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Living in a Huge Country Like Canada Can Be Weird

Snowman on Frozen Ground, Ottawa, February 2012

If you are from Russia, China, the U.S., Brazil or Argentina, you may skip the article. You’re big too. But if like me, you grew up in a relatively small country, I’m sure you will agree—Canada is huge.

At school, I learned that the three largest countries in the world were Russia (and at the time, the USSR was larger than current-day Russia!), Canada and China. As a kid, it was hard to comprehend how big these territories actually were. But as a new Canadian, the country immediately struck me as humongous.

I had only heard of two cities when I landed in Canada—Montreal and Toronto. I ended up in Ottawa, conveniently located about halfway between the two. On the map, these cities looked really close to each other… until I realized that from Ottawa, driving to Toronto took five hours, and to Montreal two hours. Clearly, I wasn’t going to visit Churchill anytime soon—I couldn’t even imagine how long it would take to get there.

Driving across France from north to south takes about ten hours. And it’s not like the French actually do it. Too far, too long of a trip. But Canadians seem to enjoy driving from the East Coast to the West Coast and from the West Coast to the East Coast just for the sake of it, even though it takes days. Different perspectives, I guess.

That said, Canadians’ daily commute to work is also pretty impressive. A lot of folks choose to live in the far suburbs because it’s quieter and cheaper, and it’s not rare for people to drive 20, 30 or 40 kilometres to work. I even know people who live in Montreal and commute to Ottawa!

At first, living in a country that has different time zones felt strange too. Canada has six:
Newfoundland Time, Atlantic Time, Eastern Time, Central Time, Mountain Time and Pacific Time. France has one (Central European Time) and as the name says, it shares it with a bunch of countries such as Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany… and even Poland. Having different time zones has its perks. For instance, it comes in handy if you want to watch a rerun of a show on TV. But it can be a pain if you work in a call centre based on the East Coat that also deals with Vancouver because it means staying at work well past 5 p.m. to reach the West Coast.

Speaking about media… France has very little regional programming—no need to, it’s well known that Paris is the centre of the civilized world. So if you buy a national newspaper, such as Libération, most news will be about the capital even if you live kilometres away. And don’t even get me started about weather forecasting! In Canada, we have The Weather Network, a serious and accurate channel with in-depth analysis for each city, town and township across the country, including places where no one actually lives. In France, weather forecasting is wrapped up in five minutes or less with these kinds of comments: “the North, kind of rainy; the South, kind of sunny, Paris 15°C with a low of 14°C.” You don’t live in the North, the South or in Paris? Too bad. Open the window and check for yourself.

The French like to pick on regional differences within the country (those in the South have an accent and exaggerate everything, those in the North are moody and boring etc.) But the truth is, after living in Canada, I find France has a remarkably homogenous population. The same can’t be said for Canada. There is a real cultural difference between provinces. Whenever I read a Quebec newspaper, I’m completely lost. Who are these politicians? How come I’ve never heard of that movie? And we are a neighbouring province! Some would argue that it’s a perfect example of the “Quebec exception” and that the French-speaking province is just misunderstood. But I feel the same cultural difference with the other provinces as well. I don’t know what makes Saskatchewan rock, and I don’t know the name of the local stars in P.E.I.

Each province has its own government, set of rules, laws, service providers and makers and doers. It can be quite confusing at first when you grew up in a country with a very centralized government, like France. For instance, in Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta, the legal drinking age is 18 while in the rest of the country, it’s 19 (which doesn’t really matter in Ottawa, where teens cross the bridge to get drunk in Quebec).

Overall, I find living in a big country is pretty interesting. Sure, it has downsides: for instance, travelling can be expensive (flying to Vancouver is typically more expensive than flying to Europe!). But you can easily find a province or a city that fits you, and the cultural mix is refreshing. I sometimes hear stories about immigrants who didn’t like Quebec, Ontario or whatever province they settled in, and who headed back home. I always feel sorry for them because moving to another province might have been what they needed. That’s the perk of living in a huge country! There is enough room for all of us.

So, how do you feel about living in a big country?

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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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