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10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Canada

“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 the 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 the 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.

Sales tax isn’t included in the price prior to checkout

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 checkout. 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 the 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.

Canada ain’t perfect

There are parts of Canadian culture and the 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 of 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.

Explore smaller cities and towns

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.

Canadians (generally) behave

It’s probably 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.

Things happen in private

Non-family-friendly activities—drinking, smoking, doing drugs or anything remotely related to sexual matters—usually take place in private and not in public spaces. For instance, sex work mostly happens underground, and 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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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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