The ups and downs of being an ACA in Toronto

Dec 02, 2020
We were delighted to catch up with Marie-Claire McDonnell, who is now based in Toronto with her family. As you will read, it wasn’t a smooth start but she has some really good, practical advice for new arrivals or those thinking of making the move. In 2019, we launched a Chapter Network Group for members in Toronto, which Marie-Claire heads up, so anyone in the area should certainly reach out! 

Tell us about your journey as a Chartered Accountant and how you ended up settling in Toronto? 

I trained in EY Dublin in the ICT department (Industrial, Commercial and Technology) and qualified in 2008. 

Similar to many in my intake, I took a year out to travel mostly Asia, Australia and New Zealand. I came back to Ireland in the latter part of 2009 worked for three years as Associate Director, Finance in Depfa Bank. It was at Depfa I met my now husband, Cormac, and we decided to move to Canada. At the time it was easy to get a one year working holiday visa, and we chose to live in Toronto as we both had financial services experience and Toronto is a Financial Services hub. 

I found it hard to settle in Toronto if I am completely honest, it did take me about a year. We came in September 2012, when the bad weather starts. We knew no one here and I really had to put myself out there to make friends. It takes a few months to get work here also, so I took on temp admin roles to keep myself occupied at the start. I remember asking myself a few times as I was doing data entry for eight hours a day: “did we make a huge mistake?” But we hung tight and both secured great roles by December 2012.

I took a maternity cover contract in a pension fund called OMERS ($109 billion in net investment assets in 2019), where I was Senior Financial Analyst in Finance for Venture and Strategic investments. Once I was there four months, they made me permanent and I stayed for three and a half years before I made the move to recruitment. I now recruit qualified accountants in non-financial services industries with Robert Walters Canada, and have a special soft spot for helping the Irish ACAs who have just arrived in Toronto. 

What have been the advantages of being an ACA in Toronto?

The Irish ACA designation is very well respected in Toronto, and Irish ACAs have a reputation for being extremely hard workers. Employers like the training Irish ACAs get in Ireland. A lot of the time the ACAs from practice have had exposure to audit of large multinationals and are technically strong as a result.  The ACA designation opens so many doors here. Another huge benefit of the ACA designation is that it is a profession which you are almost guaranteed to secure permanent residency with.

What advice would you give to members going to Toronto today?

Be prepared to have to wait to get a good role and have savings to keep you going for three to four months. Toronto is an expensive city and sometimes it can take a while to get a good role. As you have no credit history in Canada, you might need to pay a few months rent up front. It is important to be prepared for this.

I would also encourage people to be open. Contract work is your friend in Toronto, it is a foot in the door of a good company, or it is Canadian experience to secure your next role. Look at contract work with an open mind: what experience will I have after this role to open doors for me?

Be confident and put yourself out there. Toronto is a city built on networks. Be prepared to cold message people (maybe Irish ACAs here) and ask them for a chat/coffee/Zoom call. I know so many people here who have secured work by networking. Irish people do try to help each other in Toronto as much as possible which is fantastic.

How has lockdown been in Toronto for you?

I am sure like everyone, I can say it has been very challenging. We had a difficult few months in that we welcomed our second daughter, Isla, in May in the middle of lockdown. Isla unfortunately was born critically ill with meningitis. Our family were all in Ireland and they were so worried about us over here. Managing their worry on top of our own was difficult. My husband and I did not see Isla together until she was discharged from hospital a month later as only one caregiver could be in the hospital at a time. Daycare was closed so we had to find care for our two-year-old daughter Aoibhinn. COVID just made a terrible situation 10 times worse if that was possible!

However, in the midst of the difficulty, the kindness and selflessness of our friends was unbelievable. Our close circle of friends here rallied around, staying overnight with us, minding our eldest daughter, taking our dog, cooking for us, driving us to the hospital and back, cleaning and just being here for a shoulder to cry on when you technically cannot touch people outside your family.  They put themselves at risk being with us as we were in hospital every day.  Lockdown was probably one of the worst times of my life but we really learned how amazing and supportive our friends are here. Thankfully little Isla is a trooper and has made a full recovery.  

What will Christmas mean for you this year?  

We are actually travelling to Ireland for Christmas for five weeks. We are very lucky to have a house to quarantine in Killarney. My brother is getting married at the end of December and we wanted to take our little miracle baby Isla home to meet her family in Ireland. It will not be the same as years before, but we are content to just be at home with our families. I am also very excited for some grandparent babysitting so I can hopefully squeeze in a few shopping trips!

Marie-Claire McDonnell is a Finance and Recruiting Specialist with Robert Walters and also is a point of contact for the Toronto Chapter and would love to hear from any members in the Toronto area. Similarly, members looking to reach out can contact Gillian Duffy - District and Global Member Manager.

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