her first anniversary as a Canadian resident.

How To Be Canadian

I have to admit that the day I became a permanent resident I felt like a real Canadian, even though I knew it would take me another three years until I could apply for citizenship and become a proper “Canuck”.

It was only a question of time, I figured, and all that was required from my side was a little bit of patience. Now, almost a year later, I’m quite aware that I’m as far from being truly Canadian as the Leafs are from winning this year’s Stanley Cup.

I am only able to draw this parallel because I have overheard conversations of frustrated hockey fans on the subway.

My problem, though, is one of a more profound nature: I’m definitely missing a long list of social skills to pass as native. All my life I had been confident that I was polite or considerate but it was only after moving to Canada that I realized otherwise. Around the world Canadians are famous for their manners and although my husband had done almost everything to prove this reputation to be true, I had not realized the extent of politeness required so people wouldn’t consider you rude.

Back in my home country Germany, I had to put up with frequent delays in our schedule because my better half felt naturally obliged to hold doors open for all the people coming behind him. I had also observed distressing events at airports when Canadian tourists almost missed their flights because they were the only ones who didn’t push at the check-in counter. Now I know that there is so much more to consider, for example that every sentence I speak should contain at least one, but ideally all three of the terms “please”, “thank you” or “sorry”.

The challenge doesn’t end there. Here is another essential stepping stone along the path to becoming Canadian: Under no circumstances litter on the street. Instead, pick up after the ones who have forgotten about this rule. I have seen people carrying other people’s garbage for days through a national park and back into civilization. The trash I see on the street must have been dumped by tourists or new immigrants, who, unlike me, haven’t been threatened with divorce yet because they spit their chewing gum out on the pavement.

Another tricky and even more dangerous subject is the use of proper language. Remember, you always want to ask for a “washroom” instead of a “toilet” (even though you are not looking for a place to shower!). The harm to your reputation in this case is, of course, minor compared to the one that could occur in conversations that touch on political correctness.

In order to avoid horrible mistakes, it’s best to stick to small talk – which is usually easy to accomplish - just complain about the weather and you will always find yourself in interested and affirmative company. I was surprised to find out that even people who have lived here all their lives never get used to the cold winters. But they also don’t like the hot, almost tropical summer. In fact, their constant huff about climatic conditions seems to be the only valve for Canadians to let off some steam. Apart from that they are nearly always happy, optimistic and usually not worried about anything at all. As I’m one of those typical Germans who are worry-warts by nature, this might be my biggest challenge in becoming Canadian by heart. Luckily, I still have close to two years left to work on this particular issue and on the thousand other little things that make one blend in with the natives – like becoming a real hockey fan!

CNM