“Changing countries might be upsetting, scary, or depressing, but you have to trust in life and live in the moment.”
Walter Schwendener and his sister arrived in Montreal three years ago at the urging of their father, who wanted to give his children a better future.
This is how Walter, born in Guatemala, discovered snow, a new sense of safety, and public libraries. Now aged 16, he is preparing to take the first steps in choosing his future career.
“In Secondary 5, I have to choose a CEGEP and what stream to enter to become a civil engineer.”
Walter, how did you end up in Montreal?
My father remarried a Montreal woman and came to live here. Then he decided he wanted to have my sister and me with him, because he felt that the education system was better than in Guatemala, and there were better prospects for us here.
Were you happy about the decision?
Yes. I was actually pretty excited to come to Canada. There’s no snow in my country, and I was eager to see that. But that first winter, three years ago, experiencing -30 degrees Celsius was really hard! On the other hand, I love the changing of the seasons we have here.
Was it a big shock for you to come here?
This may seem strange, but changing countries didn’t affect me much, either socially or emotionally.
I really appreciate how safe I feel in Montreal. For example, here, you can forget something on a table in a classroom, and when you realize it an hour later and go back to get it, it’s still there; in my country, if you forget something on a table, you can be sure it won’t be there when you go back. The table might even be gone! I find people here so nice and respectful of each other.
What has been the hardest for you since you’ve arrived?
Learning French! There are so many exceptions! My mother tongue is Spanish, so I have trouble pronouncing certain letters, like “r,” which you pronounce in the throat in French. It took a lot of time to get used to speaking French, but after three years, I’d say it’s going well.
Do you think obstacles like that made it harder to establish relationships with other students?
Of course. There weren’t many other Spanish speakers in my school, and I sometimes had trouble finding the right word in French to express myself. I’d say it took me a year before I felt comfortable speaking French.
What is the most striking thing you’ve noticed since coming here?
The public libraries! There aren’t any in Guatemala, since there aren’t any really safe places in the country. Having that kind of access to knowledge almost everywhere in the city, and for free, is amazing!
What will your next challenges be?
In Secondary 5, I have to choose a CEGEP and what stream to enter to become a civil engineer. People born here know the system well, the R Score and so on. But I’m still a bit lost in all of that. So I need to find out about it. There’s a guidance counsellor at the school who can help us choose courses, so I plan to go and see her. I think I’ll go into pure science.
Do you feel that Montrealers have welcomed you?
Yes, because in three years, I haven’t really experienced any racism. In my situation, you quickly see who is racist, but I haven’t really met any here.
What is your greatest accomplishment since you’ve arrived? What are you most proud of?
Getting into the Calixium program, where we have extra periods of science and technology, do field trips, and so on. I was really proud of getting accepted because you need an average of 70% to get in.
In closing, what advice would you give a friend who wanted to immigrate here?
I’d say, “Don’t worry. Changing countries might be upsetting, scary, or depressing, but you have to trust in life and live in the moment. The situation will change your perspective on the world, and that’s good!”
To better understand their unique circumstances, we asked writer and photographer François Couture to meet with young immigrants who were willing to talk about their backgrounds, their experience, and their arrival in Montreal.