Toronto is probably the best-known city in Canada, which is generally to the chagrin of the rest of the country. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s the nation’s capital. That title goes to Ottawa, the seat of Canada’s federal government, which is the political center of the country.
With a conflicted colonial past involving the overlapping French and English empires and a legacy of indigenous oppression, there are difficult historical moments in Canada that can still be controversial today. While the country never experienced a war of independence or a large-scale violent conflict that marked a rupture from its colonial history, some tensions remain between French and English Canada (often represented by Quebec and Ontario) that emerge in particular cultural and political moments.
There’s almost nothing that will unite Canadians faster than if someone comments on certain similarities between Canada and the United States. Quietly defining their distinctions from their southern neighbors has been a part of the Canadian experience of national identity since 1867. Yes, some Canadian accents may sound similar to some American ones, and on the surface, a megacity such as Toronto might reflect the generic “look” of a North American city, but historically, politically, and socially, Canadians are proud of their country and its differences.
It might seem a bit strange, but Queen Elizabeth II’s face is on all Canadian coins, in addition to being featured on the $20 bill. Although Canadians don’t generally express any particular loyalty or attachment to the British monarchy, the fact remains that the country is a constitutional monarchy, and the Queen is the official head of state. At the same time, however, Canada has been fully sovereign since the Constitution Act of 1982, which repatriated the constitution and removed any legal dependence on the United Kingdom.
Along with hockey, Tim Hortons, founded by and named after a hockey player, is basically a cultural institution in Canada; it’s a multinational fast-food chain best known for its coffee and donuts. Since 1965, Timmy’s (as many Canadians affectionally call it) has become ubiquitous across the country, and it’s probably the main reason why Canadians eat more doughnuts per capita—the country also has more doughnut stores per capita than any other nation. Even if you find the coffee and/or doughnuts rather bland, it’s better not to insult this Canadian cultural icon.
It’s a common—and accurate—stereotype that one of the most common phrases you’ll hear in Canada is “I’m sorry.” Canadians tend to say “I’m sorry” (or simply “sorry”) in place of other phrases such as “excuse me” or “pardon me,” so the meaning of the expression actually goes beyond a basic apology. It might contribute to the country’s reputation for being very polite—but don’t make the mistake of not returning an “I’m sorry” when it comes your way. Even if it was your foot that was accidentally stepped on, or if you unintentionally bump into someone and they say “sorry” first, it appears rude to not reciprocate the apology.
This action mainly applies to the major cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, where the rush hour can get chaotic. While Canadians are not averse to packing into an overpopulated bus or train in order to commute back to the suburbs after work, it’s considered rude to push your way onto any form of public transit before people have had the chance to exit. It’s best to stand to the left or right of the doors and wait to see if anyone’s departing the bus or train before getting on it. And make sure to say “I’m sorry” a few times as you crowd your way onto the train.
With the silhouette of its leaf on the flag, the maple tree has come to represent Canada in many ways. In addition to its symbolic value, the tree also yields one of the few food items that can appropriately be labeled as Canadian. Maple syrup is a natural sweetener originally gathered by the indigenous peoples of northern North America, who transferred the practice to the European newcomers. Quebec is the largest global producer of maple syrup, and you’ll find it in pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and French toast, as well as a baking ingredient. It’s not only available in its liquid state but also in the form of candy, powder, taffy, fudge, and more. It’s one of the best Canadian souvenirs you can take home. So if it doesn’t suit your tastes, it would be better not to say anything about it.
While you’re at it, it would be better not to question the other dish that often gets labeled as a traditional Canadian food—poutine. This French Canadian fast-food specialty is a concoction of French fries and cheese curds, drizzled with gravy. It’s heavy and greasy, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it at 3 am after a night out on the town.
Canada is a diverse country in terms of its natural geography and its people, not to mention its regional identities. Although the population of the country is relatively small in relation to its size (at just over 36 million people, it’s one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world), each of its provinces and territories has its own distinct history and character. In this way, sometimes speaking of the country in general terms can be problematic. From the West Coast to the Maritimes, the Prairies to Quebec to the Yukon, it’s safer not to make any broad brushstroke assumptions about Canadians when you’re a visitor.
We know. Average seasonal temperatures vary considerably across the country, but winters are generally harsh across all the provinces (except for coastal British Columbia). In the interior and the Prairie Provinces, in particular, the daily average temperatures are around −15°C (5°F), but they can drop below −40°C (−40°F), with the added punch caused by severe wind chills. In the central regions, snow can stay on the ground for around six months, while in the northern parts, snow can linger year-round.
At the same time, Canadians reserve their right to complain about their own weather and cherish their status as a cold northern nation. The east and west coasts’ average high temperatures are usually in the low 20s (71°F), while the interior provinces have average summer high temperatures that range from 25 to 30°C (77–86°F). The temperatures in some interior locations can occasionally exceed 40°C (104°F). So notwithstanding the fact that some parts of the country have hot and humid summers, or that certain cities might get hysterical about the weather even though their winters are relatively mild compared to the rest of the country (i.e. Toronto), Canada’s claim to ice and snow is something that shouldn’t be challenged.