A Glance at the Kinder, Gentler Giant to Our North


Sometimes you just have to face disquieting truths. Take Canada for example. There it is just on the other side of the border filled with people more or less just like us, 36 million of them, most of whom speak English. You don't need an interpreter or a power converter to get along in Canada. Of all the countries an American might pass into, Canada provides the most immediate and comfortable fit.

I spent five days there last week consulting on a big film project. Here is my report. I'm sure I'm generalizing.

First, they are politer than we are. Not in some sort of stiff Queen's English sort of way—there is some of that—but in a manner more civil, with a more careful vocabulary, much less of the F-word, more complete sentences, more grammatical. Every transaction I had, with hotel clerks, restaurant personnel, bartenders, shopkeepers, and civil servants was marked by a kind of effortless politeness and respect. There was none of the "yeah, whadya want?" attitude that is now so common in American commerce. During my short stay in Alberta, I never heard a single rude remark. And the good cheer is not that sort of saccharin "Have a good day," or "Enjoy!" we sometimes get in our own cultural exchanges.

Second, the Canadians are healthier than we are. The United States of America, I am sorry to report, tops the scale in the global obesity rate. More than 30% of the American people are obese. That's more than a hundred million seriously fat Americans. Our beleaguered health care system has to lug us back from the brink with stents, bypass surgeries, diabetes regimens, pacemakers, blood pressure medicines, and a whole industry dedicated to trying to keep our digestive systems working in they way they were intended. Go into any American Costco and you will find a 200-foot aisle of floor to ceiling shelves filled with laxatives, fibers, and probiotics. When you survey the hundreds, maybe thousands, of products designed to help move out the massive amounts of processed bad food we keep shoveling in, it just makes you pause to wonder.

Canada's obesity rate is 14%. Half of ours. How can it be that a nearly identical people who live just across an imaginary 3,987-mile line can be twice as lean and just half as fat as we are? Surely Canada is a mirror we ought to gaze into from time to time. And not only are the Canadians less obese than we are, they are fitter and healthier looking too. My colleague and I walked along a beautiful bike and running trail that follows the Bow River through the city of Calgary. It was filled with smiling people of all ages, in casual sportswear that was not vulgar, people that it was a pleasure to gaze at.

Just in case you are wondering, the Canadian health care system spends $5,948 per capita every year, and the U.S. system spends $8,299 per person per year.

Third, them Canadians seem more curious and better educated than we are. Not smarter. I think they read more books and watch less television. My taxi driver this morning gave me a brief and thoughtful description of the state of Canada's relations with her Indian (First Nations) populations. I've had this same conversation in Montana and Wyoming. In our heartland, it tends to settle quickly into the "why can't they just get over it and be like us" argument, laced with sarcasm and contempt. Another taxi driver asked me where I was from, and then offered up a thoughtful and nuanced analysis of America's foreign policy. At customs a few minutes ago the agent, when he heard that I was traveling to Bismarck, asked what I knew about the sinking of the German warship Bismarck (May 1941), then gave me a ten-minute short course. It's as if they are all channeling public television up there.

Once, in New Hampshire, my dawn taxi driver turned around and said, "Wanna know what the most important nine-letter word in the English language is?" "Sure," I said. "D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E, discipline!" I said, "Ok, but that's ten letters." He said, "Whatevah."

The Canadians are more law abiding than we are. Vile Tories and Loyalists! Twice in four days when I walked from my hotel to the flat where we worked I found myself waiting five minutes at a stoplight (with no traffic either way) because the others on the sidewalk quietly paused for the light to turn. Try that in New York.

And of course the Canadians have much more restrictive gun control laws than we do (by which I mean they actually have some). But that of course is a subject that we are not allowed to talk about in the freest country that ever was. There is very little gun violence in Canada. You are five times more likely to die of gunshot wounds in the U.S. than in Canada.

I've always felt that Canada was America's better self, the same nation without steroids. There are little independent bookstores everywhere, and bread shops, and wine boutiques, and greengrocers, and cheese shops, and the widest possible range of ethnic restaurants. Their newspapers still look like newspapers, not People Magazine on newsprint. There is none of the mean streets honking and gesturing and jockeying for position one experiences in Chicago or New York. Somehow it just feels like a calmer and more generous world.

Don't get me wrong. I love America. I love the pulse and beat and boisterousness and bravado and irreverence of America, but in some ways we seem a much more tribal nation than Canada. We're a vast land of sharply defined identity groups that co-exist uneasily, in each other's face, each pursuing the "main chance." I think that in a land like ours where capitalism has been given such a loose leash, it runs a little amok, and gives a hardness and an edge to life. There is, in my view, a fair amount of cruelty and desperation embedded in our national operating system.

In nations where capitalism is treated not like a god, but like a powerful and at times problematic economic system that must be softened in its effects, in nations where there is widespread agreement that a dignified and ample safety net is the best way to create social security, life seems to be more relaxed and more generous.

Put it another way. Canada seems to have fewer fundamentalists than we do. By fundamentalists I don't just mean severe Christian evangelicals. I mean Second Amendment absolutists, and those who just want us to return to the protocols of the Founding Fathers, those who want us to pull out of the U.N., super-patriots, anti-evolutionists, and those who say "global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the world." It's hard to imagine a Canadian super-patriot, just as it's hard to figure out what Canadian cuisine would be.

It's as if the Canadians take more breaths per minute than we do. They see what a good life they have huddled up at the top of the United States, protected by our massive security umbrella, the beneficiaries of our much more raw and energetic economy, always getting to be the more reasonable cousins of their best friends, those magnificent yahoos south of the border.

I would never want us to stop being America, but I think we would gain by taking some lessons from our genial cousins to the north.