Canada Canada

Oh, it’s big all right. Damn big. And we’re not referring to Canada’s size (a whopping 10 million sq km, making it the world’s second-largest country). What we’re talking about here is the handle on a Canadian beer case – big enough to fit your hands, even with mittens on. If you think that’s impressive, consider Canada’s other mondo attributes. Its terrain is filled with them, from mammoth mountains to hulking glaciers to immense polychromatic skies. Then there are the creatures that roam the terrain and its waterways – grizzly bear, moose, polar bear, humpback whales – each one huger than the next.

Canada is impossible to dislike, but go ahead and give it a shot. You don’t like festival-packed cities like Toronto and Montreal that offer the world’s best quality of life? Then take a double dose of history in St John’s, Newfoundland, North America’s oldest city. Not enamoured with the prospect of hiking, skiing or snowboarding over the cloud-poking mountains of Banff & Jasper National Parks? Try a slow ride through the wheat-waving prairies of Saskatchewan. You want a nosh lighter than Alberta beef or Nunavut whale blubber? Pick up ripe peaches and cheeses from the Kelowna’s local farmers’ markets.

And it’s a wonder everyone is so nice, given the weather. It’s cold, as in world’s-coldest-country cold (based on average temperatures nationwide), which explains the mitten-sized beer case handles. Snag, a town in the Yukon, recorded North America’s coldest temperature ever: minus 62.8°C.

Voltaire may have written off Canada as ‘a few acres of snow’ back in the mid-18th century, but those ‘few acres’ have yielded vast amounts of oil, timber and other natural resources, that in turn have propelled Canada to a very enviable standard of living.

Of course, the country has a few issues. The most pressing ones are shaping up to be immigration, provincial squabbling, and striking a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment.

Let’s look at immigration first. Canada takes in the world’s largest per capita annual immigration numbers – around 250,000 people a year, of whom 43% go to Toronto. While this is cool in multicultural terms – allowing you to shop for Buddha trinkets in Vancouver’s Chinatown, chow on curry in Toronto’s Little India, or sip a Vietnamese café au lait in Montréal – it also causes growing pains. Mainly, it’s becoming difficult for Canada to maintain its high-caliber social and physical infrastructures in the face of such relentless population growth.

Then there’s the issue of how to reconcile the divergent interests of Canada’s provinces and territories. The only shared sentiment seems to be that the federal government is insensitive to their particular needs. In the past, the tension was greatest in francophone Québec, which periodically has threatened to secede from confederation. But the grumbling is now getting loudest from the western provinces and territories, which desire more control over their crazy-huge amounts of natural resources.

For instance, Alberta’s oil wealth is gushing, and the province would like to keep all its nice new money to itself rather than float the faltering economy of Ontario, where manufacturing is down in the face of cheap imports from China and beyond. The Northwest Territories would like to have more of a say-so regarding its diamond, gold and natural gas profits, rather than just serve as low-hanging fruit to fill Ottawa’s baskets. Even the mild-mannered Atlantic provinces are bickering about federal claims to fishing and mineral rights off their shores.

Could these provinces be next to mount secession movements? There’s talk in the air. And the Clarity Act actually makes it possible. This law from 2000 states that the federal government has to enter into negotiations if there is ‘a clear expression of the will of the population of a province…to cease to be a part of Canada and become an independent state.’ Sovereignty hopefuls can thank Québec for that opportunity.

Natural resources are also at the crux of our third issue. Yes, they’re helping the Canadian economy to kick ass. By late 2007, the loonie was practically on par with the US dollar and still on its way up – the first time this has happened in three decades. And oil and natural gas are driving the bus. But an economy reliant on natural resources is tricky, because the resources are bound to run out (memo to Canada: see past history of fur and codfish industries). And then what?

Furthermore, the processes for extracting and developing the resources come at a high environmental price. The massive expansion of Alberta’s oil sands production has been tagged as the single biggest factor behind Canada’s wretched performance in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The repercussions can be felt in the country already – just ask the local polar bear who are getting mighty pissed off (and hungry) as their icy habitat shrinks and their seal dinners drift away.

Right now it’s the federal government that has to figure all this out, led by the new group filling Ottawa’s halls – a Conservative group, oddly enough. After 12 years of center-left Liberals running the show, the Conservatives won the majority in the 2006 elections. They racked up 124 seats compared to 103 seats for the Liberals, with the separatist Bloc Québecois getting 51 seats and the left-leaning New Democrats getting 29 seats. Corruption and a ‘culture of entitlement’ finally did in the Liberals. Stephen Harper became the new prime minister, but he leads Canada’s smallest minority government since Confederation (if you go by proportion of seats). However, Canadian minority governments don’t usually survive long, so don’t be surprised if somebody else is at the helm by the time you read this.

What Canadians discuss around their dinner tables come election time – and what they discuss even when it’s not election time – is the nation’s much-cherished but ailing universal health care system. To be sure, the quality of care is high and getting treatment for minor ailments is easy. But try seeing a specialist or getting a hip replacement and you could be on a waiting list for months. Although no one will admit it, a two-tiered system is in place, and those with deep pockets can access additional – often quicker – care in private facilities.

Still, a free, portable health care system that’s available to everyone – rich and poor alike – is quite a feat. To many citizens, it’s at the very root of what makes Canada great. So are progressive views on same-sex marriage and marijuana use. The former is entirely legal; the latter is legal only for medicinal use, though broader decriminalization bills flutter through Ottawa from time to time. And don’t forget this is a country that has a card-carrying Marijuana Party that puts up a candidate for national elections. True, it’s not taking over the prairies any time soon (it received.06% of the popular vote in 2006), but its very existence says something about the local mindset.

In general, Canadians are also liberal about abortion (it’s legal). Issues they cast a critical eye toward include gun control (most prefer restrictions), child care issues (increased funding is appreciated) and taxes (too high). As you’d expect, the Liberals and Conservatives have different views on all these topics, but they don’t diverge as drastically as similar parties in other countries. Even after the Conservatives took the helm in Ottawa, they left most ‘liberal’ concerns alone. Harper and his posse may not be the number-one fans of pot-smoking gays who want to get married, but heck, why bother changing now?

Canada likes to think of itself as peaceable, and it keeps its military involvement fairly low-key. The country has a total of 2900 troops overseas, with most of those in Afghanistan working for the NATO-led International Assistance Security Force. As of August 2007, 70 soldiers had died in the operation. When it comes to actual peacekeeping for the United Nations, the country contributes 126 military personnel to UN missions, ranking it 55th out of 108 troop-contributing countries.

Don’t take our word for this stuff, though. Ask the Vancouverite sitting next to you, or maybe it’s a Newfoundlander, or whomever you meet on the roads in between. Take a pull on your beer, dip into the poutine, draw your fleece up tighter and feel the warmth surround you. It’s nice here, eh?