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Working: Canadian Style

This article is by Susan Qadeer.

In This Article

You are new to Canada and you want to work. Finding a job is an important part of your settlement process. As a newcomer to Canada, you will face many challenges. This guide will help prepare you to find a job, keep a job and plan your career.


What is Different About Canada

Canada has a reputation for being a humane, caring and tolerant country. And, it is. That doesn't mean that problems don't exist. However, it is also why many people choose Canada as their new home.

Immigrants to Canada have changed the face of the country and the culture, but still share some common beliefs and values. For example, most Canadians assume that their neighbours are a lot like them - law abiding, want to make a good life for themselves and their family and want to be friendly without getting very involved in each other's life. Some of these beliefs can be seen in the way we do business.

That being said, you may still find some differences from how business and work is done in Canada, compared to what you have been used to. These differences will vary for different people, for different reasons. No one can tell you exactly how things will be different. You need to work to find out how your working style may be different and how you can convince an employer that you are what they are looking for and can fit into their company.

Canadian Experience

What is Canadian experience? For more employers, it means what it says - you do not have work experience in Canada. But it can also mean that an employer doesn't know how to evaluate the work you did outside of Canada with the way it is done here. It can also mean that an employer doesn't think you'll fit into their corporate culture. Or, it can mean that the employer is discriminating against you.

It may seem very unfair for employers to insist on Canadian experience but here are a few reasons why it is not. Any new employee needs time to 'learn the ropes' (that is, learn how things work). Organizations have rules, policies and common practices that take you time to learn. When you come from a different country, these practices are even more unknown. For instance, health and safety standards may be different and unless you are aware of them, mistakes could be very costly.

That is why gaining some practical experience as a volunteer, an intern or a temporary employee is helpful.

Becoming Familiar with Canadian Life and Culture

What is Canadian culture? Ask 10 people in Canada and you'll get 10 different answers. What that means is that you cannot necessarily expect the same reaction from different people. Canada is a nation of immigrants, all with different experiences and cultural influences.

When employers look for Canadian experience they are trying to ensure that you are familiar with the customs, policies and other attributes of Canadian life. Here is an example.

When Tomas started working in a service station as an auto mechanic he found a broken part in a car and he decided to make a new part and fix it to replace in the car. This work took him over 4 hours. When his boss found out, he told Tomas that next time he should just order a replacement part and be done with it. Tomas was upset that his boss didn't recognize his creative and technical skill in fixing the car. His boss was concerned that the customer would be upset paying for over 4 hours of costly labour compared to a much cheaper replacement part. Tomas assumed that the way he was used to doing things was the case in his new workplace.

Although it doesn't take a lot of time to figure these things out, a little Canadian experience ensures familiarity with how things are done.

How people are greeted, who shakes hands with whom, who stands up when they are introduced, holding doors, are just some of the everyday behaviours that may vary from culture to culture.

These things may seem unimportant to you. But, most people judge each other in the very first moments when they first meet. There is no substitute for being out in various social situations for learning the differences. Entire online discussions have centred on the differences in English used in different countries and how it is useful to understand how this can matter when looking for work.

Here are 2 examples:

Canadian Labour Market - The Reality Check and how to be Ready

Before you arrive, find out what is needed to work in your job in Canada. There is lots of research you can do online before you even land in Canada. Better yet, do research before you apply to immigrate!

Often there are educational and licensing requirements to be met for many jobs, especially in the professions and trades. There is also the issue of demand for your occupation. It is not easy to know when there will be growth or a drop in available jobs in your industry. However, you will want to do this research as you plan your career in Canada.

The reality is simple. No one will do this for you. You must do this work yourself. And, really, don't you want to know what you're getting yourself into before you arrive in Canada?

Many things affect the labour market. You need to be aware of technology changes as well as population changes, legislation and trends. Job Futures is a place to start. You can also see the expected salaries for particular occupations. Reading job ads is also useful. Talking to someone who works in your industry will give you information on salaries, outlook and changes that may be coming. Many professions have associations that can offer a lot of useful information as well. Consult the Directory of Associations in your local library.

Getting A Job

First things first - The top 2:

  • Getting a Social Insurance Number (SIN)
  • Getting help: Career counselling

Whether you are looking for a job just to get working or you are taking some time to look for something more career related, you will want to do these 2 very important things.

One of the first things you should do as a permanent resident is to apply for a Social Insurance Number (SIN). This 9-digit number is used to identify people who earn money through work, pay taxes, contribute to pension plans and use government services. It is illegal for employers to hire a person without a Social Insurance Number.

To get a Social Insurance Number (SIN) application form, go to the nearest Service Canada Centre and fill it out in person. Or you can download the form and then go to a Service Canada Centre.

There are many services available for newcomers to Canada. Free career counselling is one of them. Career counsellors can help you decide on a plan whether it be a job to get you started or how to get on a career path using your work experience, education and skills. You will also get help writing your résumé and cover letter, as well as tips on how job interviews are handled in Canada.

Your Educational Credentials - To Assess or not Assess?

As an immigrant or someone who has educational credentials from outside of Canada, you will need to have your credentials evaluated by a reputable evaluation service for the following purposes:

  • Employment (including salary level and promotion opportunities)
  • Immigration
  • Higher education or continuing education
  • Licensing
  • Apprenticeship training

Self-assess Your Marketable Skills

Most career counselors will help you assess your interests, abilities, skills, values and will also help you look at labour market trends.

You are the best judge of your interests and career counsellors can assist you in focusing on this. Your abilities and skills can be identified from your past accomplishments, school achievements and specific tests. Assessing yourself is an important part in determining an appropriate career.

Getting help from a career counsellor or agency is often very helpful.

How to Look for a Job and Some Good Websites

More and more job advertisements are on websites. Certainly check newspapers (national, local, ethnic) but don't neglect online sources, such as

You will also want to look at the websites of major employers who advertise job openings and visit large companies with a Human Resources department and take a look at their job postings.

Asking to fill out applications for positions you know you are qualified for but where there are no openings, is usually less successful. However, if you have lots of time and energy to spare you may get lucky. Also, there are private agencies that can help you find work and they usually charge the employer for the service.


Employers usually ask for references particularly if they are considering hiring you.

If you don't have work references, they may accept character references. These are people who can vouch for your honesty, reliability and other good personal qualities. Landlords, neighbors and other people you come to know can act as character references. Current teachers can tell employers about your abilities in a specific skill and your overall character.

If you have employers from paid or voluntary work who have agreed to act as a reference, you will want to keep them up to date on the jobs you are applying for. You can do this by sending a short email telling them that you are applying and why you think you will be a good candidate. If you attach your résumé to the email, they can refresh their memory on what you have to offer. You wouldn't want a reference to be surprised by a phone call from an employer, asking about you, and then not able to answer specific questions.

Survival Jobs

Many newcomers begin with jobs that will help them get some immediate income. Most commonly these are security guards, gas station attendants, parking lot attendants, taxi drivers, factory workers, or commissioned salespeople.

Some people stay in these jobs but others work toward getting higher paying more career-oriented jobs. Moving out of these 'survival jobs' usually requires a lot of effort and may even mean going back to school. The following are ways to build your experience in Canada to try to move from no job or survival jobs to a better paying, more career oriented position.

  • Volunteering
    There are a number of services that can help you find volunteer jobs. The internet, a career counsellor and your local library are good places to begin. If you have the time and can find a position that is related to the work you want to do, volunteering can help you gain valuable experience. Volunteering will give you direct experience with Canadian work culture. Some organizations may not accept volunteers and this could be for any number of reasons. Sometimes organizations do not want volunteers dealing with confidential information, more frequently; insurance coverage is a problem because insurers will not cover non-employees.
  • Networking
    Networking means finding people who can help you with your job search. This is often very difficult for new Canadians. Since this is a very common way to find out about job openings, it is important to widen your social network to include many different people. Joining organizations, clubs, volunteering and generally trying to connect with new people will help you do this. Outgoing, friendly, chatty people find this easier but most people can act outgoing, friendly and chatty at least temporarily. Check out a list of professional networks for immigrants.
  • Internships / Work Placement
    Internships are an opportunity for a company or organization to hire you for a specified amount of time, to help you gain experience and help them get some work done, often at lower cost. Sometimes these positions are paid and sometimes you work voluntarily. They are often used for students nearing graduation but anyone can try to land an internship. There are internship organizations that can help you, books list internships and you can attempt to arrange your own.
  • Job Shadowing
    If you need more information about a specific career you can ask to “job shadow” someone for a day or a few days to see what is involved. Those people whose work involves confidential information may refuse. If you are able to job shadow however you can get an idea of how someone in this field spends their day and what further education or training you might need. Your job shadowing experience is also another opportunity to demonstrate in an interview that you have some knowledge of the work.
  • Informational Interviews
    Informational interviews are interviews you arrange with people you think have information about the kind of work you want to do. You learn about the field and meet people who may be able to refer you on to other helpful people. Be sure not to take too much of someone's time, usually not more than 30 minutes, prepare the questions you want to ask in advance and send a note thanking them for their help after the interview.
  • Alternative Jobs to Regulated Professions
    It can be very complicated, time-consuming and expensive to get a licence to work in a regulated profession in Ontario.

    If you can find a non-regulated job in the same or a related field, you can use your knowledge and skills, get valuable Canadian work experience, and develop professional networks. Visit the Alternative Jobs section for a list of alternative jobs and watch videos of newcomers talking about their experiences of entering and working in an alternative job.

Getting your Résumé and Cover Letter in Canadian Style

While résumé styles are often changing and there really are no rules, you will want to construct your résumé in a way that allows the recruiter to find your information easily. Résumés that are very long may get overlooked because most recruiters spend very little time with an individual résumé, especially if there are many candidates for a position. You want to make sure that the most important information is on the first page if your résumé is longer than 1 page.

Résumés are usually accompanied by a cover letter.

Preparing for an Interview

There are many types of interviews and if you are fortunate you will be told ahead of time what kind of interview you can expect. Most interviewers give you some information about the job and then ask you about your training and experience and your ability to do the job.

A good way to convince an employer of your abilities is to give them some memorable stories about how you accomplished something. The stories should be brief, outlining the situation or problem, the action you took and the outcome. Practice these stories and be prepared with a few of them for different situations. The following are a few examples of questions you may be asked. See if you can find a story to answer them.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a team to accomplish a difficult task.
  • Describe a situation when you displayed planning and organizational skills.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult person and how you handled it.

Usually, you are given an opportunity to ask a question yourself. You will want to think about this ahead of time. Asking a question demonstrates that you have given this opportunity some thought and have taken the time to research the company and the position.

Training and Upgrading

Educational Institutions and What They Can Offer

Going to school is an excellent way to find out about the latest thinking and innovations in your field. Consider:

  • A night school class
  • Auditing a course (taking a course without getting credit but also without having to write exams or assignments)
  • Taking courses toward a certificate (shortest program)
  • A diploma (longer program)
  • A degree (longer still), or
  • A graduate program if you already have a degree

Some colleges offer 1 year or 'fast track' certificates for people who have either diplomas or degrees. This is often an effective way to change fields or get Canadian educational credentials. As a student, you are eligible for many services that the school offers, including career counseling, job finding clubs, career resources, work placements, etc.

Understanding Terminology (Technical and Otherwise)

Most industries seem to develop their own language. Sales people are sales associates and nursery school teachers are early childhood educators. You will need to become familiar with the special language of the workplace.

In the beginning, it is best to ask. Some of the words are difficult to guess and some words could apply to many different roles. Make sure you have the qualifications for the positions you apply for. The National Occupational Classification (NOC) system can help you find out about the specific skills and qualifications that are usually associated with a job title.

Language Skills: What Level of Language Ability is Needed, Where to Get it and how to Develop it?

There are some jobs that don't require a high level of English speaking and writing. In general, however, the better your ability with English, the better your chances of getting and holding a job.

Opportunities for improving your language skills can come from formal classes, government-sponsored programs and your own common sense. You will want to take every opportunity to practice and seek help. This includes asking for corrections from people.

Try joining groups that give you a chance to listen and speak. The radio is a better teacher than the television. People contact is better than the radio. Formal teaching can improve your accuracy. Accents are generally not a problem except if they interfere with being understood.

On The Job

Changing Plans and New Beginnings

Coming to a new country can also mean a change in careers. If you have to return to school or get training, you may want to consider this the opportunity to work in another field.

You may also have to change careers because it is too difficult or not possible to get started in your former work. Researching careers, knowing the specific requirements and assessing your own skills and abilities are all important aspects of this change. It is easier if you seek some career counseling help before you commit to this. Career change can be costly in terms of time and money.

On the Job Advice: Tips for Getting Along, Keeping the Job

What are some of the practices in a Canadian work environment that can be identified? Trying to absorb and understand the differences will help you be successful.

Here is one - teamwork.

Canadian employers say that teamwork is important and that the team includes members with different roles. For instance, the hiring committee for a new accountant might include the receptionist, a manager, a coworker and human resources professional.

Employees are supposed to be treated as equal. That means that those who work under you in a company hierarchy should not be treated as inferior workers. We greet and include people with different job titles and levels. We all try to help the team succeed even if it means doing work that is not technically in our job description. While this isn't always the case, treating people differently because of a perceived difference in status can make you a very unpopular employee.

It is important to be aware of the culture of an organization. How does the work environment deal with piercings, tattoos, birthdays, taking breaks, scheduled dentist appointments, personal use of the photocopier? You don't want to stand out by doing what the company or other employees find unacceptable. Watching and asking questions are the easiest ways to understand the culture of the work environment.

Moving Up and Moving On, Ongoing Learning, Professional Development

Many newcomers accept entry level jobs with the hope that once they prove their abilities, they will be in line for higher level jobs. In addition to being an excellent employee by being good at your work, easy to get along with and conscientious, you may want to consider any opportunities for on-the-job learning.

If you can manage to take courses related to your work, this is often viewed very positively and can demonstrate your commitment. Sometimes your work may pay for the course or give you time off to attend classes or both.

Newcomer Stories

Meet Some Newcomers

* Jamil has come as a professional urban planner and wants to find similar work.

He has a graduate degree in urban planning from India and 10 years of work experience. Planning is what he wants to do. His language skills are excellent but he doesn't know very much about Canadian planning laws. Jamil arranges for an informational interview with a manager in a planning office and follows up with the interviewer's suggestions to read a book he recommended on Canadian planning. He also asks for and gets the names of 2 directors who might allow him to volunteer in a planning office. Before actually contacting these directors, Jamil reads up on recent planning issues so that he has some idea of the types of problems planners deal with. When Jamil has completed 6 weeks of volunteering, he is now known to other staff when he competes for a contract position. Jamil is on his way to establishing himself in his chosen field.

* Xu Lin was an engineer in China but no longer wants to work in this field.

Xu Lin was an unhappy engineer. He didn't care for the work, felt he wasn't very good at it and saw his immigration as an opportunity to find work he enjoyed. Xu loves food. He loves to read about it, cook it and eat it. Everyone loves coming to his apartment for dinner because they know they will get something special. Xu got some work in a kitchen in a small Chinese restaurant. He liked the work but wanted to cook other foods and learn more about other cuisines. He enrolled in an apprenticeship program and was able to continue work and study at the same time.

Contributed by Susan Qadeer, a personal and career counsellor with decades of experience. Susan currently works with college students.

For More Information

  • Canadian Business Culture - Tips on business customs in Canada and on working with Canadians. From
  • Ontario Job Futures - Information about Ontario's employment patterns, major trends in the economy and occupational profiles.
  • Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions - Canada - This looks at how cultural values influence the workplace in Canada.
  • What kind of volunteer are you? - This tool asks questions to help you figure out what kind of volunteering you would like to do. Then it gives you a list of positions in your area that match your interests. This resource is from
Last Updated: January 26, 2012
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