10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Canada

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“Canada 150” bag, Ottawa, June 2017

Maple Leaf flags? Yes. Bilingual signs? Oui. You made it! You’re in Canada! No matter whether you’ve been planning your adventure for months or you’re taking a routine trip across the border, welcome and bienvenue.

If you haven’t met any of us abroad—we are easy to spot with the Maple Leaf on our backpacks—let me tell you with a hint of pride that we are pretty chilled. Well, chilled and literally frozen half of the year. We try to live up to the stereotype, and we welcome the world.

Canadians are well travelled—in 2015, 67% of us had passports—and thanks to our diverse population, we are exposed to different cultures, languages and customs. It’s very unlikely you’ll be asked if you have running water in your country, so return the favour and please, don’t frown and look sceptical when we claim we are nothing like our Southern neighbours.

And now, read on for tips to enjoy your stay with us!

Canada is huge. You already know you can’t “tour” Canada like you can tour the French Riviera. Indeed, unless you’re a member of the Royal Family or a campaigning candidate, you’ll probably focus on a province or two. Do keep in mind our cities are very spread out as well. Look at our streets—they are long and wide. Not all of them are like Yonge Street (86 km) but still, pay attention to map scale when you book a hotel “close” to the bus station or a venue. Suburbs like Kanata in Ottawa or Scarborough in Toronto are within boundaries, yet they feel like entire different cities with their own malls, supermarkets, parks, etc., even though population is usually less dense and these neighbourhoods may be very residential. Hotels or AirBnb may be cheaper in these areas but keep in mind you’ll probably be far from the action and commuting can be brutal—and no, you won’t be able to walk to wherever you’re going.

No one is trying to rip you off—the price you pay at the register is higher than the one displayed on the shelf because the sales tax isn’t included in the price prior to check out. I know, it’s a pain in the ass because you can’t prepare your change. We hate it too.

If you’re paying full price, you’re probably doing it wrong. Like in the US, Canada is a country where supply and demand rule the market and competition is fierce in many industries. There are often promotions, sales, price match guarantee and special offers that can sweeten the deal. Compare prices before you buy! For instance, gas prices vary from station to station and they change almost daily. That said, don’t waste much time looking for deals with telco companies (we are subjected to the big three’s oligarchy—Rogers, Bell and Telus) and alcohol because liquor board or commission oversees distribution and sales.

We are a bilingual (and unofficially, a multilingual country). Some Canadians speak English (85%), some Canadians speak French, some speak both, some newcomers aren’t that proficient in either language yet and most of us have some kind of accent. If you’re a native French speaker, don’t make fun of the flavour of French spoken in Canada. Yes, vocabulary is different, yes, it may sound funny to you—but you sound funny to them too. As for English speakers, don’t expect Canadians to punctuate every sentence with “eh,” adjust to various accents and if you’re in Quebec, do learn basic French because this is the language you’ll be addressed in.

Aboriginal peoples are real people. Don’t call them Indians or Eskimos. These terms are considered pejorative, proper terminology for the three groups is First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Forced assimilation into Canadian culture is a dark chapter of history that left a mark. Nowadays, they are a number of steps taken toward reconciliation, yet socio-economic issues disproportionately affect Aboriginal people. The best way to understand and appreciate the rich cultures of Aboriginal People is to forget about all the stereotypes spread through Hollywood movies. Oh, “Indian” Halloween costumes are offensive, by the way.

There are parts of Canadian culture and Canadian economy you may find puzzling or questionable—bilingualism, oil sands, Quebec sovereignty, fracking, logging, hunting… Most of us have an opinion on these topics but please, don’t judge what you don’t understand. Canada is a great democracy, but we’re not perfect. Side note regarding hunting—you can disapprove the fact that seal hunting happens throughout the year all over the Canadian Arctic but it’s part of Aboriginal culture and it’s interesting to see an Inuit view of traditional seal hunting … and I’m saying this as someone who really isn’t into hunting.

We have amazing, world-famous attractions you don’t want to miss, like Niagara Falls. However, if you have time, take a chance and go explore smaller cities and towns. Some of my most memorable domestic adventures happened just a few kilometres from Ottawa, in Deep River, along the St Lawrence Seaway, in Pembroke, Bourget, Gananoque, Balm Beach or Matawa.

It’s probably the British heritage, but it’s worth noting that Canadians behave very well in public. Anything considered “disruptive” or “offensive” is usually frowned upon—cutting in line, making a scene, catcalling, loitering, littering, being drunk in the street, etc.

You can generally expect convenient and friendly service. Most stores open 7/7 and close late at night, restaurants cater to every possible diet, you can dial toll-free numbers to talk to customer service representatives and whatever you need (e.g. ATMs) usually works just fine. One exception may be public transportation—in major cities, it’s definitely not as cheap, fast and convenient as in many places around the world.

Non-family-friendly activities—drinking, smoking, doing drugs or anything remotely related to sexual matters—usually take place in private and not on public space. For instance, sex work mostly happens underground, strip bars and escort services are more common than street prostitution. Don’t expect street bacchanal during special events. On Canada Day, one of the biggest parties of the year in Ottawa, you won’t see partygoers wandering the streets freely with booze—everybody may show up stoned and/or drunk but the deed is done in private. Eh, there is a reason why people value their patio or finished basement…

What surprised you when you first visited Canada? Do you have anything to add to this list?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

10 Comments

  1. Nothing to add 😉 If you come for the winter, expect to be unprepared and if you need to purchase some winter gear anyway, I would wait until you get here to get some REALLY good gear for affordable prices instead of buying a “cute pair of winter boots” at home and freezing your toes in Canada 😉

  2. just curious, have you visited Vancouver, or Calgary for instance?
    my country is also huge…and I’ve never been to Papua, the east side of Indonesia.
    the flight is expensive too and I don’t have relative to visit, etc

    • No, for the reason you mention: it’s expensive! It’s cheaper to travel to Europe than to the West coast. I went to Winnipeg, Manitoba, all over Ontario and Quebec 🙂

  3. Arf ! Encore mon commentaire d’hier soir qui s’est fait la malle ^^

    Sinon j’ajouterais dans la catégorie “taxes” les TIPS qu’il faut mettre au resto (18% si je me souviens bien).

    Pour beaucoup d’autres choses on l’avait constaté. Et oui, quand tu visites le 2è plus grand pays du monde, c’est normal que même en ayant fait 2000 km que tu n’en ai rien vu du tout au final. (Mais ça nous fait une bonne excuse pour revenir un jour…). Les longues rues nous ont impressionné aussi. Et nous avons appris à parler par croisement à Montréal. Nous avons adoré sortir des grandes villes (Montréal, Québec) pour aller dans des villes plus petites (Trois-Rivières) voire carrément petites (Chambly, Magog,…). Les magasins qui ouvrent jusqu’à tard le soir nous ont sauvé le souper une fois ou l’autre. Et le Français du Québec il est sympa ! Mais en tant que Belge, j’ai l’habitude d’entendre du Français un peu différent en France, donc ça nous faisait juste une expérience francophone de plus.

    Voilà voilà ! Sympa sympa comme article. Ca me donne encore plus envie de revenir mais pas tout de suite, on doit d’abord passer en Islande ^^

    • Désolée pour le commentaire… des fois, ils sont dans les spam, mais pas là :-/

      Effectivement, je parle aussi beaucoup par croisements : Laurier and Bank, Glastone and Preston, etc. C’est plus facile!

      Pour les tips, tu as tout à fait raison. La moyenne est entre 15 % et 20 %, mais c’est toujours sujet à des débats.

      Tiens, en tant que Belge, il y a des trucs français que tu trouves étrange?

      • Lorsque je dois “préparer” des gens, c’est effectivement mon rappel numéro 1. Ici les prix apparaissent non taxés (15% environ au QC) alors penses-y lorsque tu veux acheter quelque chose, notamment un truc un peu plus dispendieux comme un appareil photo par exemple. Aussi, on laisse des pourboires lorsqu’il y un service, surtout au restaurant. Ne pas en laisser est une prise de position, un message qu’on laisse et qui signifie “je n’ai pas aimé votre service”. Et beaucoup de serveurs gagnent une partie de leur salaire grâce à ces pourboires. Malgré les recommandations il m’est arrivé par deux fois de devoir en laisser pour des amis français qui avaient quitté la table sans ajouter quoi que ce soit. J’avais honte (et ça fait chier de devoir payer pour le manque de savoir vivre des autres!)

        • C’est vraiment automatique le pourboire dans les restos pour moi, par contre, je dois avouer que je ne sais pas toujours qui s’attend à recevoir un tip dans d’autres secteurs professionnels. Ça me semble toujours bizarre de devoir tipper un coiffeur, par exemple.

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