No pennies, gourmet poutine: It must be Canada

June 2016 -- by Carolyn Dale

I visit Canada a lot, as I live in a city near its border with the U.S., and by now I know most of the words for the first verse of the national anthem, beginning "Oh, Canada …" So, my experience with the culture is getting past skin deep, and after a recent trip through British Columbia and Alberta, I've been thinking about our national differences, especially over money, sports, wildlife, and food.

Our two countries share a number of similarities, such as electing politicians from political dynasties and offering winery tours in sunny locations, while sprouting brew pubs in the others. On the other hand, Canada is officially bilingual (English-French), and that's not likely to happen in the U.S., even though vast numbers here speak Spanish.

Canada has had a woman on its $20 bill for a long time, while we've just got started, now that Harriet Tubman, an African-American leader and Abolitionist, has been selected. So, we're not that far behind, and I say the U.S. should follow Canada's lead by depicting an artist on at least one bill.

Queen Elizabeth appears on the front of the Canadian $20, which is bright blue, slippery plastic. And on the back is a First Nations canoe carrying costumed figures. I believe this is Kwakiutl artwork, for it commemorates Bill Reid, the historian and artist.

Who would this artist be, on an American $20 bill, and wouldn't that make a great debate? In the meantime, another stark difference is that the U.S. is hanging on to pennies, while Canada has abolished them. Cash registers still ring up amounts ending in odd cents, so the cashier and customer engage in the mathematical process of rounding off. If it's just one or two cents, the total owed goes down; with three or four, it goes up.

In the end, a customer wins some and loses some, and probably comes out even over time. But I find the Canadians' calm acceptance of such odds decidedly un-American. I'm sure we'll insist on watching closely, and tallying every cent, far into the future.

With sports, hockey's popularity may keep growing in the U.S., though curling should probably stay to the north. In any small town, a traveler can glance to where the bowling alley might be, and find a curling club, instead. Curling is a game played on ice with skaters wielding brooms around a large weight. A player must be very, very good at sweeping, and most American men avoid brooms.

But do Canadians enjoy baseball, America's national pastime, as much as we enjoy hockey, their national pastime? I witnessed this question being put to the test at dinnertime in a pub in the small town of Radium.

Even though the Stanley Cup playoffs were on—the World Series for hockey—the pub's four TV screens were tuned to baseball. That is, until a customer just taking a seat looked about the room and asked all of us patrons, "Nobody here cares about baseball, do you? Anyone?" My husband and I smiled weakly and stayed silent.

"I mean, we all want to watch hockey, right?" the man continued. "Don't we want to see the playoffs for the Stanley Cup, instead of baseball?" Unlike the actual game of hockey, this query did not result in a brawl—or even a discussion—before the diamond disappeared and the ice rink filled the screens.

So, I had to be in Canada to realize my longtime fantasy of having a boring baseball game turned off in a crowded bar. However, my choice replacement would have been Masterpiece Theatre, and even Canada doesn't seem ready for that—yet.

As my gaze dropped from close-ups of tense hockey players chewing on their toothguards (only slightly more appealing than baseball players spitting chaw), I glanced out the pub window to see bighorn sheep grazing just outside, by the beer garden. For years, I've hiked high trails trying to catch sight of bighorn sheep, and here they were, having spent most of the winter hanging out around town. This proves there really are better things to see in Canada than baseball.

The attitudes toward wildlife may be different, though I'm avoiding the topic of firearms and gun safety—the two countries are decidedly differ in their approaches. But we noticed, while driving through miles of forest, that the leaping deer signs did not have bullet holes in them. My husband, a former Montanan, noticed this absence first.

Similarly, the yellow diamond signs depicting elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and caribou—varying with the elevation—also stood in pristine condition. What do Canadians shoot at, if not the signs? Maybe they just do less shooting; that's something I'd like to import back into this country.

Canada also makes an effort to keep wild animals away from highways, and perhaps to keep the people corralled on them. Tall fences line both sides of highways for mile after mile, with breaks at underpasses where animals can get across to reach meadows or streams. And it seems to work, for we saw deer, elk, and moose ambling along fencelines, heading toward grass and water.

In Banff National Park, Alberta, the overpasses built for wildlife are worthy of imitating here. In fact, it took me a while to realize that the high, curving tunnel-like structures planted with grass, bushes, and even small trees, are crossings made as natural and inviting as possible.

And finally, travelers have to eat, and Canada offers wonderful options for food. We usually buy a lot of cheese because of the French traditions for making chèvre and aged blues. You'll even find good quality cheese curds for sale. But why, you might ask. Curds are an important part of the national delicacy called poutine. But any restaurant claiming original presentations seems to offer a variation. And they can get creative, including the one I saw on the menu at a Japanese restaurant, listed alongside sushi and maki rolls. Poutine did sound better with sliced ahi on top, but still. I would vote for keeping poutine north of the border, but alas, I've already spotted it on occasional menus here to the south.

Does this mean other Canadian influences may follow? After all, Canada is the second-largest country in the world, by geography. Currently, most of the population resides in the southern climes, near the U.S. border, but with global warming and the Arctic ice melting, Canada's habitable land is sure to expand.

Just think of all the country we saw in the movie Revenant, filmed largely in Alberta. Now picture it without so much ice and snow. Surely this is a country with an expanding future, and we in the U.S. better get ready. I'd say, let's ease our stance on pennies, firm up on gun safety, learn to love hockey, memorize a few phrases in French, and hold the line on curling and poutine. But then, I've never tried either, and Americans say you shouldn't knock something until you've tried it. Gulp.

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