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 they have?
(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.
Ketchup 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 section.
10. Are OBSESSED with Tim Hortons.
Tim 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.