Why are expat Canucks thought of as “less than Canadian” when we return home, especially professionally?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Michael Ignatieff wonders the same thing.


There are 2,800,000 Canadians living abroad — 9 percent of Canada’s population — and more of those live in the USA than in any other country.

Expatriate “global” Canucks like me are just as Canadian as the guy who lived in Moose Jaw all his life, and perhaps more so, as many proudly wear our Maple Leaf on our sleeves abroad, cheer on Team Canada from Atlanta, London or Tokyo, seek out Canada Day celebrations in New York or Moscow to simply be around other Canadians if only for a few hours (and say “eh!” without people looking at us strangely), and often are Canada’s unofficial ambassadors in foreign lands. We have also seen Canada — and Canadian business — from afar in a way someone living inside the borders may not be able to.

Expat Canadians are seven times more likely than those in Canada to have a professional or doctoral degree and more than twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree; I left Canada “glass ceilinged” in my career, with only a high school education and received both my B. Sc. in Marketing (a “Honours B. Comm” in Canadianese) and MBA in Management & Strategy south of the border. Just as with my profession where I received an excellent trial-by-fire on the job education from the intense competitive environment in the US, I had more formal educational opportunities in that much more populous country. However, my “Canadianism” has helped me immensely during that career — my typically conservative and socially responsible Canadian business upbringing coupled with my learned rough and tumble American capitalism capabilities bring an “added value” for my employers not available from a born and bred American who only knows that country, or a Canadian who stayed in the Great White North. Many expats are adaptive hybrids of the countries they’ve lived and worked in, so should be highly valued, whether in business or politics. Or, so you’d think.

Whether you like him and his politics or not, former national Liberal party leader Michael Ignatieff makes an excellent point in his June 29 Globe & Mail column: Many Canadians who never left the country — and Canadian companies — wonder “Why would anyone come home, unless you were in it just for yourself?” For an expat, this is a puzzling and disquieting attitude. For readers not in Canada, Ignatieff was successfully painted by the opposition Conservatives of being someone coming home from a life outside Canada at Harvard and in the United Kingdom only to further his career. He was never able to overcome this stigma, deserved or not.

When we expats left, we simply were curious about life outside our borders, or were handed a professional opportunity that we could not refuse. Others may have had a wanderlust, or were just young and “bulletproof” and thought they’d like to see if they could conquer the world instead of comfortably staying close to home while getting a job at the Ford plant. Me? I won a green card in a US government visa lottery I entered on a whim and forgot about for 2 years until I got a letter in the mail from Uncle Sam. Even then, I threw the invitation in the drawer for about a year until a month before it expired, and when I realized that damned glass ceiling was going to keep hitting me in the head I decided to throw caution to the wind and headed south. Some of us, like I did in the USA, received a foreign citizenship to accompany our Canadian one, as it simply made life easier. Personally, I would never give up my Canadian passport; the thought of American citizenship never crossed my mind until I learned that Canada wouldn’t strip me of citizenship if I obtained citizenship in the US.

Expats who return to Canada after 10 or 15 years away mostly want just that: to go home after we experienced life beyond the country’s borders, or got an education and/or professional success not available to us in Canada.  As one very accomplished but frustrated, jobless expat, who spent successful years in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, recently wrote on her blog “all too often, these same people are met with ignorance and disinterest, or worse, suspicion and thinly disguised resentment, making it hard to re-integrate into Canadian society. A job candidate is now perceived as a threat or as someone ‘unable to commit’ instead of an asset. Such narrow-mindedness on the part of employers compounds the already difficult challenge of finding work.” She plans to head back to Europe as soon as her family obligations that brought her back to Canada are no longer an issue. And that’s a shame.

Too often, returning Canadian expats are stymied in their professional aspirations, almost like being immigrants in their own country. Many simply give up and leave forever after 6 months or a year of fruitless searching for a career position, disappointed and frustrated. Why are we thought of as something else, something not quite Canadian or an interloper of some sort, when we only wish to return home and bring our global experience with us to, perhaps, improve the country or our new company? As Ignatieff wrote in an email to me concerning this article: “It can hurt to come ‘home’ and be treated as if you were a stranger.”

On average, Canadian companies are known to be risk averse — many of them to a fault — which negatively affects the country’s productivity according to professional services firm Deloitte in a June 2011 report; it says Canada must expand beyond its resource base to ensure and enhance the level of prosperity enjoyed today, and the country has a very short window to take advantage before the US stabilizes — and it will. The majority of US companies, on the other hand, are known for the complete opposite, and have often come out on top due to that risk-taking mantra.

Canadian companies — dismally behind the US in risk-taking by 18% according to Deloitte, and achieving only 70% of that country’s productivity rate largely due to lower corporate investments in training, machinery and research and development — could arguably use at least a small injection of that “risk tolerance” skill set that a successful expat brings in spades. Canada’s complacency and obsession with less productive work without corporate-driven innovation is self-defeating, argues Queen’s University’s Don Drummond in Confessions of a Serial Productivity Researcher.” Drummond should know; he was Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist at TD Bank from 1978-2000. Back then, he blamed much of the country’s productivity failings on public policy and not industry but has recently dramatically changed his tune.

Ignatieff is spot-on when he writes: “Young Canadians know which way the world is going, and they want to be out there, at the heart of the action. They are thinking about what a good life looks like and they know a good life might take them beyond our borders. Some won’t come home again, but others will, because they realize being away made them more Canadian, not less.”  Expats like me — and my 2.8 million friends — were simply years ahead of the curve.

To Canadian employers: inject some new blood and global thinking into your company. Look closely at a returning Canadian with international experience who’s lived in the same markets you need to sell into. Your bottom line will thank you, especially since economists agree that Canada must venture globally — and certainly not only inwardly and south of the 49th Parallel — or risk future economic stagnation or disaster.

If nothing else, don’t punish us for our worldly travels and points of view. The vast majority of us are not “Canadians of convenience” who carry the passport solely for the socialized medical care.  We are, simply, Canadians.

Article chosen as a  KeatsConn  Best of the Web

Jonathan Blaine

I've always called myself a "Marketing Guy." If I had a brand and logo, perhaps that would be my slogan. Measuring ROI is huge. Just because you're now using "new media" does not mean marketing fundamentals should be discarded. Customers' desires do not change. I'm a "right-brained creative analytical" guy (if you can fathom such a thing) who looks at a project several different ways. My first instinct is usually the correct one. I'm a "doer," and often a "diplomatic fixer;" someone who gets things done and still gets a thrill out of customers actually buying something because of something I mailed to them, or an ad I placed. Most of my success has come from strategy, writing, how ideas are presented to the potential customer and the actual thoughts that somehow originate within the ether between my ears. As a fan of DM guru Denny Hatch, I believe that the brand should never outweigh the message, and that art should never win over copy. The mix has to be “just right.” And continually tested. I have solid ryttan, err, written and verbal communication skills, and a reputation for consistently producing cost-effective quality work.

11 Replies to “Why are expat Canucks thought of as “less than Canadian” when we return home, especially professionally?

  1. After posting this to a few forums on LinkedIn, there were several comments made there that are relevant to show here. I’ve omitted their last names as these comments were made in member-only groups.

    Dhinesh: “100% true.”

    Bev: “This too was my initial experience returning to Canada after living/working 10 years in the USA with international portfolio responsibilities in the tech sector. When I returned, Canadian HR folks told me that I lacked ‘Canadian recency’… seriously? Sad to read that returning expats still face this myopic viewpoint.”

    Christine: “I think it is great that Canadians going oversees to broaden their minds, learn new cultures, languages and come back to teach others. Isn’t that how it was in the past and should be in the future?”

    Rick: “100% agree, as an English ex-pat, but now a Canadian, I can say from experience that it works both ways. 9 years ago I had a hard time gaining Canadian employment due to my English experience/qualifications not recognized in Canada. I also was a little despondent about the situation at the time and could not understand why after all, we all speak the same language, or so I thought.”

    Amanda: “Such an interesting article; I truly had no idea it was still so difficult. Thanks for sharing, Jonathan.”

  2. This article was great. It is very sad that ex-pats are treated so shamefully, but there is certainly no shame in wanting to experience life outside of Canadian borders. I agree with all of the points mentioned in your post, Jonathan.

  3. I’ve had quite a few comments emailed directly to me or posted on LinkedIn forums since my last update…

    Shelagh: “Well said – including your comment about industry specificity… The issue of ‘Canadian recency’ Bev mentions is very common and so sad. It’s an awfully parochial response from an industry that’s supposed to be about innovative thinking. How can that be achieved in an atmosphere of such narrow mindedness? ”

    Karen: “Although I can’t comment from an expat perspective, I agree with you on several points. Many Canadian companies seem to ask for innovative thinking, but when push comes to shove, they end up hiring the ‘same old, same old’ candidate. And yes. It’s as if many hiring managers live in that ‘cushy Canadian bubble’ and are too afraid to take a chance on anything or anyone that falls outside of their neatly crafted box. To me, this is so sad as there’s so much potential out there. Americans for the most part have always been greater risk takers than Canadians. While this can sometimes have its downside, it also has a huge upside.
    Stuff like this should never happen and it’s clearly indicative of a systemic problem within the Canadian hiring system. Your (expat) way of thinking and global success should be celebrated and rewarded, not shunned.”

    Stephen: “Canadians who succeed in other parts of the world and return should be valuable to any marketing entity. In my 30 years running marketing firms, it was always my experience with Canadians coming home. The concept of ‘recency’ is relevant and a problem only if the candidate has not kept up with Canadian trends, Canadian issues, and the Canadian marketing people.”

    Alison: “I thought it was just me! This is true to my experience and even more so for my husband. He ran sales for a US company growing it from $100m to $300 million under his leadership. In the US, his resume and his accomplishments generated much more action than here. In Canada, they don’t seem to find that as relevant. What?
    I started my own company when returning to Canada but I have found it very interesting and disappointing that experience from any other country is not as valued in Canada. I ended up with almost all US clients! Outside experience should be seen as more valuable. You almost feel that Canadians are being snobby about who they are and embarrassed that they don’t see experience for what it is, period.”

    Eric: “It’s been 20 years since I came home from London and Tokyo before that where I started my career in advertising. Fortunately, I landed a job and my career took off in Toronto. But it was in spite of, rather than because of my international experience. The only difference in my case being, had I gained my ex-pat experience in the US my fellow Canadians might have been impressed. The kicker? My boss, the one who gave me my start here, was an ex-pat Brit!”

    Vessey: “I can’t agree with you more on the postings re: Canadian expats – being an ‘expat’ in your own country – CANADA.”

  4. Jonathan, thank you for making us aware of this alarming stat. This also happens at the graduate level, many Canadian post grads experience road blocks by potential employers who question motivations around choosing American or International degrees over Canadian. When short listing, Canadian graduates tend to get preference… (hope I didnt open a can of worms!)

    Carmen, thanks for your insight. As it happens, one of your recruiter peers from another company sent this along to me a few days ago: “I’ve seen a lot of expats successfully get reintroduced into Canada. But that transition usually is in an industry or category that isn’t as geopolitically sensitive as say, marketing or advertising. Canadian companies hire someone that has done the job – the rest of the world hires someone that CAN do the job.”
    I rolled my eyes heavenward at reading “geopolitically,” but my experience suggests Canadian marketers and companies believe in such malarkey. It would take any reasonably intelligent tuned-in returning expat marketer (or other professional) perhaps 2 weeks to get up to speed. In fact, for US marketers returning to Canada, the learning curve would include how to become less competitive to what they were familiar with.
    Frankly, “Canadian experience” is simply an excuse to maintain the status quo. Just ask any immigrant doctor, nurse or engineer who can’t get licensed for almost a decade, while it takes a third of that time in the States. – JB

  5. Thank you very much for the interesting article, Jonathan, and for making us aware of the challenges Canadian expats face when coming back to Canada…

    I added a link to this article on my LinkedIn group, “Hire Immigrants in Canada” as I would like to share it with my group members..

    Thank you once again!

  6. I stumbled across a March 12 Globe & Mail newspaper Career Advice column yesterday: “Why can’t I get Canadian companies to take my U.S. experience seriously?”

    The question from an American who came to Canada as a consultant and decided to stay on after that opportunity evaporated: “Even after I had obtained permanent residency status, I was told I would have to take ‘several steps down the corporate ladder’ because I had little Canadian experience. I had 10 years of banking experience in the US and an MBA. I’ve sat in the HR offices of some of the Big Five banks and I am led to wonder how can someone get past that view that experience outside of Canada isn’t relevant here? How can you convince a corporation to look at you seriously even though your lengthy experience isn’t from Canada? Can you get past that or do you have to accept that you have to start near the bottom again?” Although the article’s advice from a Canadian “career coach,” in typically G&M fashion, was way more than “glass half full” that would get expat job seekers absolutely nowhere, the reader comments that followed the article were most telling:

    “The reason your experience is discounted is because it is being evaluated by those whose only experience is in Canada! If the Canadian banking sector were opened to real foreign competition, particularly by the UK and US, it would be dominated very quickly.
    Relevant sector skills can’t be properly evaluated by those without the toolkit to evaluate them. If your Canadian HR ‘professional’ sitting in front of you has no knowledge of and no way to evaluate the competitiveness of your foreign education and experience, they will discount it to Canadian experience that they are familiar with.
    The sad fact is that the Canadian financial services market is neither worldly nor world class. As such, you are held to a dealing with a small cadre of local gatekeepers who look for only what they know. Frustrating, but reality.”

    and this…

    “I agree 100% with (the comment above), how can those with no international experience evaluate those who do have it? If the Toronto Financial Services Alliance is interested in promoting Toronto as a world class banking center and really leap to a solid #2 position in North America behind New York, then it needs to attract world class professionals and have a labour market that is more fluid. Why can someone with New York experience integrate well in Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo but not Toronto? Because these are truly global financial centres. Asking someone to sacrifice for the privilege of being in Toronto is not a selling point to attract talent, which is needed for economic growth.
    There has been a study performed by the Human Resources Professional Association of Ontario which has demonstrated that new Canadians looking to enter the field of their choice that have been most susccessful have actually left Canada. What does this say for the future of Canada as a place that can attract world class labour? Canadian banks need to remember that true talent has other choices, and talented people don’t have to stay in Canada. It is Canada’s loss that so much provincial thinking still exists in the hiring practices of major Canadian corporations. The evolution is clear, when you look at the number of Canadian enterprises that operate on a global level and have remained in Canadian hands versus those who have become branch offices of another multi-national conglomerate.
    Unfortunately if you really want to stay in Canada, the current situation requires that you have to take a step down.
    The really sad truth is that Canadian management decision makers have not learned to open up to really integrate diversity of thought into their practices and are unable to integrate people with different experience. They only want people that have done the same thing in the past so they don’t have to invest the time into training, on-boarding, etc. Limited thinking creates a labour shortage, with limited results in the abilty to change and adapt to market conditions.
    Canada is an attractive place, but its attractiveness has lost momentum. Toronto in relative terms is losing ground fast to other global centres of excellence in the war for talent.”

  7. Recent comment on an Expat Canadians forum in response to this article:
    “Basically, many Canadian companies do not value work experience, life experience, and degrees earned abroad – similar to what often happens to new immigrants to Canada.” – Alejandro G

  8. I am increasingly surprised, distressed, and sad that the situation could be so bad. When I left Canada 6 years ago it was to explore the world, try something new, and accompany my wife who wanted to go back to her home (Germany) after 10 years studying and working abroad in both the UK and Canada.

    It makes no sense to me that a Canadian coming back after time overseas (or south of the border) and therefore bringing international experience and a wider perspective should be valued less than someone who “only” has local or national experience. Indeed it was my “internationality” and “foreign” language skills that worked in my favour in Germany!

    I, as I think many others have felt and as Mr Ignatieff mentioned, have found myself feeling more Canadian since being away. I follow with interest Canadians in all areas of international business, sport, foreign affairs, etc. I swell with pride and have to wipe the corners of my eyes when the athletes come out carrying the maple leaf during the parade of nations.

    I find it very distressing that I may somehow be prevented, due to other peoples’ misperceptions or prejudice, of going back to where I consider home. Normally when someone “comes home” they are welcomed back into the fold with open arms and warm wishes. Should this not be the case in my home and native land… well I cannot express how disappointing that would be.

  9. I left Canada in 1984 after PM Trudeau wiped out my business by “sharing the wealth.” I had been unable, in 14 months, to find a full time job when the opportunity to move to the US came. I have now been unemployed for only 3 weeks in the last 29 years.
    I enjoy going back to Calgary to see family and friends, but it just does not feel like home anymore. Heck, the US is a different country now than the one I moved to.
    We still feel a great attachment to Canada though. My 19 yr old daughter, who was born here (in the US), has a Canadian Maple Leaf tattoo on her foot.
    A stranger in a strange land, I guess.

  10. A comment from “Haijesh” that was left on the Reddit page concerning this article in February 2013:

    IMO this is less to do with expats and more to do with Canada’s strange focus on “Canadian experience.” I moved to Toronto from Australia and have a good degree and several years of experience, and I struggled to even get an interview for jobs as menial as office temp work.
    Many people have since told me it’s a recognised phenomenon here — Canadian employers seem to think the rest of the world walks on their hands and thinks the sky is green, and any experience you get outside of Canada is simply not relevant.

  11. I realize this article is a few years old but feel like commenting anyway. It’s very true. I grew up in Canada (my parents choice, definitely not mine) and can attest to this weird, ethnocentric, almost racist attitude, the idea that Canada (and the US, since it’s a superpower and we get their TV stations) is the center of the world and the rest is second rate is very prevalent in Canada. I know that’s not true having lived in three other countries (all outside North America) and traveled to more than 30. Had I had permanent residence or citizenship in another country like you did Jonathan I absolutely would have left to do my undergraduate degree abroad so I applaud you for that. I never felt Canadian, whatever that means. That’s simply a label placed on us by the government, a form of brainwashing if you must. I am a person on this Earth and don’t feel loyal to any country. So, to any Canadian expat thinking about returning to Canada, I say stay overseas. Life really is better there and your experience and education will be valued.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.