A Canadian in America

As a Canadian living in the US, the question I am most frequently asked by friends on either side of the border is some variation of “What’s the biggest difference between Canada and the US?”

I have found this a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It’s something I’ve reflected on quite often and yet I still can’t point to ONE thing that represents the BIGGEST difference between Canada and the US. Sure there are plenty of little things, like the fact that these silly Americans keep confusing Smarties and Rocket candy and referring to toques as beanies. But when asked this question I inevitably scramble for an answer and know that my inability to come up with something illuminating is a disappointment to both myself and the person asking.

If anything what I find most interesting, and most frustrating, is the fact that both Canadians and Americans often fail to appreciate the fact that the neighbouring culture is not homogeneous. I know this is an obvious point that is easy for most people to accept but for some reason that hasn’t stopped intelligent people from asking the question. I suppose it’s only natural to seek a tidy understanding of another culture, especially as it relates to your own. Unfortunately, I have yet to uncover a parsimonious answer that would reveal the crucial distinction between these otherwise similar countries. It will probably come to me the moment I publish this post.

If anything, it is something that Canadians and Americans have in common that has struck me the most. Both often fail to appreciate the significance of regional differences in the other country. For example, the answer to the question “Is the Canadian climate the same as Alaska’s?” is that well, it depends on where in Canada. Come to think of it, it also depends on where in Alaska you’re referring to. Similarly, the answer to the question “When you moved to the US, were you immediately struck by how obese everyone was?” is no, not really. Especially because I initially moved to Colorado which is one (if not the) fittest American state. And yes, I really have been asked both of these questions.

When asked nearly anything about Canadian or American culture, climate, or politics, my answer is consistently “Well it depends on where in [insert relevant country here] you’re referring to.” It’s not a very satisfying answer and it’s dripping with the academic’s go-to response to nearly any query (“it depends” or “well, it’s quite complicated”). So to play along, I will answer some of the Canada vs. USA questions I have been asked most frequently, nuanced analysis be damned.

Yes, Canada is cold. But the border separating Canada and the US isn’t a climate force-field and while it amuses me to refer to my homeland as “The Land Beyond The Wall” the truth is that average provincial temperatures are likely similar to the average temperatures of the state that province borders. For instance, Washington state and British Columbia province are rainier and milder than New England and the Maritimes. Funny how geography and meteorology coincide like that. (Note: being super northern, the territories are something of an outlier. But even then, the climate is a bit more diverse than “all cold, all the time.” Though it’s still pretty damn cold from what I understand.)

Yes, generally speaking Canadians love hockey. However, I personally know a decent number of Canadians who do not like hockey. I also know plenty of rabid American hockey fans. Have you seen the Chicago Blackhawks fandom? Those crazies are everywhere. (Said with love, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are both on my fantasy hockey team.)

No, not all Americans are gun enthusiasts but yes, some of them are. I haven’t looked recently at data on how opinions regarding gun rights break down regionally but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were stark geographic divides. Beyond regionalism, I have also noticed that opinions regarding gun rights vs. gun control tend to be more complex than most Canadians realize. I know where I stand on a personal level but as a matter of public policy I find it a very tough issue to parse through. I don’t want to get into that debate here (at least not now) but I will say that living in the US has given me a new perspective on just how complicated the issue is.

Yes, some milk in Canada comes in bags. It’s not that big of a deal. And yes, when I see milk in a carton in the US I am able to correctly identify it as milk.

Yes, American politics is nuts. The dysfunction in Congress is real and makes a lot of people from both parties want to bang their heads against a wall. But gridlock and partisanship are pretty standard in modern democracies and it’s built into the system of checks and balances that underpins the American political system. I’m not saying that voters shouldn’t push for productivity. I’m saying that those Canadians quick to criticize the US should remember that our political system is also far from perfect. Also, both countries have regional differences (keeping with the theme here) that make governing effectively quite tricky. Red states vs. blue states. Quebec. Alberta and Texas oil. Like I said, it’s a bit nuts trying to resolve all of those issues.

No, Canadians do not eat poutine all the time. Not even in Quebec. Similarly, the American diet does not consist exclusively of hamburgers.

Yes, everyone loves maple syrup. Or at least they should.