Friday, April 24, 2009

Back in good old Canada

Each winter, I spend three months or so in the states. Well, in the state of Florida to be specific.

This is always an opportunity to be reminded of the ways in which the U.S. is different from Canada. Not better or worse, just different.

I admit to liking most Americans, having been around them quite a bit over the years as university classmates, business associates, and neighbours, and finding them mostly friendly and generous.

They in turn seem positively predisposed toward Canadians, when they think of us at all, which is not often. Canadian news is largely missing from U.S. media. The big story about Canada this winter was Obama's visit to Ottawa.

Knowledge of Canada is virtually nonexistent. I have been asked whether Canada is a communist country, and whether we have TV.

You can't miss Americans' passion for politics, a passion that the media happily feeds. Fox News and MSNBC. Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann. Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow. No middle ground. Party affiliations are proudly proclaimed from bumper stickers, even between elections. Golfers will detail their disgust with the other party while waiting for the green to clear. Drinkers will do the same while waiting for their glasses to be refilled. Any break in the proceedings is an opportunity for a diatribe on the stupidity of folks on the other side.

Canadians, on the other hand, are pretty apathetic before, during, and after elections. Politicians are not exalted as they are in the states. In fact, a senate appointment in Canada is usually viewed as nothing more than a reward for a party hack who will treat it as a paid vacation, opting to keep track of things on CPAC from Whistler or Muskoka.

There is no polarized debate on Canadian TV because nobody would watch. By and large, Canadians view politics as a sideshow to the real business of living, something to be tolerated, or even ignored. All perspectives are usually represented on Canadian political affairs shows, and all are pretty much in agreement by the time the credits roll.

The U.S. is a big country. There is so much happening within its borders, that there really is no need to look abroad for excitement. In Canada, on the other hand, there usually isn't much going on. When I return, I find that the headlines are pretty much the same as they were when I left. The country is essentially an expanded episode of Corner Gas. The positive side effect of this is that Canadians pay attention to the larger world, and tend to be better informed about events in faraway places than are their American cousins.

Other differences? Whereas virtually every supermarket in the Toronto area is selling 99-cent reuseable bags to wean us off plastic bags, that was not happening in our area of Florida, and the cashiers and bagboys viewed us as environmental extremists when we asked to have our groceries packed in the Canadian reuseable bags we had brought with us.

But those supermarkets do offer virtually endless variety. Twenty-five kinds of mustard, each in six different types of container. When it comes to products and services, Americans have unbelievable levels of choice.

Visitors can't believe the portion sizes in U.S. restaurants. These are usually sufficient to sustain the diner for a couple of days on the Tamiami Trail, and are trucked home in polystyrene containers for future lunches. And they are cheap. Check the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's.

What else? I think Canadian newspapers are, with a few exceptions, better. Also, America seems incapable of producing an old cheddar on par with Canada's Balderson's. HP sauce and corn relish are hard to find. And there is no American equivalent of Rick Mercer.

Finally, there is the American penchant f0r action. While Canadian governments have perfected the art of burying contentious issues in Royal Commissions and judicial inquiries, the Yanks hold televised Congressional hearings that interrogate, in a very direct way, those suspected of behaving badly. And when have you ever seen a Canadian stock swindler doing the perp walk to one of our courtrooms? Our securities watchdogs are toothless tigers compared to the American Securities and Exchange Commission, although they did miss Bernie Madoff.

Glad to be back north of the Great Lakes, but by next January I'll be ready for a few more months of America-watching.

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