CANADA HAS A reputation as a cold and slightly boring place. It’s certainly cold, in most places most times the year, but boring it is not. It has some the world’s best scenery and great cultural and physical diversity.
Canada ranks a very high 7th in the Top 100 Countries Rating. It does reasonably well in every category except value for money, though it is not overly expensive. It is a big country and a great place to visit.
The country is dominated economically and culturally by its giant southern neighbor and sometimes struggles to make its voice heard and maintain its identity. But it has much to be proud of. It has a more egalitarian society and a better health system than the USA, and lacks that country’s insane gun culture.
It has the world’s tenth largest economy and a population of 37 million. It is the second largest country by area in the world, after Russia. It is a big place, though most of that land is frozen and uninhabited. The population is mostly strung out along the southern border, where it is less cold.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the famous Mounties, are known worldwide for their distinctive red serge uniform and peaked campaign hat. The outfit is now reserved for ceremonial purposes.
The trip across Canada in the famous ‘Canadian’ train is one of the great rail journeys of the world. It travels from Toronto to Vancouver over four days, across the prairies and the Rocky Mountains.
It uses 60-year-old stainless steel coaches, refurbished of course, which look really classy. It is the best way to see the country, though rolling across the prairies on a big motorbike in the middle of summer comes pretty close.
Toronto and Ontario
THE PROVINCE of Ontario has 40 percent of Canada’s population. It dips down into the USA – you actually have to travel north to get to Detroit in the USA from Windsor in southern Ontario.
The provincial capital Toronto is the largest city in Canada. Ontario also contains the country’s capital of Ottawa. It is a small and pleasant city – and a boring one. Even the Canadians think it lacks excitement.
Toronto is a very multicultural place, with the majority of its inhabitants belonging to what the Canadians call a ‘visible minority’. It shares with Vancouver on the country’s west coast the distinction of being one of the world’s most livable large cities.
It is the cultural, financial and educational center of the country. The surrounding area is sometimes called the Golden Horseshoe, a large conurbation stretching across the southern part of the province. The city of Toronto itself lies on the shore of Lake Ontario, the easternmost of the Great Lakes.
It is one of the most significant cities in North America. There’s a lot going on. It has all the normal attractions of a major metropolis, and then some. Toronto is the most visited city in Canada. The massive Eaton Center shopping and entertainment complex is the single most visited attraction in the whole country.
The province of Ontario stretches a long way north, to the icy shores of Hudson Bay. Northern Ontario is land of vast forests, most of it on a mineral-rich plateau called the Canadian Shield, which ensures bitterly cold winters. There is not much reason to go there unless you are a miner or a lumberjack.
Toronto is just the sort of big city you would expect a place like Canada to have. We have always liked the place, but it just seems to lack that little bit of zing. We do like its cosmopolitanism and its friendliness. In that way it’s typically Canadian. And there's lots of great restaurants.
QUÉBEC IS BOTH the name of a province in eastern Canada, and of a city in that province.
One of the most delightful things about Canada is its large Francophone community, centered in Québec. And like in France, they want you to speak to them in French, or at least try. They’re actually more insistent on it than they are in France, because they are so conscious of wanting to maintain their special identity.
In 1995 the province voted narrowly not to secede from Canada. The independence movement has gone backwards since, and it is unlikely to ever happen. English-speaking Canada has done all it reasonably can to accommodate the French-speaking minority, and they can hardly complain about being ignored or ill treated.
There are many people in Québec who go through their whole lives rarely speaking English. Many don’t bother to try. Montréal is the second biggest French-speaking city in the world after Paris, though the French tend to look down on the French-Canadian accent.
There is a great deal of charm in being in a French-speaking city in North America. It’s a very different culture, and Québec city’s center is one of the oldest in North America, with a distinctly European feel to it.
IN THE VERY east of Canada are four small provinces collectively known as the Maritimes. They are really worth a visit.
The smallest of them, Prince Edward Island (known almost universally as PEI) attracts many tourists, for the single reason the famous book ‘Anne of Green Gables’ was set there. They come by the busload, especially Japanese.
Nova Scotia (‘New Scotland’) attracts visitors for its water sports, whale watching and fishing, and has some very pretty scenery. People move there for the laid-back lifestyle.
Newfoundland is a large island at the easternmost part of North America, closest to Europe. The province also includes the region of Labrador on the Canadian mainland, The official name of the province is Newfoundland and Labrador and, yes, the friendly and loyal dog of that name does originate from there.
Newfoundland was a British colony until 1907, when it became an independent country. World War I killed many of its youth and World War II sent it broke, forcing it to join Canada as the country’s tenth province in 1949. It is best known for its barren landscape and its proud maritime heritage.
New Brunswick borders the US state of Maine, and is about as exciting. Its biggest attraction is the Bay of Fundy, which has the world’s highest tides.
The Prairies and the Arctic North
THE PRAIRIE provinces are Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The first two hold few attractions for the visitor, except that they have lots of nice lakes and forests that are popular for fishing and other outdoor sports during their short summers.
Oil-rich Alberta, however, is a major destination, It has twice the population of the other two prairie provinces combined, and the two significant cities of Edmonton and Calgary.
The week-long Calgary Stampede in July is the world’s biggest rodeo, attracting more than a million visitors each year. The provincial capital Edmonton is famous for having one of the world’s biggest shopping malls, build mostly underground to insulate it from the sub-arctic climate. It has ‘the world’s largest indoor lake’.
But Alberta is best known for its ski resorts, particularly Banff and Lake Louise (Whistler, equally well known, is in the adjacent province of British Columbia).
To the north are the three Arctic territories of Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which do not have the status of provinces. The second two include the frozen islands stretching north of the mainland almost to the North Pole. There are not many people there and those that do live there are cold most of the time. The natives are not called Eskimos anymore - the correct term nowadays is Inuit. There are lots of bears – polar and grizzly.
THE PROVINCE OF British Columbia (‘BC’ to most people) covers the entirety of Canada’s west coast, with a vast hinterland. It has more in common with the US Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington than it does with eastern Canada, which is a very long way away.
British Columbia is a land of vast forests and rugged mountains, where there are many ski resorts. Its largest city Vancouver is a bustling and cosmopolitan place, with the third largest population in Canada after Toronto and Montréal. It is renowned for its high quality of life and its high proportion of inhabitants of Chinese origin.
Vancouver is a major port, sheltered from the open ocean by the large Vancouver Island. On that island is BC’s capital Victoria, a much smaller city than Vancouver and a very pleasant place.
British Columbia is big. It is deeply forested, and when you go up north is still like the last frontier, with small logging communities a hundred miles from nowhere.
Vancouver is an easy sort of place. It consistently rates as one of the most liveable cities in the world. It can be a little gloomy in winter, but it really comes alive in summer. It has a flourishing arts scene and lots of great restaurants.
But we really like Victoria. It is a bit like Wellington in New Zealand. Smallish, but with the vibe of a much larger city and few of the disadvantages. Take a ferry there – it’s just 90 minutes from downtown Vancouver and it’s a lovely trip.