Canada has been much in U.S. news this week with the election of new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Many Americans tend to take their northerly neighbors for granted, assuming that Canada is simply some kind of secondary U.S., essentially a 51st American state where people happen to watch a lot of hockey and have good heath care. I’ve been living in Canada for two years now, and I can attest that while, yes, Canada does like hockey and socialized medicine, it is indeed a foreign country with its own distinct customs and quirks. Canada can be a bit sneaky in this regard because, when you first get here, things can seem fairly similar to the U.S. After all, the language and accent is mostly the same (except if you’re in Quebec!), many of the same stores exist on both sides of the border, and general social protocols are similar. But then you start discovering little things here and there that are different, if not downright baffling. (I swear, the first time I saw a milk bag, I had NO IDEA what was going on). These little things add up to a Canada that has its own unique identity, distinct from the U.S.
Read on for twelve things that Canadians do that might seem strange to their neighbors to the south. As I look through this list, I realize that a lot of these have to do with differences between Canadian and American food culture. Now I’m asking myself if that’s because food is so important to cultural identity or because I’m simply hungry and taking it out on this post. Maybe a bit of both?
1. Eat cheese curds on top of fries and gravy.
It’s called poutine, and it is a Canadian institution. You
can get it everywhere, from movie theatres to gourmet restaurants, where
chefs will often fancy it up with ingredients like foie gras and lobster. I
know that Canadians love poutine (LOVE IT), but, I have to admit, I’m not into
it. (Canada, please don't deport me). Maybe you have to be Canadian to really "get" it?
2. Have a strategic maple syrup reserve.
Seventy-five percent of the world’s maple syrup comes from
Quebec; Americans may think of maple syrup as just something yummy to put on
waffles, but it Canada it is big business. The Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup
Producers keeps a strategic reserve of syrup in locations across Quebec to
regulate the maple market. The Atlantic compares this sweet, sticky
reserve to the U.S.’s
oil reserves. In 2012, the maple reserve was the target of a major heist —
thieves stole over thirty million U.S. dollars worth of syrup from one of the
reserve’s storage facilities. Yes, 30 MILLION DOLLARS. How many waffles did
(On a side note, don’t you think the great maple syrup heist of 2012 needs to be a movie? I mean, that’s the kind of story I would assume was made up, if not for the fact that it ACTUALLY HAPPENED).
3. Are really nice when they work at government agencies.
I find the stereotype that all Canadians are ridiculously
nice and perpetually apologetic to be both sort of patronizing and just not
true (Canadians, like everyone else, are multifaceted people). However, I’ve
found — and I am only speaking from my own experience here — that people who
work at Canadian government agencies actually are super nice and
accommodating, in a way that is totally unexpected if you’re from the States.
Even the people who work at the Canadian version of the DMV (The DMV! —
where, in the U.S., all hope goes to die) are really friendly.
4. Buy milk in bags.
In many parts of Canada (particularly Eastern Canada), milk
comes in bags rather than cartons or jugs. Buyers get a big bag with four
smaller bags of milk inside. To use their milk, they put it in a specially
designed pitcher and cut open a corner, like this:
5. Go to the doctor for free.
Seriously, you walk in, show your health card, and walk out.
It is crazy. (I’ve written elsewhere that getting insurance in Canada is more
complicated than many Americans think it is, but once you have things in
place, going to a clinic is really easy).
6. Eat ketchup chips.
flavored potato chips are a HUGE in Canada. I DO NOT GET IT. (Maybe this
is another thing that requires being born in Canada?)
7. Say “No” to pennies!
The Royal Canadian Mint stopped distributing pennies in
2013. Businesses simply round prices to the nearest nickel.
8. See through their money.
Canadian money is made of polymer, and it has a clear strip
running through one side. When the Canadian Mint first introduced the plastic
bills a few years ago, some people complained that the bills
melted at high temperatures; the Mint argued in response that these reports
were incorrect, and that the polymer with which they are made can withstand
very high temperatures.
9. Sell weird fondue meats at the grocery store.
I don’t know if this is only common in Quebec, where I live, or in the rest
of Canada, but here people are really into making fondue with exotic meats.
I’ve seen everything from horse to camel for sale in our grocer’s freezer
10. Are OBSESSED with Tim Hortons.
Hortons is a coffee and doughnut chain that is incredibly popular in
Canada. The fast-food restaurants can be found on practically every block, in
movie theatres, bus stations, and pretty much anywhere else you can fit a
coffee machine and doughnuts. Some of their most famous items are “Timbits,”
aka doughnut holes. (My review: Tasty!)
11. Eat a ridiculous amount of “KD.”
I have many fond memories of eating Kraft Mac and Cheese as
a child, but Canadians take it to a different level. In The Walrus,
Sasha Chapman calls KD (for “Kraft Dinner,” as it’s called in Canada) “our
de facto national dish.” Canadians eat 55 percent more KD than Americans
do, with every Canadian eating an average of 3.2 boxes of the stuff a year. Who
knew powdered cheese was so central to Canadian identity?
12. Spell things differently.
Most Canadian accents don’t sound all that different from
the ones in the U.S., but there are notable differences in spelling between Canadian
and American English. Canada retains some (but not all) facets of British
spelling. For examples, Canadians keep the “U” in words like “honour” and “colour,”
and, like Brits, they add an extra “L” in words like “travelling.” Canadians
also use the word “zed” to describe the last letter of the alphabet.