Some Basic Facts about Canada: (How to Impress the Natives or disguise yourself as a Local)

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Here's where I take a friendly dig, aimed mainly at our friends in the United States. (Although you ignorant Europeans, Australians and Asians aren't exempt either) Please don't take this as an insult to your intelligence, its meant to be tongue-in-cheek. There is no country on earth we would rather have as a neighbour. We just wish, most Americans would take the time to learn more about us. Only 1% of Americans, for example, know that Canada is the largest customer for US Goods & Services, and that Canada is the main source of Oil & Gas for the US. (Come on, admit it, you didn't know that!)  Let's start first with the fact we do not all live in igloos and despite the logos all over this page, we are not in a deepfreeze 10 months of the year. (Well the 90% of us huddled along the US border aren't, anyway)

We share the worlds longest (5000 Km / 3000 mile) undefended border with the United States. If nothing else, that's a testament to the special relationship we share with our American brothers. In most places you could easily walk across unchallenged (although 911 has tightened it up considerably). Try that on the US-Mexican border and see how far you get. We have only ever fought one war with the US (which, we won by the way, although I wouldn't bet much on our chances in a re-match). We share similar Cultures, and most foreigners can't tell a Canadian from an American. Most Canadians identify closely with the United States, but on the other hand, we don't like being mistaken for Americans when travelling abroad. Canadians tend to have mixed feelings toward the United States. In many ways we feel like a mouse sleeping next to an Elephant. (Sorry, not to offend you Democrats, sometimes its like sleeping next to a Donkey)

In some ways we envy the patriotic fervour of Americans, although we tend to make fun of it. We tend to think of ourselves as more open minded than Americans, but we are not. Americans are more outwardly friendly than Canadians & I hate to say it but some Canadians are a royal pain in the butt when traveling in the States. Those from Quebec have a particularly negative reputation in some parts of the US.

Canadians love to discuss American Politics. This is often interpreted as criticism of the US, and in some cases it is. In most cases it's simply because anything that happens in the US has a direct effect on Canada.

 Most Americans do not understand our Quebec problem, (those who know where Quebec is) and why we tolerate it. I'm sure if Quebec had been a part of the US, they would have sent in the Marines by now. A lot of Canadians wish they would.

Unfortunately, the American Public Educational System, in the past, has been somewhat insular, and a large number of American's know very little about Canada. The reverse is not true, although in all fairness, the United States is a bigger player on the world stage, so we would be expected to know more about them, than the other way around. Personally, I found American History much more interesting than Canadian when I was in school, so maybe they are lucky they did not have to learn too much about us.

A lot of people still picture a typical Canadian as a lumberjack type figure in a plaid shirt, sipping on Maple Syrup, living in a log cabin in the woods. In actual fact we are virtually indistinguishable from the average American.


Here's your chance to learn about us. Read on.

I have compiled a list of basic facts about Canada, with which to impress the natives, when you visit.

1) Canada's government is based upon the British Parliamentary System. The current Leader (called a Prime Minister) is Stephen Harper, who took over from Paul Martin, one of Canada's shortest term PM's. Canada, does not have fixed election dates as in the US. Elections are called by the Prime Minister, but must be held at least every 5 years. There are 2 houses of Parliament (like the US Congress and Senate). The elected house is called the House of Commons and the non elected house is called the Senate (equivalent to the House of Lords in England). The Senate is a largely ceremonial institution, useless in the eyes of most Canadians. Senators are appointed for life, (usually through patronage appointments) and most collect a hefty salary without even showing up. Its a big pig trough, actually (I wish knew how to become one). Members of the House of Commons are called Members of Parliament or MP's for short. The Prime Minister is like any other MP, in that he must win a seat in an election. (Represent a geographical area). The leader of the successful party in an election is automatically Prime Minister. It is possible for a party to win an election, and the Prime Minister lose. This has happened in the past. Usually a successful MP from a safe riding (geographical area) will resign and a by-election held, to give the Prime Minister a seat in Parliament.

During the last 35 years, most Canadian Prime Ministers, Anglophone & Francophone,  have come from Quebec. The current PM, Stephen Harper is from Alberta, a Province much like Texas in thinking & economy. Maybe not so odd, then that he is often pictured as a George Bush clone, although he appears to relate well to Barak Obama, the current US president.

The main political parties in Canada are at present, the Conservatives (the party in power, similar to the Republicans in the US), the Liberal Party (similar to the Democrats in the US), the NDP (left wing party, similar to Labour in Britain) and the Bloc Quebecois (A party dedicated to Quebec Independence and the break-up of Canada). The Conservative Party, a big player in the past, was almost completely wiped out a few elections ago. They then united with a party further to the right, called the Canadian Alliance. In March 2004, they elected their new leader, Stephen Harper, who was formerly the leader of the Alliance party. The Conservative Party currently runs a "minority" government which means that they have the majority of seats in Parliament, but still under 50% of the total. This curbs his abilities, considerably. The Canadian political landscape is much more diverse than in the US. Canadians do not pre-declare a party affiliation before they can vote, as is the case in the US. The Canadian system also make it far easier for small parties to have representation in the government. There is a table of links to the web sites of the major Canadian Political Parties at the bottom of this page.

Under the Canadian system, the party with the most voters after the ruling party is designated "official opposition". Currently this is the NDP party whose leader is Tomas Mulcare. They usually occupy 3rd party status, but grabbed 2nd place from the Liberals last election. The Liberal responded by electing Justin Trudeau, so of a popular former prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, as their new leader. They hope to regain their former glory by doing this come next election.. The leader of of the Bloq Quebecois is Daniel Paillé.

Canada's official head of state is the Governor General who represents the British Queen. This is largely ceremonial. The current governor general is David Johnson,.

2) Canadian Provinces are the equivalent of US States. The Provincial leader is called a Premier (equivalent to a Governor in the US) and the same rules of government apply as at the federal level. Canadian Provinces have more control over their own affairs with respect to the Federal government, than is the case in the US. The most volatile politics on a Provincial level are found in Quebec & British Columbia. In BC, the last 4 governments in a row have been mired in scandal.

3) Canada uses the Metric System, Kilometres instead of Miles, Kilograms instead of Pounds, etc. Most Canadians over 25 years of age, understand the old system, and use both. Most Canadians over 65 have not yet fully embraced the Metric System. Its hard to admit that the French actually came up with a better idea than the British, but the United States, at least, is still upholding the tradition.

4) Canadians tend use the British spelling of words, as you have probably noticed on these web pages. In other words, we spell "neighbour" instead of "neighbor", "valour" instead of "valor", etc. We also pronounce the letter "Z" as Zed, not Zee. We also tend to pronounce words properly (original English) and are less likely to truncate or slur them as most Americans do. We have, however, adopted some American expressions, such as "yeah" for "yes". Snobby, aren't we? If you think that's bad, try using English in Quebec and see what happens.

5) If you are an American, and want to blend in with the locals, simply add "eh" at the end of most sentences. You will sound just like a Canadian, unless your from the deep South of course.

6) Canada is divided into 10 Provinces and 3 Territories. They are from East to West - Newfoundland (pronounced Newfunland) and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan (pronounced Sas-catch-chew-on), Alberta and British Columbia. Newfoundland and Labrador count as one. Two Provinces are referred to by their initials in general conversation, rather than the full name. These are BC & PEI.

The 3 Territories are the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavit (pronounced Noon-a-Voot). Nunavit is administered by the Inuit (Eskimos) and is actually a result of the worlds largest aboriginal land claim settlement. Back in the 1800's we found it too cold to go up and shoot them all, or infect them with Smallpox like we did most of the Southern tribes, so now we have negotiate with them.

7) You NRA types will be disappointed to learn that the right to bear arms is not part of the Canadian Constitution. It is illegal to be in possession of an unlicensed firearm, and a license is not easy to obtain. We much prefer to knife or poison each other. If you wish to shoot someone, you have to go to a lot more effort, here in Canada. Americans have, however, successfully managed to bring their guns into Canada, undetected and sometimes quite innocently, at times. In August 1998, a room maid found a gun belonging to an American tourist under the mattress in a hotel room. This resulted in the arrest of the hapless visitors. It was obvious that they did not realize that they were in violation of Canadian laws and were soon released, minus their firearms of course, which were confiscated. Bummer. There is a bit of a furor over gun registration taking place in Canada. Even Charlton Heston has been up here to give his opinion. (I think he's against it). Most Canadians like having restrictions on firearms, although the government is going a bit overboard, I think, especially with regards to hunting rifles. A lot of US border towns have lockers where armed Americans can store their guns while they visit Canada. They can retrieve them when they go back, and resume shooting. You may bring a rifle into the country, but you have to obtain a permit before crossing the border with it. The only exceptions are Police Officers going to official functions, Presidential bodyguards & that sort of thing. Even that is up to the discretion of Immigration Canada.

Here is the link to the latest regulations: Canadian Firearm Regulations

8) The capital of Canada is Ottawa, it is located in the Province of Ontario. It is on the border with Quebec. The city on the Quebec side is known as Gatineau (formerly Hull). The capital of Canada is NOT Toronto. We all hate Toronto, at least those of us that don't live there.

9) The 3 largest cities in Canada are Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, in that order. (Toronto -  4.5 Million, Montreal - 3 Million, Vancouver - 2 Million) They are located in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia respectively. 80% of Canadians live within 100 km of the US border. Its not that we want to get close enough to hug our American neighbours, it's just that it's warmer closer to the border.

10) Canada has two official languages, English and French. Quebec is French Speaking, as are parts of New Brunswick and Manitoba. Most Canadians are NOT bi-lingual. Do not expect to be able to communicate in English in Quebec except in Montreal and areas close to the Ontario or US borders. People in the more rural areas may not speak any English, very limited English, or refuse to speak it. You are, however, more likely to find a French Canadian who can speak English, rather than the other way around. People in Quebec are fiercely proud of their language. Personally I find it a lot harder to understand than English. I could not  understand our former Prime Minister in either language, but he was very "poop-u-laar". Someone told me once that the French spoken in Quebec is similar to the "peasant" French, spoken in France in the 17th century. This may explain why French Canadian French is sneered at in France, or maybe they just did like the way I spoke it..

11) You usually cannot buy beer and wine in grocery stores in Canada. Apart from Quebec, you have to buy booze from a Government liquor store or a licensed beer and wine store. The laws in Alberta are a little more lax than in other parts. As of 2003, there are now also some private Liquor stores in BC, but they have to buy their stock at the same price the public buys it in Government stores, & therefore have a large markup. Unless it's a Sunday, go to a government store.

12) The Island off the coast of BC is called Vancouver Island, not Victoria Island. A lot of Americans make this mistake. Victoria is the largest city on Vancouver Island and is the capital of British Columbia. Contrary to a common local myth, you could not fit all the British Isles within Vancouver Island. You could fit about 2/3 of England itself.

13) Canada has a mutual defense agreement with the United States, known as NORAD. The original idea was that, we would shoot down incoming ICBM's from the Soviet Union over Canada. That way they would fall on Canadian Cities instead of American ones. The Americans thought this was a great idea, and gave us lot of swell radar and missile silos to install on our territory. This may go to prove, that Americans are on the whole, a lot  smarter than Canadians, however I think most Canadians figured the cities to be hit would be Toronto & Montreal - no great loss. The organization is a little redundant with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and a lot of the American Installations have been disassembled and they have left us some great toxic waste to clean up, but what are friends for, eh. OK, before you think I'm trashing the US for polluting Canada, you need to know that Canadian Companies are among the worst world-wide polluters. We are well known for dumping toxic substances in third world countries, including those long-banned in Canada & the US.

The other side of the coin is that our proximity to the the US, the most benevolent empire in world history, has allowed us to slack off on our own defense & military spending & ride on their coattails. We sneaky Canucks figured out a few decades ago that the our friends in the US would rapidly come to our rescue if we invaded by an unfriendly power, since that power would likely also be unfriendly to them. This has allowed us to use 300 million US citizens as substitute Canadian taxpayers. Pretty smart, huh?

We are also in a free trade agreement with the United States, Mexico & Chile and maybe a few others by the time you read this. This is not as strong a union, as is the case with the European Community. Canada and the US are each others strongest trade partners, however, and are more dependent on one another than most people think.

14) Canada has 3 national (over the air) TV networks, plus several mini ones. The government network is the CBC, available in both official languages. A large portion of Canadian TV programming is American, with the exception of the CBC, and some cable specialty networks. Canadian television is best known for its high quality documentaries and news programming, which tends to be far less biased than those produced in the US. Canadian newscasters are in big demand in the US and many of their best known News anchors are actually Canadian (such as Peter Jennings and Morley Safer). On the same subject, many American Comedians are also actually Canadian (Jim Carey, Dan Akroyd, Michael J. Fox, John Candy, Leslie Neilson to name a few) .

15) Ottawa, along with Moscow is the coldest capital in the world. At least we can afford to heat it. The government is based there, and no, the Parliament Buildings are not made of ice.

16) Canada is still the second largest country in the world, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but not by much.

18) Basketball, Baseball & Hockey were invented in Canada, so was the telephone. Contrary to most American beliefs, Alexander Graham Bell was a Canadian (Well he was actually kinda American, Scottish & Canadian). Michael Jordan (basketball star), however, is American. Some other notable Canadian inventions are Newsprint, the anti-G suit (worn by jet fighter pilots), the Combine Harvester, the Jolly Jumper, the plastic green garbage bag, the roller-skate, Cable TV, AM Radio, the walkie-talkie, Smarties, automobile air conditioning, (no, we just didn't leave the window open in winter) snowmobiles, the streetcar, electric cooking range, the paint roller, the washing machine, the zipper, kerosene, insulin, the electron microscope, the oil well, the wonderbra, the flight simulator, Trivial Pursuit, and believe it or not - Superman. Canada also produced the worlds first jet airliner, but it never went into production. The worlds first commercial movie was also produced in Canada. Here is a link to a larger list: http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa090100a.htm

19) The official National Sport of Canada is Lacrosse, an Indian game, but hardly anybody knows how to play it. The most popular Sports are Ice Hockey and Curling. "American" Football is played (not soccer) although the game is somewhat different than in the US. Here is a link to differences: Canadian vs American rules. We also try to kill only 5 balls when bowling.

20) The slang term for a Canadian is "Canuck". South of the border in Northern Washington State, we are known as Cheeseheads. This is because cheese is considerably cheaper in Washington State than in BC and Canadians would buy big blocks of it to take home. Well, at least that Americans tell us it means.

21) If you are an American, do not brag about American air power to a Canadian. Most Canadians still blame the US Government for pressuring the Canadian Government to cancel the Avro Arrow (the most advanced military Aircraft of the day) in 1958. (It was probably more likely due to political reasons here at home, but the conspiracy theory is very popular) If you've never heard of it, and are interested, check out the web page of this high school student: The Avro Arrow Shrine. Another great site on this aircraft is Avro Arrow Recovery Canada . Showing a knowledge of the Avro Arrow to a Canadian, will definitely gain you some respect. There is also a 4 hour "made for TV" movie starring Dan Aykroyd available on this subject.

22) One of the biggest differences between Canadians and Americans involve French Fries or Chips. Ask for chips in the United States, and you will likely get potato chips (potato crisps). In Canada you will get the deep fried strips of potatoes, known as French Fries in the US (or since the dust up with the French over Iraq, Freedom fries). We tend to use the term "Chips" and "Fries" interchangeably.

If you are an American, trying to disguise yourself as Canadian, a good trick is to ask for vinegar with your chips (French fries). The usual wording is "Have any vinegar, eh?" This request will usually elicit a look of disgust in the United States, but the practice is quite common in Canada. Another peculiar Canadian invention is Poutine. This disgusting concoction originated in Quebec where massive amounts of the stuff are consumed, daily. It consists of chips (or French Fries if you prefer) , Cheddar Cheese & hot BBQ Sauce. You can plug your arteries up with cholesterol, by just looking at it. Burger King now offers it, if you want to try it. I have been informed by a Quebecer that the Cheese must remain hard. At least we don't eat that disgusting Vegamite stuff that the Australians are so fond of.

23) Everybody in Canada seems to hate Toronto, except people who live in Toronto of course. In fact, hating Toronto is a Canadian pastime. The slang term for Toronto (which Torontonians hate) is Hogtown. I'm fuzzy on the origin of this, maybe some Torontonian could enlighten me. .I don't really know why Canadians outside of Toronto have this view of the city. It is the largest city in the country, but people there seem to think that if it doesn't happen in Toronto, its not worth talking about. Rightly or wrongly, this is the perception of those in the rest of the country, but everyone perceives their own city as more important, and Toronto by its shear size bears more influence. Personally, I think Toronto is great city and well worth a visit. My ex grew up there, I spent some time living there myself when I was a child in the 50's, and I've been back many times since. For more info on Toronto try my friends at http://www.toronto.hm or http://www.toronto2.com.

24) Still on the subject of Toronto, the worlds former tallest free standing structure is located there, the CN Tower at about 550 meters or 1850 ft. It was built primarily to house TV and FM Radio transmitters. It has a revolving restaurant near the top. It was usurped in height by a skycraper in Dubai in 2007.

25) Montreal is the 2nd largest French Speaking city in the World.

26) Laws in Quebec are based on the Napoleonic Code rather than British Common Law as in the rest of Canada and the United States. (I have been told that this is also the case in Louisiana, which was originally settled by the French, as well. Actually they got the ones we threw back). Technically speaking, this means you can be guilty until proven innocent, although in practice the reverse is true, as in the rest of country. Quebec has some laws that would be unconstitutional in the rest of Canada. For example, a store merchant in Quebec can theoretically go to jail for displaying his sign with the English lettering larger than the French. Although Quebec joined Confederation in 1867, it never  signed the new Canadian Constitution that replaced the British North America Act in the 70's, so theoretically is not bound by its articles.

Quebec controls its own immigration, despite being a part of Canada. This is a very strange thing. You may apply to immigrate into Quebec & then there is nothing stopping you from moving to another part of Canada. If you speak French, it is actually much easier to immigrate to Quebec than Canada. In the post 911 world, this is probably not a good thing, but until Quebec signs the Canadian Constitution, there is little than can be done about it. To Americans, Quebecers appear to be very anti-American.  Truth of the matter is they feel threatened by all the English speaking provinces & States surrounding them.

27) Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain is the official Canadian head of State (by proxy), despite the fact Canada is an independent country. This is a traditional thing and the Queen would actually never exercise authority over Canadian affairs. (thanks to Greg Frey for this tidbit). Her representative in Canada is known as the Governor-General. In the case of the previous one, Adriane Clarkson, she spends public money just like she is the queen.The current GC is originally from Haiti.

28) One of the greatest Canadian inventions, is the Robertson screwdriver. This is generally unheard of in the United States, although someone has told me, they have been making an appearance below the border.. Robertson screws have a square shaped insert in the head, meaning no slippage or stripping of the screw head. It is far superior to the Philips or Star Head. You can actually lock the screw onto the screwdriver head, making it possible to sink it with only one hand in awkward places. Knowing what a Robertson screw is, immediately identifies you as a native Canadian. They come in 4 different sizes. The largest is identified by a black handled Screwdriver, the middle size is the most common and identified by a red handled Screwdriver, the next size down is identified by a green handled Screwdriver, and the smallest a yellow handled Screwdriver. I have had American friends that have been so impressed, they have taken a lifetime supply back across the border with them.

29) Canada has a population of about 30 million. It is a G8 country. This supposedly means it is one of the 8 strongest economies in the world. . The Canadian dollar, however, has been as low as 62 cents U.S. and as high as $1.10 over the last couple of decades. You will still be stung for 25% more when you buy a pocketbook here as opposed to in the US, however. It seems a lot of manufacturers do not follow the currency market.  A lot of people think its inevitable that we will eventually have a common currency. Hope the U.S. decides to colour theirs before that happens.

30) Unlike the United States, Canada is not hypocritical when it comes to trading with totalitarian regimes. The United States ostracizes Cuba while trading with China, for example. How hypocritical can you get? We, on the other hand, will deal with any country, no matter how distasteful their politics. We have even given asylum to ex-dictators and despots. We also love Terrorists & War Criminals. If they have money, they're welcome. If Osama bin Laden played hockey, he'd have be welcome as well. All kidding aside, we have in the past, been suspected of having lax border security, although we are not as tolerant as the US when it comes to illegal immigration.

31) The brother of Canadian Comedian, Leslie Neilson, was a member of the Canadian Parliament for many years. He looks just like his brother, but being a politician, does not have the same sense of humour. This is not as odd as it may seem. Anyone who has seen the Canadian Parliament in action will know that they all act like fools anyway.

32) Contrary to popular belief, Canada has a large high tech industry and a pharmaceutical industry

33) The United Nations consistently votes Canada as the best country in the world in which to live, but since the UN & the US seem to dislike each other lately, they would hardly give the honour to the US.

34) Canada had its own home grown terrorist organization in the 60's & the 70's It was called the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front). Political kidnappings & assassinations caused the Canadian government to invoke the War Measures Act which stripped  every Canadian citizen of their civil rights. It was later rescinded & the FLQ faded away. The problem with Quebec separatist aspirations continues, but not to the extent it used to. There have been 2 separation votes, the last one was only defeated by a slim margin. Like the US, we appear to be in the sights of the current batch of terrorists.

Want to learn more? Try this site About Canada - Canada Site