Oh Canada!

For someone from the United States visiting Canada is like visiting some sort of parallel universe. It looks so much like the United States. The roads look the same. The houses seem the same. The cars are the same familiar makes and models. But there are differences. Distance is measured in kilometers. Liquids are measured in liters. But these new units were easily mastered. What struck me is that Canada seemed to be missing the sectarian anger and hatred that seems to comprise living in the United States these days. In many ways Canada is a much saner and more civilized place.

In the evenings when not otherwise engaged we watched a lot of Canadian TV. Mostly it was the Olympics from a Canadian point of view. One thing I noticed is that there were markedly fewer commercials during their Olympic coverage than would have been shown here in the United States. In the United States the franchisee (NBC) would feel duty bound to squeeze every last nickel of profit out of the experience for the corporation. So no doubt this meant twenty minutes of more of commercials during prime time, plus myopic attention on the most interesting competitions that would bring in the most viewer interest.

But while watching the Olympics from the Canadian perspective we saw events that I doubt were covered by NBC, including a competitive cycling event that included a Canadian. In Canada every Canadian medal was a triumph and cause for celebration. With the United States collecting over one hundred medals another medal for the United States was pretty much a ho hum affair. Americans only get excited when multiple Americans win medals for the same event, or when one athlete earns more than one medal. In Canada events like Perdita Felicien of Ontario tripping over a hurdle at the start of the women’s hundred meter hurdle was big news. Here was a woman who could very well have won a gold medal for Canada but made a tragic mistake. I wasn’t in the USA to know if it made our sports sections at all, but I suspect if it was mentioned it was buried deeply within.

With the population of Canada about one tenth that of the United States it is natural that a medal won by a Canadian will mean a lot. But the news coverage of the Olympics itself was markedly more restrained than NBC’s. While there was fawning over every Canadian athlete — and lots of Canadian companies were busy flaunting their sponsorship of Olympic events — the coverage missed the extreme hype and over the top flashiness typical of Olympic coverage here in the States.

But it was also interesting to watch Canadian news. It’s amazing how myopic we Americans are. All this really interesting stuff goes on just across the border from us and we are largely clueless. Canada might as well be some remote country in the African bush as far as we are concerned. The big political news had to do with a recent election in which the Liberal Party had won a plurality of the votes, but not quite a governing majority. So it needed to include a few lesser parties to get the governing majority it needed, and the jockeying was interesting. But mainly it was such a joy to be visiting a country where the Liberals were in charge. In Canada being a Liberal is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed the average Canadian is more likely to be a Liberal than not. Rush Limbaugh would probably suffer a stroke if he lived in Canada because the country seems to embrace its limited socialism. And yet amazingly enough in spite of being a country full of liberals it seemed both happy and prosperous.

Canada is a progressive country that embraces quasi socialism, such as its national health insurance system. We heard complaints from some Canadian friends that in order to save money ambulance rides and eye exams were no longer covered. And there are horror stories that trickle into the States about how medical care seems to be rationed with their single payer plan. Nonetheless with the three Canadian friends we met none wanted to do away with their health insurance system. At most they wanted some modest changes. Three people are not a representative sample by any means. But our discussion with them suggests that we may be getting a false picture here in the states about the popularity of their health care system.

The taxes in Canada take some getting used to. They are markedly higher than here in the States, at least when it comes to sales taxes. Whether it was a meal, a purchase at a drug store or a night spent at a hotel all bills came with two mysterious taxes “GST” and “PST” taxes. GST taxes are apparently a “Goods and Services Tax” applied nationwide and amounted to 7%. The PST (Provincial Sales Tax) is the amount in addition to the national tax that each province (Quebec and Ontario, in our case) add to support their regional needs. It is 8% in Ontario and 7.5% in Quebec. I don’t know what their income tax rates are, but it’s a good bet they are higher than in the United States. (Note to travelers: if you keep your receipts you can get a rebate on your GST and PST taxes.)

Yes, it’s a lot of money in taxes. On the other hand no Canadian has to worry about not having health insurance. Yet there are 45 million Americans who are uninsured. Those of us who do have insurance are being eaten alive by ever-skyrocketing premiums and drug costs. What else do their taxes buy? Well, from this traveler’s perspective their infrastructure is very good. The roads are well maintained. The streets are clean. The crime seems very low. And as best I could tell the citizenry seem quite happy with their semi-socialist state. I know that overall the unemployment rate in Canada is higher than in the United States: 7.2% in August vs. 5.5% here in the United States. But I’m betting that fewer out of work Canadians are eating dog food or living on the streets.

In short my brief taste of Canada was not an unpleasant experience. When it was suggested to me recently that because I don’t agree with my president I should emigrate I spurned the suggestion. But I returned from Canada impressed. In many respects I think they are a much saner and more civilized country than the United States. If being an American in the 21st century means voting Republican, giving obscene tax breaks to the rich, bankrupting the national treasury and delighting in our Darwinian class struggle then perhaps the idea of me emigrating to Canada has merit. But America: are you sure you want to lose a talented hard working citizen like me?

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