Meet the Neighbors: A Guide to Canada for Americans

Dear Americans,

While living in your country, I have had the pleasure of sharing a laugh with…well, some of you. Not all of you.  Seems that you don’t know enough about Canada to make a joke about me without worrying that you’re totally offbase. Truthfully, I don’t know enough about your country, either. And so we just sit here politely, giggling about the weather.

(…though I have been known to chant “U-S-A!” at awkward times. So, there’s that.)

But the weather just isn’t that funny. I’m sorry. Ottawa is cold.  Washington DC is not as cold. We have both run out of amusing ways to express this. The romance is gone from our adorable “Oh goodness, how does one convert Celsius to Fahrenheit?” conversations.

Now, it would be unfair of me to assume that you are unfunny people. I’m sure you would be fantastic at making fun of Canadians…if you knew anything about us. Maybe you just need some ammunition?  Because honestly, if I hear one more person describe Toronto as “so pretty and clean and lovely and friendly” without cracking a SINGLE “centre of the universe” joke…

It’s not your fault, America. I’ll explain.

On Toronto.

I won’t write in detail about any other city or province, but I will take a moment to write about Toronto. I will write about Toronto because I grew up just an hour outside of it. Because I love the Blue Jays (baseball), I hate the Leafs (hockey), and have anecdotal reasoning to back both of those up.

I will also write about Toronto because DUDE, OTTAWA IS THE CAPITAL OF CANADA NOT TORONTO(!!!!).

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. You didn’t know.

Let us treat this as a learning moment.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada. It’s serious metropolis–17 percent of the nation’s total population lives in or around T.O.  (ie the “Greater Toronto Area” or “GTA”).

Toronto is actually an alright city, save for the fact that it’s, well, city-ish (shocker).   If you don’t like cities, you won’t like Toronto.  If you do like cities, it will probably work for you.  Credit where credit is due, Old Toronto and Toronto Island are beautiful.  The Hockey Hall of Fame and the Royal Ontario Museum are neat.  Toronto Rock Lacrosse games are the best.

You may also be familiar with the CN Tower, a free-standing building known for being really big. It’s a tourist attraction. You can go up there, if you want. We all have at some point (read: ten-freaking-times).  I can’t say it’s that exciting, unless you decide to do it like this:

They call this the “Edge Walk.” Toronto goes hard.

Here’s where the “center of the universe” thing comes in.

People make fun of Toronto for being egotistical.  Loud.  Bossy.  Overzealous. I don’t know how true any of it is, but essentially–when you’re making fun of Toronto, you’re making fun of this guy:


Oh, and this guy:


For what it’s worth, most Torontonians I know have a few bones to pick with guys like this, too.

What makes a true Torontonian is hard to identify (so far, all can pinpoint is that they seem to yell “Say word!” when they are enthused). Immigrants make up almost half of the city’s population, so it’s a VERY diverse place.

But folded into that diversity are dudes like Rob Ford. And since some of you still don’t believe me when I say that Toronto is (really, really) not the capital of Canada…

We must continue making fun of them.

On Shopping and Eating in Canada.

Firstly, all packaging in Canadaland has text in both French and English. This means that while less than 20% of Canadians speak both official languages, most still possess some level of “cereal box bilingualism.”

Cereal box bilingualism, lesson one: "Crouncharifique"

(Cereal box bilingualism, lesson one: “Cruncharific” = “Crouncharifique.” I assume this can also be found in the dictionary.)

There are a few things on Canadian grocery store shelves that  ‘Murica lacks.  These are real foods, by the way. Would I lie to you about something as serious as ketchup chips?

Yeah, ketchup chips.

Canada gets awfully fancy with it’s potato chip flavours.  In equally fancy fashion, we also spell the word “flavours” with a “u”.

To be fair, those Fries n’ Gravy chips on the right are only available in Atlantic Canada.  The East Coast knows what’s up.

Yes, things are a little different in the Canadian snack aisle.

canada chips

Growing up in Canada, my Halloween stash also looked quite a bit different than its American counterpart.  Here are some examples, presented to you via slightly disturbing fan videos.  Thanks, YouTube.

Coffee Crisp:


Aero Bar:


Big Turk:


(Chocolate) Smarties:


Kinder Surprise (this is a commercial, but it is more disturbing than any fan video could possibly be):


Canada also has a few restaurant chains you may not be familiar with. The Cara restaurant family and Tim Hortons can easily take responsibility for  at least 80% of the teenage employment in my hometown–including mine.  Growing up, I spent time working at both a Swiss Chalet (a Cara restaurant that basically only serves chicken) and a Timmy’s (the staple coffee-and-donut place which fuels the Canadian people).

Some states actually have these now, too, but it's still a Canadian thang.
Some states actually have these now, too, but it’s still a Canadian thang.

This brings me to a very important lesson–How to order coffee at Tim Hortons:

Regular: One cream, one sugar
Double Double: Two creams, two sugars.
Triple triple: Three creams, three sugars.
Timbits: Donut holes

Got it?

Alright, I suppose we should learn about drinking in Canada.  In Ontario, all our beer comes from a very creatively named place called “The Beer Store.” I previously though the government ran and regulated this place, but a reader informed me that it is “owned by a company that is comprised of 49% labatt, 49% molson, and 2% sleeman.”  (Thanks, Korbyn!)

Yes, actually.

Meanwhile, the only store which can sell liquor (and other kinds of alcohol) in Ontario is the equally creatively named “Liquor Control Board of Ontario” or “LCBO.”

(Probably not the easiest store name to market, but it’s not like they have any competition.)


Beer drinking is a big part of Canadian culture. So is hockey, coffee, and making fun of American beer.  Because Canadian beer is better. And if you question that…



(…kind of.)

Ultimately, what you should know that 1) If you’re ever looking for a pint in Canadaland, I’d say Alexander Keith’s is a solid choice; and 2) A “two-four” isn’t a hardware term–it’s a 24 pack.

[Proof from the hyper-Canadian comedy of “Bob & Doug MacKenzie”]

If you’re looking for real “Canadian cuisine,” the only options I can think of off the top of my head are poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy), peameal bacon (aka Canadian bacon), and anything drenched in maple syrup.  That said, it’s a really big country. Regional foods are definitely worth checking out.

Oh, also, I should warn you about this:


I have no further explanation for that, except that it’s legit.  As an Ontario kid, I grew up with it, so it seems totally normal to me. If you’re trying to figure out how the heck that works, a quick google image search will clear up the mystery for you.

Otherwise, here’s a hint:

snippetYou’re welcome.


On Politix.

Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy.  That means the Queen is our “Head of State,” but that we have an elected, multi-party Parliament that really runs the show. We also have an appointed Senate designed to double check everything done by the elected representatives (ie “the house of sober second thought”).

“You mean, kinda like Britain?” Sure.
“You mean, kinda like ‘Murica?” I guess.
“You mean, kinda like Australia?” Maybe?

The Queen is on our money, and has a representative that does her symbolic business in Canada, but Parliament really does all the “work”

…or doesn’t, if you’re feeling cynical.

This is Jon Stewart-esque Canadian comedian Rick Mercer explaining it much better than I could:


Canada is a multi-party system. Right now we have Federal representatives from five different political parties: The Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party. Translation: We have one right-wing party, three left-wing parties…and one party that wants Quebec to separate from Canada.

After living with some very Republican roommates here in DC, it’s worth noting that by American standards, our right-wing party isn’t all that “Conservative”–though it’s arguably moving in that direction. Canada runs a bit differently than the US; We have socialized health care, no capital punishment, and legal gay marriage.  We also spend a lot of time translating stuff into French.

Oh, and that appointed Senate? Yeah. It’s pretty controversial.

I hope that clears up a few things about Canada for you. I tried to respond to the FAQ as much as I could, but let me know if there’s anything I missed/didn’t explain very clearly.

(Well, except bagged milk. You’re gonna need to look into that one on your own.)

This Country is our Company.

Once upon a time a year ago, I wrote a “popular” blog post on my otherwise less-popular Tumblr. And by popular, of course, I mean my friends really liked it…because, you know, I’m really living the new media dream over here.

The positive reception from my friends was actually more than I could have asked for, especially in this case.  The blog post was an open letter/slap in the face aimed directly at many of these very friends, not to mention myself. Context: At the time, a couple of Facebook-mediated political debates had gotten WAY too personal.  Friendships were being literally put on hold over this. No exaggeration. The Big Picture was my attempt to cool tension with the cunning use of logic, blow-up dolls, and chimpanzee warfare. Our many nights spent eye-rolling and taking offense needed to STOP.

Those nights did stop, of course. Tones softened, people apologized, we switched to discussing Friday night exploits and well-formed opinions the latest Google doodle.  You know, current affairs.

Why does this matter now? Certainly, no one in my circle has had a bi-partisan fiesta recently.  The Big Picture, as I called it, continues to be realized in most circumstances.  Still, I started thinking very intensely about this old blog post the other day. Not in its previous context, of course–I can’t even really remember that context properly.  Rather, there was one line I wrote in there which got me thinking, a line which is actually quite disturbing in retrospect:

“And then you pull his hair and he kicks you in the balls and soon your front yard looks like the House of Commons.  Cue shitshow.”

To answer your first question: Yes, this is what I consider “rhetoric.” I would like to thank the Ontario education system.  I would also like to thank whoever taught me the term “shitshow.”

To answer you second question: The hair pulling/ball kicking thing is not the disturbing part.  I don’t think there is much actual ball-kicking action happening in the House of Commons. I consider myself an authority in these matters, you see, on account of that one time in residence when I played a weird Question Period drinking game.

…actually, I’m an authority  in these matters because in first year I logged enough hours of CPAC background noise to invent said drinking game, but that’s beside the point.

The point: Unless I am seriously missing something, I think it’s fair to say that Parliament is usually relatively free of any (literal) ball-kicking. Why, then, does my 2011 impression of the House of Commons involve directionless catfighting? It’s not a good sign that, looking to allude to a dead-end animal throwdown, I jumped to “Oh!  A shitshow! You mean like that thing that happens when we put our political representatives together in a room?”

Something is very wrong with that picture.

First of all, I will absolutely defend this impression.  It  may be really messed up that I was so quick to go there, but it wasn’t baseless. And I’m certainly not the only person to make this comparison.  In the thick of the Robocall scandal this spring, for example, an editorial in the Ottawa Sun proclaimed “If I said MPs sound like monkeys fighting over bananas I’d get letters from monkeys pointing out that at least they could see bananas.”

Harsh, but I’m just saying–I am neither the first nor last to have compared Parliament to a zoo. Credit where credit is due: In a proper debate, sometimes the claws need to come out.  That said, though, a couple of recent news stories have been showing a side of the House of Commons which comes just a littttttle too close to that monkey-brawl analogy for my liking.

Cases in point: The NDP heckled Green Party leader Elizabeth May so badly during question period that she had to sit down–and after settling the crowd, the Deputy Speaker didn’t even think to ask her to finish her interrupted point [video].  Meanwhile, the Conservatives have been wasting everyone’s time talking about how devastating a “carbon tax” would be…arguments made a just a bit less relevant by the fact that a carbon tax is not even on the table (the opposition party never even proposed it…their platform opts for cap-and-trade. Not the same thing.).

These stories may not amount to ball-kicking/hair pulling, but it’s certainly not what we hired these people to do. And the shitshow, if I may reuse the term, is coming from both sides.

I can’t suggest a solution at this very moment, per se, but I might suggest that it’s really time for us taxpayers to put our business hats on and raise the bar for these politicians, also known as our employees.

Ah, yes. That’s right.  These Members of Parliament are our employees. Specifically, they are our issues management employees.  We have a large and diverse organization to keep afloat, this “Canada,” so we have brought in issues managers that represent the ideologies, principals, and interests of all stakeholders. Members of Parliament, we call them. And we pay them.  We pay them to come together and make things work.

I’m not saying it’s an easy gig, but there are many jobs that aren’t easy. These politicians signed up to be Canada’s problem solvers.  In fact, we hired them as Canada’s problem solvers. So, yes, when we put them in a room with other problem solvers, we should have the absolute expectation that they respectfully try to actually solve problems.

(Yes, this bothers me enough to use italics three times in a paragraph. Shit just got real.)

Right now, I’m looking at what’s happening at Headquarters (aka the House of Commons) and I just want to call in Human Resources.   I want to flip the company culture. Most of all, I want everyone to know that they are on hardcore probation.  Because while our politicians are technically always on probation, it would be cool if they brought that attitude to work with them.

Example A: in a meeting, even one centered around debate and controversy, it’s probably not a good idea to shout and heckle someone down to silence while your bosses are watching.

Example B: in a meeting, even one centered around debate and controversy, it’s probably not a good idea to sit around the  table sharing hypocritical gossip about colleagues rather than discussing solutions.

Relentlessly barking at your co-workers to shut up? Not acceptable. Using blatant falsehoods to sabotage co-workers with whom you are supposed to solve critical problems? Not acceptable. Flaunting this behavior in front of your bosses?

Yeah, I’m sticking with my “zoo” analogy.

And guess what, folks? We’re the bosses. We’re watching. Would you pay an employee charged with problem solving/issues management to run around in circles trying to silence their co-workers? Or, worse, embark on a transparent campaign to get these co-workers fired?

We should be running a Canada which doesn’t accept the people on our payroll wasting time gossiping around the water cooler about how those orange guys across the hall rub them the wrong way.  We certainly shouldn’t accept them bringing that attitude into an issues management meeting.  And when our employees scream and shout at the green lady until she sits down?

She’s there for a reason. We hired her. And we hired them. This isn’t an issues manufacturing branch–this is issues management.  Let’s run it that way.