“The NDP has the best track record in Canada for balanced budgets,” said Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the NDP, during the Munk Debate on Foreign Policy. A few people chuckle. “Oh, you’re right,” he paused. “I forgot I was in Toronto. There was one exception but it turned out Bob Rae was a Liberal.” Roy Thomson Hall echoes with the loudest laughter I’ve heard all night, but I don’t know why.
I make a mental note to Google “Bob Rae Liberal NDP” when all the bankers and businessmen can’t see me use my phone. By the end of the night, I’ve made lots of mental notes. I start to feel like I don’t deserve to be here, like my seat should have gone to someone who can laugh with the crowd for real—and not for the first or last time.
I came to Canada in 2008 to study at the University of Toronto. I was 18 and held an Egyptian passport, though I’d spent the previous 12 years living in the United Arab Emirates. Ever since, I’ve faced a barrage of unknowns from the social (why do people talk about the weather so much) to the practical (navigating the health care system).
I like to think I understand most of these areas now, but when I started journalism school in 2014, I realized there was a lot more I had to learn about Canada. On the first day of class, I was assigned a Toronto ward to cover throughout the municipal elections. I listened intently, then panicked all the way home. What’s a ward? Is it an electoral district? Why do they have different borders from a riding? I flipped through Discover Canada—a 68-page booklet of photos and facts that permanent residents receive to study for their citizenship tests. The word “ward” didn’t appear once.
I’m not the only one to go through this experience. Kate Sheridan is a freelance journalist who moved to Montreal from the U.S. in 2010. “You want to learn as much as you can but you don’t have the benefit of having these civics courses or the basic history courses that Canadians get in school,” she says. Another journalist, Mahnoor Yawar, moved to Toronto in 2014 from the United Arab Emirates to study journalism at Humber College. She’d already spent some time covering pop culture and technology in Pakistan, but wanted to cover crime, politics and other beats. There was a lot she didn’t know. “Honestly speaking,” she says, “I landed here knowing not much more than that Harper was prime minister.”
One of the first stories Yawar covered was Toronto’s 2014 municipal election. She spent many more hours reading and researching than her peers did. By the end of it, she was confident, but there was still unspoken context that no amount of reading would give her. “There’s always going to be that gap of what do things mean in context,” she says.
Even when I’m socializing with other journalists, I find myself lost amid the name-dropping. I just nod. Things became less funny when I started working on a story that required understanding Canadian television journalism. I didn’t grow up watching CBC or Global News; I grew up watching the five o’clock news in Cairo, and later, BBC.
I had no idea where to start, paralyzed by how much I didn’t know. I asked a journalism instructor if she could recommend books about the history of Canadian broadcasting? Instead, she put me in touch with a former television producer. Over an hour-long coffee, he gave me a rundown of everything I needed to know including the significance of news personalities and how television had changed over the years. I left with my head buzzing. I was lucky to get help, but I was still behind on my story. And asking for help from editors can be risky. Wouldn’t they just prefer to assign the story to someone who knows more?
I became a Canadian citizen just over a year ago, but the imposter syndrome lingers. I’m uneasy about my future in the industry. There are enough barriers without also worrying about asking stupid questions. (“What’s a classroom portable?” or “Why is this Canada versus Russia hockey game such a big deal?”).
The good news is there are some advantages. Sheridan, for example, has been able to avoid certain traps like regional and provincial biases. And, eventually, you end up learning more about current affairs than some non-journalist Canadians.
My friends tell me that Heritage Minutes are much more informative than Discover Canada, so I won’t be reaching for that book any time soon. As difficult, perplexing and embarrassing as it might be, I became a journalist because I like learning about experiences outside of my own—and the best way to learn about my new home is to keep being a journalist.