Guide to Surviving in Ontario


(Compiled by people who have already survived an exchange “Down Under”)


Before you read any further, or make the mistake of taking anything on this page as “Gospel”, please consider these general points carefully:

1. Each individual exchange has its own unique character. Ontario is a diverse province of about 12,000,000 people! As a result, experiences and lifestyles vary dramatically from place to place in Ontario. You should take the suggestions in this handout as just that. They are meant as friendly guidelines which we feel may come in handy at some point during your stay.

2. Despite the wide diversity in exchange experiences, all successful exchanges have two basic characteristics. Firstly, there has been/is an open and honest line of communication between exchange partners. Secondly, the exchange is so much more successful if you ASK QUESTIONS when perplexed. At school, ASK! In your neighbourhood, ASK! At CLEE functions, ASK! You will usually find that your accent melts even the coldest of Canadian hearts, and that people are generally all too willing to be of some help to you!

Heating – Most homes have a natural gas furnace and natural gas water heater. If this is true for you, change or clean the filter on the furnace once each month. There is a narrow slot near the pilot light (blue flame) where the filter slides in and out. If there is a humidifier in the house, watch the windows for condensation – that is a sign that the humidifier is too high. Homes with an electric furnace will usually have a humidifier, since electric heat is very dry. If your furnace is “energy efficient”, there will be no pilot light to indicate that the gas is on. CANADIAN HOMES ARE BUILT MORE AIRTIGHT DUE TO OUR RADICAL CLIMATIC CHANGES. AS A RESULT, YOU WILL QUICKLY FIND OUT THAT CANADIANS ARE ACCUSTOMED TO KEEPING THEIR HOMES WARMER THAN YOU WOULD THINK “NORMAL”. You may find it tempting to “dial down” the furnace in winter, or even open the windows. Please be cautioned that you’re only heating the outdoors, and, in any case, you may have to supply your Canadian visitors with warm sweaters when they drop in! As well, leaving your home too cold (less than 14 degrees Celsius) can lead to frozen pipes, especially in the basement. If you have a fireplace, close the “damper” when not in use. Many fireplaces in Canada are equipped with glass doors and a heatilator system. Keep the glass doors closed, and the heatilator on, for maximum heating efficiency. Wise use of the fireplace will cut down on winter heating bills.

Winter Outdoors – Believe it or not, there is some maintenance of the home to keep in mind during the winter months. Snow shovelling is a necessary evil, and often, the only time you see your Canadian neighbours during the winter months! Many communities have strict by-laws to ensure that residents clear sidewalks of snow and ice. Avoid fines (and lawsuits too!) by shovelling driveways and sidewalks promptly after storms. You will also avoid considerable back strain, as snow hardens and gets heavier as it sits longer. Putting rock salt down on hard-to-shovel ice will help melt it away. Bring all outside water hoses inside before winter arrives to avoid water freezing in them over the winter. Turn any outside water lines off before winter arrives to avoid bursting the pipes. The shut off valve for these lines is usually located inside the home in the basement. If you prefer hanging clothes outdoors to dry, you will find that they will freeze before they dry in Ontario during winter. That’s why our clothes dryers are larger – they are a necessity in the winter!

Summer Maintenance – Grass tends to grow much quicker in Ontario due to our relatively wet spring and summer seasons. You may need to mow the lawn twice a week in some cases. Also, our grass needs regular watering, as it is much less resistant to prolonged drought. If you are away on vacation for an extended period of time, it is wise to hire someone to mow and water the lawn regularly, and collect all mail arriving at the house. If you have a daily paper delivery, cancel it for the holidays. This will discourage potential thieves who look for homes which appear unoccupied during the popular vacation months. Use of an automatic light timer for indoor and outdoor lights is also useful in this regard. In short, try not to leave evidence of your absence! You may have the pleasure of spending some of the summer here in Ontario. Although it is hard to believe at the moment, our summer temperatures can rival Australia’s! Many homes will have central air conditioning. You will have to change the switch on your temperature control (thermostat) from “heat” to “cool” before the system will operate.

Electrical – Locate the electrical box in your home. It will contain either screw-in fuses (now mostly outdated) or circuit breakers. If you have fuses, always replace burnt out ones with one of the same amperage. (15 amp for 15 amp, 30 for 30 etc.) Check your fuses before calling repairmen and paying hefty service call charges. Remember, light bulbs screw in!

Phone – All local calls are on a flat rate charge. 800 numbers are toll free. Specially marked pages in your phone book will list numbers for government services. 911 is used as the emergency number in most localities.

Garbage and Recycling – Garbage collection is usually once or twice a week. Recycling collection is usually once a week. Use your blue boxes for recycling newspaper, plastic bottles, glass and cans. Avoid throwing these items in the garbage. Most communities also have “green bins” for compost garbage pick up. There should be a guideline available in your area outlining which items go in which boxes.

Canadian Traditions and Customs – Take off your shoes when entering a person’s home, especially in winter. If you have been invited to dinner, you should take a token gift, such as a bottle of wine, or flowers. BYOB (Bring your own booze) to parties. Unless otherwise specified in an invitation, parties are usually for adults, and dress for parties is casual. Check with the host/hostess if you are unsure. If you need to hire a babysitter for the children, check around your neighbourhood or at the local high school for competent teens. Good sitters should have references, and may have even taken a babysitting course. Rates for sitters are around $8 per hour – negotiate a price. Usually time and a half is paid after midnight. If you smoke, ask when entering someone’s home. All public buildings as well as most outdoor areas are smoke free. In restaurants, tipping is expected – 15% for good service. (Don’t tip on the taxes, subtract HST before calculating your tip.)

Cash/Cheques/Credit Cards – Credit cards can usually be used in grocery stores in Ontario. Most grocery stores accept debit cards which access your bank account directly. When writing cheques, do not cross out cheques – they become VOID if you do so! Credit cards are accepted practically anywhere else in the retail industry.

Supermarkets – Large chain grocery stores usually found in or near malls are more popular here in Canada. This is true basically due to the savings which can be found at these larger stores. They are also open seven days a week, and for longer hours each day. Small, “corner store” butchers, bakeries, and fruit and veggie outlets are harder to find, and usually more expensive, than in the Southern Hemisphere. (In fact, all former exchangees seem to miss the “intimacy” of these types of stores from when they were “Down Under”!) Corner convenience stores are easy to find but also pricey. Even more significant savings may be found at “warehousing” outlets such as “Costco” or “Sam’s Club”, if one is located in your community. You may find that “clipping” savings coupons from mailings and newspapers will save you in grocery expenses significantly. You should be able to find most foods which are available at home, but brand names and labels may be different. Many meat cuts go by different names. (ex. – brisket is known as pot roast and silverside is called round steak) Lamb is available but much more expensive. Sausage is different here and you will need to experiment yourself if you wish to have a “snag barbie”! Don’t count on finding Vegemite at your local grocery store! It may be wise to have relatives back home mail you a “care package” if you have children who crave it! Otherwise, they may adapt to being a “peanut butter kid” like most Canadian children! But be aware that nut products are discouraged or forbidden at many schools now in lunches etc. due to the increased prevalence of children with anaphylactic reactions.

Beer, Wine and Liquor – These are only sold through government owned outlets. You will be very lucky if you are located close to one of these stores! They accept cash, debit and credit card, and are now open on Sundays. Beer bottles and cans are returnable for a deposit of ten cents apiece. If you are over in the USA for a period of 48 hours or more, you are allowed to bring back one bottle of liquor, or one case of beer for each adult over 19 years of age. We only mention this since you will soon discover that alcohol and gasoline are significantly cheaper in the USA. However, avoid smuggling these items at all costs, since our government is also very aware of the savings! Also, it is wise to remember that drinking alcohol in a public place, such as a park, is illegal.

Gambling – If this is another one of your vices, you will find it harder to gamble in Ontario – although we are “loosening up” significantly. There is no off-track horse betting in Ontario. You must attend the track for the privilege of losing your money on the ponies! Lotto tickets are sold at almost every corner store. As well, sports gambling tickets (hockey, football, basketball and baseball) can be bought at most corner stores. Ontario’s first casino was opened in 1994 in Windsor, Ontario. Subsequent casinos have opened in Niagara Falls and near Orillia. Check with the locals for the closest one to you.

Restaurants – Forget the local “take-away”, and welcome to the North American world of fast-food mania! MacDonald’s, Burger King, Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell and Wendy’s thrive in even the smallest communities. Many Canadian families will “dine out” a couple of times a week. Besides the above options, pizza, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food are also popular, and can be found just as easily! For “finer dining”, often just asking the locals for advice is the best policy.

Clothing – If you are looking for warm winter clothing, try fellow teachers, neighbours etc. first. They may have some hand-me-downs, especially for smaller children. Second hand shops also carry bargain clothing. Cheaper stores for clothing include Winners, Giant Tiger, (affectionately known as the “GT Boutique”!) Zeller’s and Wal-Mart.

Sporting Goods – If you’re looking for sporting equipment, check around at school first. Garage sales on Saturdays and Sundays are a Canadian tradition, and often good bargains can be found there. If you wish to buy new, Canadian Tire Stores carry virtually everything except food! There are also second hand sporting goods stores like “Play it Again Sports” who will buy your equipment back at the end of the year.

Shopping Malls – Due to the nature of our climate, the indoor shopping mall has become the norm in Canada. Most malls are now open seven days a week. Hours of business are usually from about 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. during the week, and shorter on the weekend. If you live in a smaller rural community, you may find that many residents make a regular trip to the nearest city to shop at the mall on a regular basis. The mall now seems to be as much a part of our popular culture as the automobile!

Auto Clubs – If you belong to an automobile association at home, the CAA has reciprocal agreements and should issue you a membership card for the year. (assuming the proper dues are paid) The CAA provides free towing services, free travel maps and trip planning assistance.

Winter Car Care – Most winter driving problems revolve around two things – cold and ice. If you decide to wash the car during winter, wipe the insides of all doors dry after washing. This will save you from spending precious time the next morning attempting to open frozen car doors. Use only the special anti-icer windshield cleaning fluid with your windshield wipers. Using plain water will only result in your windshield immediately icing up in front of your eyes. Buying lock de-icer may come in handy on particularly cold days when the door locks, or trunk lock, may decide to freeze up! Use of gas line anti-freeze will help prevent winter stalling. In any case, if you survive this winter, be prepared for next winter by having your anti-freeze checked by a reputable mechanic. If you have exchanged vehicles with your partner, you will have to arrange to have the license plate registration renewed sometime during the year. This is always done during the month of the owner’s birthday, so make plans to ensure that this is handled.

Driving Tips – Winter driving is difficult even for us, so caution is the best policy while roads are snowy and icy. When travelling greater distances in winter, make plans for longer driving times. This should remind you of driving times back home! If you need to brake on icy roads, slip the car into neutral, and use a steady pumping action on the brakes. Avoid oversteering while braking. Some “Roundabouts” do exist in Ontario, but there are also many “four way stops”! The basic rule at these intersections is that “whoever comes to a full stop first, is entitled to proceed first”. During winter, always carry an “emergency kit” in your car consisting of a shovel, washer fluid, booster cables, kitty litter, candles, a lighter and a tin can.

General – For the most part, you will find that you have come halfway around the world and discovered that schools, teachers, students, policies etc. are not all that different from home! There will be some differences though which may irk you — but if everything was going to be exactly the same as home, why did you come on exchange? When in doubt, “ask and you shall receive” or “do as the natives do”. Your professional colleagues may not volunteer materials, but will usually not hesitate to lend you something if they are asked. Discussions, pictures, slides, souvenirs etc. from home will always elicit interest and discussion in the classroom when you need to rescue a lesson!

Extra-Curricular Activities – Generally, there is more activity after school in Canadian schools than “Down Under”. Sports are sometimes treated almost like a “religion” in some schools. Practices are generally held on a daily basis for team schools. Often, teams and their achievements are the very root of school pride and spirit. If you become involved, be prepared to spend many extra hours after school with these types of activities. The rewards and memories of these involvements, however, often remain with you far longer than your classroom accomplishments. GET INVOLVED! If you have the opportunity to attend/chaperone any school field trips, take advantage of those situations as well! These are good chances to see attractions in Ontario while you are being paid! Your principal has previously agreed to giving you 5 school days per exchange year for CLEE activities. You are able to apply for additional days if the school is amiable. Be aware that if it is something extra, someone will have to cover your classes — be willing to reciprocate.

Workload – Teachers in Canada are generally expected to “push more paper”! As well, in the high schools, the marking load will probably be heavier than at home. Canadian students, especially in high school, tend to be more “mark conscious” or “mark motivated”. This is probably a result of our credit system. If you can handle the “paper blizzard” cheerfully, you are doing better than most! The best advice is usually to watch your peers carefully, and follow along as best you can. School policies, attitudes, deadlines etc. will vary from place to place.

CLEE Functions – If possible, it is often wise to plan your travel experiences within Ontario around CLEE functions. When attending these activities, you will get the best value for your dollar, expert local knowledge and commentary from CLEE members, and in some cases, free billetting. In addition, these activities allow you the opportunity to mix and mingle with Ontarians who have been on exchange (They love to talk about their memories!) and fellow exchangees who will love to share experiences, pet peeves, strange stories etc. with you!

Seeing Ontario – Information regarding sightseeing, special events, performing arts, festivals, etc. is readily available from Travel Ontario. Tourism centres are located at all major points of entry into Ontario, as well as most major cities. Brochures, travel packages etc. can be obtained by personally visiting a Travel Ontario office or calling 1-800-ONTARIO. (314-0944 from within the Toronto calling area) Most towns and cities will also have a local tourism office or visitors’ bureau. Hours for these establishments are usually longer during the summer months. If you are travelling within Ontario, take advantage of the volunteer billet list available from CLEE through Alison Williams. These people are former exchangees who are usually only too willing to put you up, and swap stories, if you happen to be passing through their community. If you are a skiing fanatic, many Ontario resorts will stay open into April. Listen to your local radio station – many give regular snow condition updates for the resorts.

Seeing North America – Many exchangees will spend their summer months travelling through the rest of Canada, and through many parts of the USA. If you plan to stay at camper (caravan) parks, you will find that, unlike “Down Under”, very few offer on-site caravans. You will need to have your own tent/camper for these facilities. If you prefer hotels/motels, CAA offers a book to members listing approved accommodations and, in many cases, special rates. Remember that highway speed limits in the USA are posted in miles per hour. As a rough guide, 100 km./hr. equals 60 mi./hr. At the moment, the banks will charge you approximately $1.10 Canadian for $1.00 American. Keep this exchange in mind when budgeting for travel in the USA.

Travelling Overseas – If you plan to book overseas trips from North America during your stay, find a reputable travel agent who will “shop around” for you to find the best seat sales. There is much more competition in the airline industry in North America, so bargains can usually be found if you are patient. However, be aware that some sales may have conditions attached such as restrictions as to which days of the week you may travel, length of stay etc. If you haven’t already done so, it may be to your advantage to enroll in a frequent flier program with an airline of your choice. Often, your travel mileage with this airline could result in your qualifying for a free flight at a later date.

Internet – There are many great internet sites for discount travel. Here are a few:,,
Air Canada’s website has Wednesday specials,

Attending Sports Events – Many exchangees wish to see some type of professional sports event during their stay. In many cases, games are sold out months in advance, so you might need to know someone who already has tickets, or you may have to sit in the “cheap seats” high above the action! A listing below of teams in Ontario, and in nearby US states follows:




Ice Hockey Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Black Hawks Sept. – June
Basketball Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers Sept. – June
Baseball Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians Apr. – Oct.
Football (Canadian) Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Allouettes, Hamilton Tiger-Cats July – Nov.
Football (American) Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns Sept. – Jan.

If you prefer to see professional events such as tennis, figure skating, golf, etc., many events are scheduled in or near major cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Detroit on a regular basis. Keep your eyes and ears open for ticket opportunities to all events!

Attending Cultural Events – Toronto is quickly becoming known as the “New York of the North” with its constant variety of first-rate theatre and show productions. Many opportunities to attend these productions exist, although tickets must often be purchased well in advance. Major show productions and big-name concert events are also found in Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago etc. Some travel companies may offer weekend packages to and from such events.

Home – Many rural homes obtain water from a well (bore). Water from these wells is “hard” and some appliances (drip coffee makers, irons, electric kettles, etc.) will need to be cleaned of corrosion. Use vinegar (full strength) or a commercial scale remover. A water softener mixed in the washing machine will make clothes look cleaner. Rinse agent in the dishwasher will prevent spotting on the glassware. If your water pump comes on frequently, check your house for a leak, and check your pressure tank to see if it has become waterlogged. A tire pressure gauge is useful for this task. If your rural home is on a fuel oil heating system, it will be useful to ask if there is an automatic delivery system in place, or whether there is a “call in” arrangement with the dealer. Try not to let your tank fall below one quarter full.

Automobile – Winter driving in the country is quite different from in the city. The three following dangerous road conditions may be encountered. In all cases, it is usually wise to park the car and refrain from challenging “Mother Nature”.

a) “Glare Ice” – when rain turns snow-packed roads into a sheet of shiny ice.
b) “Black Ice” – when fog in low-lying areas freezes into an invisible ice on the road surface.
c) “White Outs” – when blowing snow creates extremely poor road visibility.

Shopping – It is best to shop in urban centres whenever possible. Many rural residents shop in expeditions every two or three weeks. Milk and other perishables are purchased locally.

Recreation – Snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, and “shinny” (pick-up hockey) on outdoor rinks are common in rural areas. Check out any of these sports carefully before volunteering to stand for hours looking at a hole in the ice! Driving vehicles onto the ice is risky – your vehicle insurance is void if your vehicle is driven onto a frozen lake. Let your buddies go first! If you plan to fish during the warmer months, you will need to purchase an outdoors card. A hunters’ safety course, FAC, and outdoors card are needed to hunt during autumn. Locals may be your best resources for activities such as dogsledding, trapping, and making maple syrup.

Wildlife – The stories which you may have heard about our dangerous wild animals are usually told to impress visitors. Wolves and coyotes are often heard, but rarely seen. AVOID BEARS, especially March through July, when cubs and protective mothers may be encountered. Check with seasoned campers on safe methods of storing food to avoid night visitors. Rabies may be a problem with dogs, cats, foxes, and skunks. It is best to appreciate unknown animals from a distance! Definitely, do not try to pet skunks! Learn what poison ivy looks like by spring, so that you can avoid it on hikes.