living as an American in Montreal

Jul 27th, 2005, 08:15 PM
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living as an American in Montreal

Although it's a bit far down on my list, there is a small chance that I might attend graduate school at McGill in Montreal ... for probably 5 years or so.

I'm wondering if anyone can offer advice about living in Canada as an American expat. Are there particular websites to consult, tips to know, etc.?

Some concerns would be my lack of French knowledge and possible confusion about such things as taxes, health care, etc. I'm also pretty conservative politically and not sure how keen I'd be on these policies anyway, as I prefer how things are done in America on this end. Also, I'm not sure how I'd handle the cold weather. I go to college in northern Indiana so I'm used to snow and cold, but this is without all the responsibilities like taking care of a car, dealing with a home, etc.

Montreal seems like a great city to visit, and McGill has an excellent reputation and is in a good location, but I'm not sure how I feel about all of the changes I'd have to get used to.

Thank you for your help.
JoeTro is offline  
Jul 27th, 2005, 11:25 PM
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Hello JoeTro,

I came to Calgary from Southern Africa, so that was a pretty dramatic shift in terms of weather, etc.

Although it does take a bit of effort to learn how to winterize your house, yard and car, to get a local driver's licence, to register with the provincial health care system, etc., those are mechanical processes that you can get through with a bit of perserverence. Cripes, if you can get a university degree, you can jump those minor hurdles.

The factor that may in fact be problematic for you is the philosophical divide between you and the majority of Canadians.

When most people think of culture shock and the challenges of operating in a new culture, they think of things like language, food, dress, etc. In reality, there are other factors, of which people are not necessarily conscious, that can present deeper problems. They are what sociologists call "trust and respect breakers."

I'll give you an example of a trust and respect breaker that I myself experienced quite recently. But first I'll give you some background information on how I arrived at this insight.

A few months ago, a small discussion group to which I belong at my church, chose for its bi-weekly discussion the topic of culture shock. A man in the group had lived in Taiwan and India for a few years, a woman had lived in Thailand for a couple of years, I'd grown up as a white person surrounded by the members of a black tribe in the African wilderness, a couple had lived in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan for a couple of years, and a man had married relatively late in life, when he was about 40 years old.

We had a fascinating discussion about our experiences of culture shock. Even the people who had experienced mild cultural shifts, like the couple who had relocated to Saskatchewan and the man who had had to get used to his in-laws when he already was fairly set in his ways, made valuable contributions to the discussion.

I left the small group discussion feeling thirsty for more information about culture shock. I turned to the Internet, and read a lot about culture shock and biculturalism. I realised that in my lifetime I'd experienced two similar but nevertheless slightly different phenomena.

Because I'd grown up in the midst of a tribe that spoke a different language and had different customs from my parents, I was a bicultural person. Grafted on top of that earlier experience was the subsequent experience of culture shock when I relocated to Canada.

It was an article on biculturalism that brought to my attention the issue of trust and respect breakers. It gave as an example a census taker who rings a family's front doorbell. The census taker wears a badge stating her name and the organisation that she's representing, in this case the government. She carries a clipboard and a pen.

The first house that the census taker visits belongs to a white family. When the mother of the family answers the door, she sees the census taker's badge, clipboard and pen, and these accoutrements instill trust in the home owner.

The census taker asks the home owner how many people live in the house, their genders and ages. As the home owner provides the answers, the census taker writes the answers in the spaces on the form that rests on her clipboard.

The householder provides accurate answers, and she is reassured by the fact that the census taker is recording what she says. She trusts that the information will be put to good use and that the recording of the information in writing will help to store it in an accurate form so that it is not degraded.

The census taker walks down the street to the next house, in which an immigrant family from a foreign culture lives. In the culture from which that family came, personal relationships are very important, and trust is placed in verbal communication.

When the mother of that household opens the door, she sees a stranger wearing a badge and carrying a clipboard and a pen. According to her value system, the person at the door may present a threat. She doesn't know if the stranger has a hidden agenda.

She sees the stranger poised to write information down on a form, and she doesn't know if that information will be used against her family.

Besides that, her husband is around the corner in another room, listening to what she's saying, and she may get into trouble from him if she divulges information about their family.

So the householder gives the census taker erroneous information. Mainstream society may regard her responses as lies, but according to her value system she is protecting her family and herself from potential danger.

Interestingly enough, about three days before I read that article I'd attended a job interview that had left me feeling vaguely uncomfortable. But if you'd asked me right after the interview why I didn't feel attracted to the organisation, I don't think I'd have been able to tell you.

It was only in hindsight, after reading the article, that I understood the source of my discomfort. Three people from the organisation, a man and two women, had interviewed me. After we all introduced ourselves to each other and shook hands, we sat around a table. The man and one of the women were friendly. They asked me questions about myself, but they also shared information about the organisation, their roles in it, and the role that I would fill if I got the job. The second woman, however, said nothing. She just took copious notes while I was speaking. When the interview ended, we all shook hands again, smiled, and thanked each other. As I walked away from the building, I thought to myself, "Thanks but no thanks." But, as I said before, if you'd asked me at that moment why I felt that way, I don't think I would have been able to articulate a reason. It was just a gut feeling.

Then, when I read that article, I suddenly realised it was that woman's note taking and utter silence throughout the meeting that had unnerved me. I felt as if she was spying on me, and that was a trust breaker. But what was perhaps even worse from my point of view was that I felt zero respect for her. When I consciously reviewed my assessment of her, I realised that I considered her to be incredibly stupid. According to the way I operate, that was not a smart way to collect information on a person.

I extended my opinion of her to the organisation as a whole. I thought an organisation that was sufficiently lacking in judgement to let a person like her loose was not an organisation for which I wanted to work.

Ironically that organisation has been in the news lately, because it's been having problems that are becoming quite widely publicised. I must say I don't feel surprised.

By the way, I'm used to interviewers taking notes during meetings. I'm a diligent note taker myself. It's just that I don't rely exclusively on notes, and when I'm on the other side of the table, I make some effort to share something of myself and to put the other person at ease.

Well, that was a long, shaggy dog story. Obviously the specific trust and respect breakers that you will encounter will be different from the ones I've encountered, but encounter them you will.

Actually, if you go to a French-speaking place like Montreal, that will be helpful in some ways. It'll be useful because you'll know you're in a place that's really different, and you'll prepare for it. What is more dangerous is moving from one English-speaking country to another, and being under the illusion that it'll be just about the same as home.

I've lived in two countries in Southern Africa -- Swaziland, where I was born, and South Africa, where I went to high school and university and where I married. Even those two neighbouring countries had subtle but important differences.

Since I've left Southern Africa I've lived in Canada, the United States, Australia and Canada again. White South Africa, Canada, the U.S. and Australia are not so very different from each other if you merely visit them on vacation. But they have some significant differences if you live in them.

I can almost guarantee you that you'll find relocating to Montreal a challenge in some respects. It'll take you outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, I consider it an advantage to have been stretched by the different societies in which I've lived.

If you ask relocation questions on the travel discussion forums, you'll get some sensible and insighful answers from some of the posters. But I'm sorry to say I've seen some real dingbats answering relocation questions on the travel discussion forums.

In my opinion the best thing to do is to seek out forums that are devoted specifically to relocation. Here are a few:

British Expats. As the name suggests, most of the people who post there, but not all of them, are Brits. There are a few Americans who have ties of one sort or another to Canada. For example, they've lived in the U.S. all their lives but are married to Canadians. Stuff like that. There are a few flakes there, but most of the regulars are high calibre posters who provide well thought out, valuable information. That forum has quite a strong contingent of Montreal-based posters. The URL is .

A forum that I just found from doing an Internet search is Expat Focus at .

Another Internet find is Expat Express Blog Ring. A variety of people living in a variety of countries. An American living in Argentina. A Canadian living in Germany. A Brit living in Washington State. A Frenchman living in Lebanon. I didn't find an American living in Montreal, but the one thing they have in common is that they are expats.

If you e-mail me, I'll e-mail you some more extensive notes that I've collected about (1) the mechanical stuff like getting a driver's licence, etc., and (2) the longer term task of adapting.
Judy_in_Calgary is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 04:34 AM
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At McGill, as at any Canadian university, you would notice that because of pressure to keep tuition extremely low, every possible corner is cut--you would notice all kinds of differences between McGill and whichever university you're used to in the U.S. Take a closer look before finalizing your decision. Your lack of French knowledge sounds like a great opportunity--it's easy to slowly become bilingual in Montreal. Health care is just plain bad in Quebec. However, as a grad student, you're probably young, so this may not be a great concern at this time of life. On the other hand, Montreal is beautiful city with intense cultural vibrancy. Also, it's hard to find bad food there, in contrast to Indiana (sorry, but it's true). The culture, outstanding dining, and cosmopolitan people make the quality of life in Montreal high, in spite of the tough winters. IMHO, your biggest "culture shock" might come from the lack of university funding, though this is only to be expected with the low fees.
Lois_L is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 05:02 AM
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"I prefer how things are done in America" Perhaps if you loosened up on that attitude a bit and realized that there are different ways of doing things you might find its easier to fit in. Its a big wide world outside the boundaries of the USA and believe it or not you might learn some things from us.
Cruiseryyc is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 05:44 AM
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Thanks very much for everyone's replies. I apologize to the last poster ... I meant to say that I prefer how "those" things are done in America ... i.e health care and taxes, not necessarily everything. I do agree that funding could be an issue, as stipends would be lower than at American graduate schools.
JoeTro is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 05:59 AM
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I wanted to ask a follow-up question, which is: how necessary would a car be in Montreal. If I didn't have one, that would cut down on the adjustments as well as the cost. It seems like public transportation is very good.

Thanks for all the resources to check out.
JoeTro is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 06:21 AM
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There is a guy called Daniel who frequently posts here. I think he may be an American now living in Montreal, so hopefully he will see this.

Judy, your response was so well thought out and presented, and right on.
SusanInToronto is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 09:20 AM
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It sounds like some time in Montreal would be great experience for you. Don't worry about not knowing too much french on arrival, but make a real effort to learn, it will make your stay much more pleasant, despit the fact that you could avoid french all together, McGill is an English University.

I understand where cruiseryyc is coming from with his/her comment. How do you really know if you prefer the american system of taxes, and health care if you have only ever lived under one system? A few years in Canada will really allow you to contrast and compare.

As a student, taxes won't really be an issue for you anyway, you won't be earning.

Lois mentions the funding issues at Canadian Universities. This wasn't refering to personal funding - what you would receive, but how the Univiersities opperate. As a foreign student, your tuition will be relatively high compared to what a Canadian student would pay. Tuition for Canadian students is subsidised by the gov't, and in order to keep fees low, Univerities opperate on a tight budget. Don't expect to see all the newest and shiniest equipment and buildings. Regardless of this the quality of education is excellent.

As a student, if you live downtown, you will have no need for a car. I presume you will be renting an apartment. Without a car or house, the cold and snow shouldn't be an issue.

The biggest thing that you have to resolve yourself to, if you do decide to do this, is being open minded. Montreal IS different from Indiana. Being rigid in your ideas of what is "best" or "right" won't allow you to get the full experience. It also won't make you too many friends. Spend a lot of time listening. You will be there to learn, in school, and about Canadian culture. Trying to understand how other people live, and why they choose to do so offers such insite into your own life.

I know you will head back to Indiana at the end of 5 years with a very different outlook on things.
Jul 28th, 2005, 09:31 AM
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Thanks very much for your reply. I did spend a year in England, so I am aware of those health care and tax policies and I don't support them, but I very much enjoyed my study abroad experience and my access to a new culture and people with views different than mine.

I agree with your assessment about things like a car and home.
JoeTro is offline  
Jul 28th, 2005, 07:53 PM
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A few tips:

1) If things seem not as shiney and new, not as customer-service oriented, slower, more bureaucratic, and sometimes just plain don't make sense, don't get upset. It's like getting angry that the bus doesn't come on time in Mexico or that the rain is falling: does getting upset change anything, or are you just upset?

2) Don't be offended when Canadians complain about Americans. In reality, it's not you -- it's your government they don't like.

3) Learn to speak more quietly. We're not deaf, just polite.

As with any cultural experience, you'll go through a U curve -- at first, at the top of the U, everything is perfect and wonderful. You put your own values on hold as you experience the new culture. But slowly things start bothering you. Why can't you do this or that? It's so infuriating when they... I wish I could get...

Around 10% of people cannot adjust, and end up rejecting the culture. Another 10% reject their own culture and values and take everything from the new one as perfect and right. Most people reach an easy medium between their values and those around them.

You'll find it easier having lived in England, but perhaps not. Canada and the U.S. can seem so similar and yet there are some fundamental differences between the two. And unfortunately for you, right now is not a particularly good time for the US in terms of popularity on the world stage.

I practice assuming that there is an advantage, somehwere, for everything that seems wrong, I just haven't found it. An example I gave to my American friend who was frustrated about no banking on Saturdays: my friend Lise works at a bank and has 2 children and enjoys her weekends with them very much. So a little inconvenience for him means that Lise and her children have a much better life. In Canadian-think, this is a good thing. In US-think, it's just a damn nuisance.
TristanRyan is offline  
Jul 29th, 2005, 03:50 AM
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Live in Montreal , but from English Prince Edward Island ...... The language issue will be your biggest " culture shock " ... But , Montreal also has lots of anglophones . As far as the other issues you are concerned with , don't be ..... Really not that much of a difference from the U.S. , nothing that will jump in your face and have you saying " wow " !!!! It's a great school and sounds like a cool opportunity ..... Faith .
faithie is offline  
Jul 29th, 2005, 09:48 AM
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Thanks for the information, Faithie and Tristan.
JoeTro is offline  
Aug 21st, 2005, 02:43 PM
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Allow me to address your "concerns". First of all, you won't be in America anymore, so just come to terms with that. Since you will be going to school and not working, taxes should not be of much concern to you. The tax rate in Quebec is 14.5%, 7% federal and 7.5% provincial, on goods and services. This high tax rate goes to fund federal and provincial social services like healthcare and public works. As Canada is a welfare state, we espouse the values of taking care of one another regardless of income or social status. Whether YOU are "keen" on it or not is irrelevant. That is the way it is. Second of all, Montreal is the most liberal city in the country (although the entire country itself is quite socially liberal), where people are free to be who they want to be and nobody else gives a damn. As such, it is a very welcoming place where all cultures and beleifs converge, live in harmony and enjoy the exotic flair that our differences contribute to society. Third of all, you'd be a fool to have a car living downtown. You can walk anywhere at all hours, or take the Metro to places farther away. As for the weather, just dress for it. 3.5 million Montrealers do every winter. Good Luck.
mikielikesit is offline  
Aug 21st, 2005, 08:32 PM
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Hey JoeTro

SusaninToronto was correct that I'm a U.S. citizen living in Montreal, and on top of that, I went to graduate school at McGill! I came from Virginia in 1994.

My perspective is very different however, as I had been a diligent student of French in high school & university and my politics tend to lie to the proverbial left even by Canadian standards. Even with this background and a fair amount of effort, it took a few (give-or-take 3) years for my French to reach a level that I could converse fluently in French with Quebeckers (you'll want to make some effort to understand local slang if you really want to learn). At McGill, you will not need French though; however, in the spare time you have in grad school, it would be a pity to waste a great opportunity to learn French.

You do not need a car to live in Montreal; I still don't own one. Public transit is good and you might even find something within walking distance to campus.

Depending on the department you'd be studying at, much of your tuition might be waived. Your stipend true might not be as much as in the US, but mine allowed me to afford to rent my own little one bedroom within walking distance of campus for the entirety of my degree. It's true that cost of living is not what it was in the 1990s in Montreal, but it's still less than in most US cities.

What I say next may turn a conservative off the city, but I'll leave that as it may. As a young Gay man arriving from conservative Virginia in 1994, Montreal felt like I'd landed in a fantasy, finally a place where I could truly be a first-class citizen with equal rights and responsibilities. The tremendous amount of open-mindedness, internationalism, egalitarian & humanist outlook, grass-roots activism and environmentalism of many Montrealers was a marked change from what I came from, shaped me and force me to question held beliefs and think "outside the box" in ways I never would have imagined, and I think have made me stronger today.

Almost from day 1, Montreal felt right, I knew I'd finally found my home, enough so that I became a permanent resident of Canada. It's got its flaws for sure but I love this city to the core of my being and have never looked back or regretted my decision to come (and am close enough to see family in the States periodically).

Although our circumstances are similar, my perspective is different as you can see. Anyhow, best wishes and good luck in your decision-making process.


Daniel_Williams is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2005, 07:15 AM
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Interesting post Dan! Have you thought about becomming a Canadian citizen? I understand that times have changed, and you would still be able to keep your US citizenship.
Aug 22nd, 2005, 11:05 AM
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"As with any cultural experience, you'll go through a U curve -- at first, at the top of the U, everything is perfect and wonderful. You put your own values on hold as you experience the new culture. But slowly things start bothering you. Why can't you do this or that? It's so infuriating when they... I wish I could get..."

This was my experience as an American living in Montreal, than in Toronto. The novelty of living in Montreal with people speaking French and just the whole feel of the city was amazing. I also, however, grew weary of the inefficiencies of Canadian bureaucracy and life and--as much as I agree with Daniel about the social and intellecutal freedom in Montreal--I also grew weary of the "egalitarian & humanist outlook, grass-roots activism and environmentalism." I don't want to stumble over a protest everytime I want to eat fried chicken, for heaven's sake.

I found Toronto much easier to live in, probably because people speak English and because the city is "busier" and more efficient. I wouldn't, however, trade it for my experience in Montreal and I go back often. I think you just need to be prepared for the difference. I also probably wouldn't couch them in quite such anti-American terms as others. After you've had insurance, it's hard to cope with the inefficiency of government health care. For all of Canada's enlightened social attitude and welfare society, there's a shocking amount of homelessness and street people who are anabled to stay on the streets. You will likely miss the cleanliness and newness of the U.S. and you will soon learn that a $2 cup of coffee will cost you a lot more than just $2.

Still, you should definitely do it. I love the Canadian outlook on life and the people and wouldn't trade my experience for the world.

MikeT is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2005, 10:10 PM
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Cleanliness and newness of the US? Are you kidding me? Toronto has a reputation for being one of the cleanest cities of its size anywhere, and Toronto is the 5th largest city on the continent (so what does that tell you?). As for newness, there are hundreds of construction sites all over the city building new condominiums and skyscrapers. You want dirty and old-school, just hop across the border to Buffalo, NY. What a dump!
mikielikesit is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2005, 08:22 AM
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regarding Mike T's response.My father was an American and I have many American relatives so I never thought of myself as anti-american but responses such as yours saying that there is no homeless in the States is NOT Correct. I have seen homeless families wandering in so many American cities,it's very sad. In Atlanta,before the Olympics,the officials just threw the homeless out so the visitors from around the world wouldn't see them. I hope that JoeTro does come to Montreal and enjoys the experience of living in a different country that looks somewhat like his own but is definitely different in so many ways. Vive la difference!!! Thanks Judy for your insight. I enjoyed reading your comments. Again,Mike T. I truly hope you enjoy living in Toronto,my home town.
shelll is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2005, 09:06 AM
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Actually, I didn't say there were no homeless in the U.S. I said I was surprised by the number of homeless in Montreal and Toronto. That's two different things.

I expect the homeless in the U.S., given our poor social services and health system. What I didn't expect was the number of homeless youth and mentally ill I would see on the streets of Montreal and Toronto, especially given the fact that Canada considers itself a social welfare state and prides iteslf on its health care and social services.
MikeT is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2005, 09:09 AM
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Shell, here's my exact quote:

"For all of Canada's enlightened social attitude and welfare society, there's a shocking amount of homelessness and street people who are anabled to stay on the streets."

Where in there did I say there wasn't a homelessness problem in the U.S.?
MikeT is offline  

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