Oh Canada! (Part Two)

Last Thursday we passed over the Rainbow Bridge and into Canada, our first trip to Ontario since 2004. Some things have changed since our last visit, but it’s not Canada. It’s the United States. Passing into Niagara Falls, Ontario I realized I actually felt better. For one night at least I was back in a sane country.

I was wondering whether they might not let us in, even though we were just passing through southern Ontario. I was particularly worried when my wife started complaining about our president with the Canadian customs official. But he was cool and had some complaining of his own about Justin Trudeau, their prime minister. “At least your president is transparent. Our guy is really crafty.” Yes, well you have an intelligent prime minister. We have a narcissist Cheeto for our president. Chances are that if Trump decides to launch a nuclear war any missiles wouldn’t be lobbed at Canada. And that’s because Canada in a sane country.

Canadians don’t subscribe to President Reagan’s claim that government is the problem. Rather, Canadians subscribe to the old fashioned idea (for Americans) that government should work for the betterment of its people, all of them. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than simply driving across Ontario. Ontario’s roads are so well maintained that it feels surreal. On the return trip on Sunday, we left our hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. Until we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the USA, my shock absorbers did not have to work at all.

That’s right: the roads (or at least the ones I was on, which includes Queen Elizabeth’s Way and Routes 405, 403 and 8) were bump free. There were zero potholes anywhere. Maybe they use some sort of super concrete. The roads were in excellent condition, in spite of the harsh winters they get around there from lake-effect snow. It wasn’t just the roads. It was also the bridges. The bridge overpasses looked new; no rusting girders and pockets of fallen concrete. The traffic flowed smoothly. Of course the moment we passed over into the USA we were back on America’s crappy roads. This meant bumps, potholes, miles of torn up pavement waiting a new coat of asphalt, many more miles of highway cones moving you to temporary lanes, etc. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s overall infrastructure a D+ grade. Way to go, supposedly greatest country on Earth!

A visit to Canada though proves that a country doesn’t have to have a crappy infrastructure. In fairness, I did see some highway construction. A part of the QEW was being repaired near Niagara Falls. Large stretches of routes 403 near Woodstock and London in Ontario were being widened as well which meant some lane shifting. On Sunday we got off the major highways to get to Stratford, Ontario where we saw a musical. These back roads were in excellent shape as well: not a pothole in the more than thirty miles we rode on them.

It’s pretty clear what the general problem is here in the United States, at least with our roads. We refuse to pay the cost of maintenance. This is largely due to Congress’s refusal to increase the gas tax, or at least index it to inflation. It is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. It wasn’t enough in 1993 to keep our infrastructure from degrading and it’s worth a lot less now due to inflation. So our roads and bridges keep getting crappier and crappier, resulting in occasional major incidents like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s easy to predict things won’t change if Congress won’t address the issue; in fact it will just get worse. On the plus side American cars are replacing plenty of shock absorbers, as our roads give them a real workout. I guess that part is good for the economy.

Spending two nights in southern Ontario though (one coming and going to Michigan, where we visited an aunt) brought out other wistful feelings. Today America feels very much like a dog-eat-dog country. People may act nice, but very often they are just snippy or mean. At our performance of Guys & Dolls at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario we sat next to an elderly man. At intermission he stumbled trying to get out of his seat. Almost instantly there were a half dozen people helping him get up again. An usher came by, noted the problem and told the man that their 6’4” usher would be there after the show to help him exit the theater. The concern for this stranger from the people around him was natural and authentic. It was heartwarming.

It’s because Canada is a country that cares about its people because the people feel vested in their country. Obviously Canada is not a perfect country and has its political struggles too, just not on the scale that we have in the USA. I have been told that Montreal has deteriorating bridges and roads, perhaps a result of Quebec choosing to allocate less money toward infrastructure. The sense of unity and common purpose while in Canada though was heartwarming. It made me nostalgic for a time when it was the same way here in the United States. Today, America is polarized to a degree that I have not seen in my sixty years. In addition we have Republicans with a lock on Congress trying to make the situation worse and a president likely to go down as our worst.

I loved my short time in Canada and I felt sad to leave it. When I saw the large Canadian flags flying along the highway, I felt a lump in my throat. It’s a country that has its stuff together, and is generally happy, peaceful and prosperous.

I hope before I die that I’ll see American that way again. Right now it looks like a pipedream.

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