I recently got married, and my wife and I decided to take our honeymoon (a post-wedding vacation) in the Canadian Rocky Mountains near Banff, Alberta. We stayed in a small chalet abutting a roaring “creek”, (a river, where I come from!) next to train tracks that cut through the valley, with the Transnational Canadian Highway on one side, and the old Bow Valley Parkway on the other.
The trip was amazing; we saw caribou, ground squirrels (who act just like prairie dogs… they even whistle!), herons, ravens, grizzly bears, black bears, Canadian geese (in Canada!), black-billed magpies, gray jays, ospreys, chipmunks, and various other critters. I was really hoping to see a marmot, but no such luck. We were a bit apprehensive about the bears, until we realized that apparently other tourists had never heard that bears or other wildlife could be dangerous, and would get out of their cars and get way too close to them. So we just stayed behind the idiot tourists, and felt pretty safe.
The glaciers and lakes are unparalleled in their beauty. I’ve seen the Andes, and they come close, but the azure mountain lakes fed by melting snow… it was simply breathtaking. Peyto Lake was probably our favorite. We hiked up to the lookout at Castle Mountain, and saw more wildflowers in 4 hours than we had ever seen in our whole lives, including huge patches of tiny pink mountain orchids. I don’t think I’d ever seen orchids in the wild before. We ate at a local bistro that served bison short ribs, elk tartar, bacon-wrapped rare venison tenderloin, and the pièce de résistance, bison jerky poutine. Poutine is a Canadian snack food, consisting of French fries with cheese curds, gravy, and sometimes bacon. It doesn’t disappoint.
In addition to eating poutine, my wife and I did as much “Canadian” stuff as we could, like drinking Tim Horton’s coffee and bloody caesars… Though the waitress at the bistro seemed a bit scandalized when we asked for a caesar with breakfast on our last day there (Bloody Marys or mimosas with brunch is definitely the norm in Chicago). We made bacon and eggs for breakfast, with “Canadian bacon”, (back bacon that’s brined instead of smoked, and rolled in cornmeal) or, as the Canadians call it, “Bacon.”
My family and I traveled to Canada a couple of times when I was growing up; we watched a fair amount of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Channel) news, my mom taught a Canadian Studies course at a local college (yes, that exists), and my dad likes to wax poetic about their national health care system, so I feel like I’ve got a reasonably good grasp of Canadian culture and politics. My dad occasionally sails to Pelee Island (the southernmost point in Canada), and sometimes on to Leamington, Ontario from the northern shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Sometimes my mom drives through Detroit, across the bridge to Windsor, and takes the car ferry over to the island from Leamington to meet him. She doesn’t care for the way that sailboats tend to lean to one side.
My wife (I love calling her that) had never been to Canada , so everything was new to her, particularly the culture. Alberta is known as “Texas North” by some folks, as it tends to lean more conservative culturally and politically than the rest of Canada, and its economy is dependent on energy production, ranching and mining. Where we were, however, I didn’t pick up on much of that (other than the occasional refinery tucked in the lee of a mountain). The Canadian* cultural value that always sticks out the most for me, as an American, is the emphasis on compromise.
Disagreements are generally resolved with an emphasis on respect for all parties, with emphasis on seeing all points of view, and coming to a solution that fairly accommodates everyone. Fairness is always heavily emphasized in Canadian culture. They get some of this from their British colonial history (Canada is still a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, or British Commonwealth… the Canadian head of state is technically the Queen of England!); both of whom are known for a cultural emphasis on rules, order, and politeness.
Many Americans point to (and sometimes make fun of) the Canadian “Eh?” at the end of declarative statements, but to me, it serves the same purpose as the Hawaiian “yeah?” or the Chicagoan “am I right?” or “you know what I’m saying?” or “you feel me?” The Canada-ism that is very different to me though, is that you hear “Sorry!” all the time. If you bump into someone, if you almost bump into someone, if someone is 3 minutes late for a meeting, if the airline messes up your reservations… Sorry! …and it’s totally reflexive. Whereas in America, you do hear “excuse me”, or “We apologize for any inconvenience…” but it sometimes seems thought-out and compulsory. The Canadian “Sorry!” on the other hand, pops right out of the mouth at the possibility of an action or statement that could possibly be perceived as rude or inconsiderate, or unfair.
In general, the Canadian cultural emphasis on fairness, compromise, and politeness comes across to Americans as being extremely nice. For example, my wife and I had stopped our rental car by the side of the road to watch some bears near Lake Louise, as had a couple of other cars. A volunteer wildlife monitor pulled her truck up next to us, and said: “Sorry guys, would you mind pulling your car up a little bit and off to the shoulder? We want to make sure the road isn’t blocked. Thank you so much.” I can’t remember the last time I heard an American in any kind of official capacity give orders that nicely. If ever. I also messed up and only brought my passport card to the airport (which you can’t fly with. Oops!), so we had to delay the trip by a day. Everyone was beyond sweet and accommodating when we called to change our reservations. The chalet didn’t even charge us for the extra night!
Another example: my younger brother and I were watching a movie in Leamington back in the mid 1990’s, and instead of the spliced-in message they have in American theaters, where they ask you to shut up, turn off your cellphone, and not throw food on the floor, in this theater, an usher came out (who couldn’t have been more than 16) and gave a speech. And moreover, the people in the theater all quieted down and listened. My brother and I were incredulous; Americans would probably not have been so willing to listen to a teenager tell them what to do, or not to do!
Interactions between Canadians and Americans don’t always go smoothly, however. I have a friend who works in Chicago as an advertising buyer, and he works with a lot of Canadians. He’s constantly frustrated by the number of holidays they get (compared to Americans), legal restrictions on the amount of ad space you can buy for a particular customer (fairness!), and more emphasis on the needs of the worker versus the needs of the customer. Both he and his Canadian counterparts have worked on their relationship, and it’s improved, but at the end of the day, to them he seems pushy and unrealistic in his demands, and to him they seem undedicated and lackadaisical. In reality, they each have certain cultural values, and inherent structures in their work situations that make some amount of conflict inevitable… though of course, whenever they can’t get things done the way he wants them, they say Sorry!
All in all, I love visiting Canada for the wildlife, natural beauty, food, and culture, but most of all, for the Canadians.
*I’m solely talking about Anglophone Canada here. I admittedly have next to zero experience with Francophone Canada.