A Strange Cultural Difference (Or Feeling Unsafe in Peaceful Suburbia)

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Danger Due To Zombies, Toronto, 2011

Danger Due To Zombies, Toronto, 2011

Ask any Ottawa native what neighborhood they consider to be seedy in the National Capital. “Rideau!” they will likely reply. “Vanier. And Caldwell!”

Rideau, one of Ottawa’s busiest and most central areas, has a bad reputation because of all the homeless shelters dotting King Edward Avenue—The Mission, the Shepherd of Good Hope, etc. Because of its location, Rideau Centre, the shopping mall, is also where all kind of people transit and hang out (yes, you will see rebel teens smoking cigarettes and other stuff by the McDonalds). It attracts the crowds and quite a few panhandlers.

Vanier has suffered a bad reputation as a run-down area of Ottawa, mostly a renters neighbourhood (and by “renters”, people often mean “immigrants” or “low-income families”), often called Ottawa’s most violent neighbourhood. Same goes with Caldwell, on a smaller scale.

But really, no place in Ottawa is truly stretchy or dangerous by most standards. I’m not saying all Ottawa residents are law-abiding citizens but overall, this city is very safe—as is most of Canada.

Of course, personal safety is a very relative notion.

I was fairly street smart by the time I settled in Ottawa. I had backpacked in China alone, had traveled through most of Latin America and had dealt with all kinds of nuisances all over the world from getting catcalls to being mugged, from losing my wallet to being followed by drunks.

I found Ottawa pretty sedate compared to Rio, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa or even Paris.

But do you know where I felt uneasy? Suburbia.

As a French and as a woman, I have always been taught to stay in well-lit area after dark, and to avoid empty streets, empty subway stations, empty buses, etc. The logic behind the reasoning is that you want to be able to call for help if you run into trouble—or if trouble runs into you.

I know, crowds can be problematic too—you have to watch out for pickpockets, pervs, etc. But still, I always feel safer when there are people around. For instance, I have never really minded walking around in Paris’ infamous Barbès neighborhood because despite being quite a colourful area, small businesses stay open late at night and you can easily duck into a kebab place or a café if you feel threatened or if you get a bad vibe. However, I always avoid Gare du Nord and its empty mile-long tunnels leading from one end of the station to the other.

In Ottawa, I discovered “the suburb”, also known as “the world stops where my lawn meets the sidewalk”. The small house we lived in was only a fifteen-minute drive from Parliament Hill but it felt like being on another planet. Despite living in a semi-detached, I barely saw or heard the neighbours on the other side of the wall. It was winter so people rarely ventured outside for a walk. Cars would drive by in the morning around 8:30 a.m., and then the neighborhood would be dead quiet until the end of the office workday, around 5:00 p.m. I felt I had been cast for “I am Legend”—I was literally the only person taking walks or going to the mailbox during the day. And at night, I couldn’t hear a noise—Canadian neighbours were apparently trained to have conversations, argue or make love in silence.

Feng was working late-night shifts so I was often alone at home in the evening. “What would happen if I need help?” I’d wonder. “Who would I reach to? This area feels deserted! Hello, hello, is there anybody out there?”

I was used to living in the city centre, in an apartment building, where neighbours were often a nuisance but a somewhat welcome presence. You could always borrow a can opener or some flour from someone.

Yet, Canadians feel better in surburbia, the ideal place to start a family and raise your little one sheltered from the big bad world of downtown. For some reason, they tend to think that crowds are dangerous, and that empty places are safer. “Well, if there is no one around, there is no one to bother you!” as I’ve heard many times.

My best explanation to this strange perception of personal safety is that North Americans value their space… and there is a lot of space here. People are used to living in big houses instead of apartment buildings, driving a person vehicle rather than taking public transportation, entertaining at home rather than sitting at a terrace outside. Therefore, sharing “your” space with strangers could potentially lead to problems.

I still feel extremely safe in Ottawa, in both so-called “seedy” areas and in suburbia. But I’d rather be surrounded by people than alone in sedate and deserted suburbia!

How about you? Do you consider your city safe? Even been bothered by anyone in the street? Do you feel safer surrounded by people or on your own?


About Author

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


  1. I feel the same: american (or french ones, for that matter, my parents live in a place exactly like you describe!) suburbs freaks me out! In my last neighboroud in Lyon, there always was people, even in thé middle of thé night ans I know most people felt unsafe. I didn’t bother much but maybe i was lucky as nothing happened to me in 7 years. My new neighboroud is quite the contrary: nobody at sight, even during the day! And prostitutes at night. But I feel good. For some reason, it’s safe (somewhat than the 1st.neighboroud). It’s so weird! I still don’t know if Lyon is a safe city, as you say, it’s so personnal to judge! 🙂

    • On a side note, I have never understood why people are so scared of prostitutes. I mean, the whole prostitution thing can be debated but the women are just doing their “job”… I’d be scared of some clients though.

      • Yep, that’s the issue. I’m not comfortable when I’m riding my bike at 2AM and the cars are stopping in the middle of the avenue to pick up a working girl.
        Moreover, where there’s prostitution, there’s often violence (not in my neighboroud, fortunately) but nearby, there’s lots of drug dealers, and it doesn’t feel that great at night!
        Though, I think it’s common to most cities, I really don’t feel unsafe in mine 🙂

  2. Saw the feature about this blog on Apt 613. Bookmarking it for sure!

    You touch on a lot of points that I can relate to.

    I just got back from Europe and the personal space thing is huge. I notice it most walking on sidewalks. People get very close to you as they pass by and sometimes even bump you with their shoulder. Here in Canada we have lots of space and we seem to almost go out of our way to make sure we stay out of someone’s “personal bubble.”

    • I must thank Apartment 613 for sending people my way! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. Yes, Europeans like to bump into each other… literally! It’s also weird for me for a day or two when I visit France.

  3. Haha. Oh Canada. Yes, I was going to say we definitely value our space. We have so much of it! But the thought of raising a family in “suburbia” is kind of terrifying to me. I like to think I could carve out a little place for myself and my family (one day) in a central neighbourhood. The other thing with Winnipeg is that there are a lot of neighbourhoods that feel more like the suburbs than downtown but are very close, even walking distance, to cool stuff and good neighbourhoods with more character and stuff going on. Maybe you should move to Winnipeg. We even have a sizeable French speaking community!

  4. “Yet, Cana­di­ans feel bet­ter in sur­bur­bia, the ideal place to start a fam­ily and raise your lit­tle one shel­tered from the big bad world of down­town. For some rea­son, they tend to think that crowds are dan­ger­ous, and that empty places are safer.”

    Wow, all Canadians think the same way in your opinion? I have lived in the city for twenty years and do NOT at all feel better in suburbia. I hate it with all my might and so do all my friends. Perhaps it would be a good idea to steer clear of sweeping generalizations? Surely you don’t know how all Canadians feel?

    • Unfortunately, as you can safely assume, I did not survey the entire population of Canada. Such articles require a bit of generalization and stereotyping… this does not mean I assume every Canadian is dying to live in the suburbs! And anyway, this is just my experience, not an absolute rule. 🙂

  5. Oddly enough when I was young I thought that people lived in apartments because they had no other choice!

    Still, I think that most people even in France enjoy the suburbs. They are sprawling in every city, in the south vines are taken out to make place for pools and houses.

    As for me, I’m a city-girl but not very rich so I’ve gotten used to prostitutes, drug dealers and homeless people. I’ve almost got mugged in Montreal and been followed in Paris but nothing has ever happened to me.

    When I ride the suburban train at night when I come back from the airport I just make sure I sit by the tallest man in the train 😉

    • I think in smaller cities (i.e. not Paris, Marseilles, etc.) people still value living in the city core rather in the suburbs, because the suburbs have a bad reputation (social housing and all). It may have changed though with new developments and construction projects. It depends on where you live I guess!

  6. It was in Buffalo when I discovered the suburb. I never liked it; having to rely on oneself for everything, like taking the car to go everywhere, not seeing who your neighbors are, and so on. I preferred to live in the city, where one can be in a building, and beyond the walls is another person living. I suppose human contact has a high priority in my scale, and suburbia just doesn’t give that. Perhaps it was also made worse when I started watching Desperate Housewives, and of course, that was satire, but still, I can imagine those weird intrigue happening within the quiet houses of suburbia.

    • I’m still split on it. I like our area, which can be considered a suburb, because it’s quiet and fairly friendly. But I wouldn’t live too far from the city.

  7. I dont feel safe in ottawa at all. There are alot of middle easterners and scary african types here now, lots of gangs. THere were two women raped in the past month at bus stops in the DAYTIME one was also beaten bad after. ……it was racial. With this thing in syria etc and the left wing agenda that HATES the local people- u are afraid on a bus to even ask a black person to sit down. ALot of nervous people around. I am returning to school in jan and when I am done I am LEAVING THIS HOLE OF A CITy, another city turned to SHIT thanks to the liberals thank you trudeau this will be the 3rd big city I have had to leave thanks to constant waves of immigrants who dont assimulate and ruin the place! You dont even hear english any more yet they come here to study go figure!

    • Are you for real? Wow. I really feel sorry hearing this, there are so many prejudices in your comment I don’t even know where to start!

      Okay. Fun fact: Black people and “Middle Easterners” are not scary people. They are not bad, dangerous or whatever you hear on Fox News. The left wing agenda? Mmmm… I don’t buy into conspiracy theories, sorry. Although I must admit I’d love to see a left wing agenda!

      Finally, as an immigrant myself (I hope I am not scaring you… oh wait, I’m white, it’s all good, right?) I do hope you find your paradise somewhere. But frankly, if you find Ottawa unsafe, well… good luck.

  8. WHOA @ Jane! I don’t even want to comment on that !

    Anyway, Zhu, i feel like suburbia can be 50/50. I find it too quiet sometimes and other times too much intrusive neighbors lol. I like when suburbs are not so far from downtown which give a little bit of both worlds, calmness when you get home and “hustle and bustle” of downtown when you need some excitement 🙂

  9. I like to live with neighbors around yet some privacy (garden/gate/trees around the house… SOMETHING) is crucial, in a quiet neighborhood yet at waking distance of all amenities like schools, grocery stores and pharmacies. I don’t like to rely on my car for day to day errands. It a balance really — hope to find it soon! :mrgreen:

  10. I feel you. I think this is a major difference between North America and Europe. When living in a big city in Europe we are so used to being surrounded by people, noise, traffic and 24-hour action that, when we cease to have it, it feels almost too quiet. While Americans love their space, as you say, and therefore feel much more secure in suburbia.

    I’m not sure whether I could. I don’t like depending on cars to go to places and I like to have local shops or food markets close by. For me, that’s quality of life!

  11. Coming from Mexico City I find any street of Ottawa (in downtown or in the suburbia) essentially empty and very quiet. I was shocked to walk on the streets and not hearing any sound that indicated that people were alive. In Mexico, it is normal to see people hanging out with neighbors in the streets, children playing football at any time, and lots of activities. Here in Canada it seems that there is not any sort of activity taking place in the streets, and the little things that happen inside houses are done quietly…

    It is strange but not hard to get used to it 🙂

    • I hear you! This is one thing I miss… street life. This is why I love going downtown Ottawa, where it’s a bit more lively. I enjoyed Latin America a lot of that, the sounds, smells of life 24/7… although I did get sick of hearing car alarms all the time there 😆

  12. Hi Zhu! Thank you for your blog so much! I am myself an immigrant to Canada, and from a country that is culturally close to France, so I can easily relate to many of your opinions.

    When I’m reading about your travels and backpacking, it blows my mind away… I thought this was unreal for a woman to do. How did you even finance your travels? How did you make sure you’re safe as a woman (I mean sexual harassment)?

    • Hi Irene! Thank you for your message, it’s always fun and rewarding to see new people around 🙂

      Financing traveling… well, there’s no simple answer (and no trick either!). I’m not particularly rich and I was actually poor (as in, making $5,000 a year) when I was backpacking in my early twenties. TRaveling is a priority to me so I make sacrifices to save money. I rarely if ever eat out, don’t buy much stuff in general, try to find good deals, etc. I usually travel to countries where the cost of living is lower than in Canada (which is one of the reasons why I haven’t explored Europe much, for instance).

      As for traveling as a woman, I’ve never been scared and I never ran into trouble either. In fact, I found people around the world much more respectful than the news claim. This is not to say that commonsense doesn’t apply. In doubt, I stick to places where there are other women or kids around (it usually means it’s safe), for instance. I walk fast and I like to think I’m street smart enough to talk my way out of trouble. I can also look bitchy when needed 😆

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