O Canada!

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“Canadians are the only people who take moderation to an extreme.”

— H. L. Mencken

Cross the border into Canada circa 2005, and the convivial pleasantries of the immigration official would only be interrupted — almost apologetically — by the requisite formalities. “Are you bringing in any liquor, beer, wine, or tobacco?” An honest declaration inevitably rendered a generous individual exemption.

No longer. Today Canadian immigration agents have taken a page — the third-degree page — from US Customs and Immigration: all obdurate business without a hint of foreplay.

“Are you carrying any self-defense devices such as guns, pepper spray, or mace?” The eyes narrowed down suspiciously, homing through the response to detect revealing body language.

We were. Pepper spray.

My wife and I were embarking on a mountain bike ride across Canada along the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), a dedicated, mostly back-country route for walkers, skiers, horseback riders, and bikers that crosses the country and which, in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion, incorporates every province and territory. Our plan was to ride from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, camping out along the way. Instead of lugging the more traditional panniers to carry our gear, we were pulling single-wheel BOB (beast-of-burden) trailers each loaded with tent, sleeping bags, cooking kit, etc.

British Columbia, with its accordion folds of Coast Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and subsidiary ranges, is teeming with bears. And pepper spray, the provincial parks’ wardens’ (rangers in the US) preferred bear deterrent, was our only legal protection. Curiously, although capsicum aerosols are legal, they must be labeled “for bears.” Ours were not, so they were confiscated. Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say? We later forked out $80 for two Canadian-made capsicum bear repellents with the proper government labels.

Not one question about drugs or suspicion about illegal stowaways. Canada’s priorities are obvious: first, a mirror image of the US concern over terrorism expressed by the immigration officer as a lack of civility; then a concern about liquor and tobacco smuggling (not only are vice taxes an important source of Canadian revenue but they embody a long tradition of reformist social policy that discourages unhealthy habits); and, finally, handgun prohibition. Canadians are proud of their civil society and deathly afraid of contracting what they perceive as a US epidemic of handgun violence.

Perhaps some bears can read; or perhaps the label inhibits its use against other predators. Who can say?

But a demand for handguns persists. Jock Bigjaw, a Dogrib First Nations (not his real name or tribe) leader and self-styled warrior, wanted a .357 Magnum. Jock was a big-rig hauler, a job that allowed him plenty of time to pursue his real passion — alpinism. We’d met on the flanks of Aconcagua in Argentina and hit it off, laughing ourselves into indignity at the 14,000 foot base camp. Politically, he believed in self-reliance and the Canadian government’s duty to adhere strictly to its treaties. Jock fought many of his fellow Indians’ sense of aimlessness, despair, and alcoholism by setting an example of achievement. He dreamed of being the first Native American to summit the Vinson Massif — the highest peak in Antarctica — and toured Canada’s Indian Reserves giving inspirational presentations at schools and community conclaves. In the world of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jock was a hero.

After the climb he asked me if I’d be willing to buy him a handgun in the US, meet him in Idaho during one of his cross-border forays, and sell it to him. Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada. I agreed.

* * *

In spite of NAFTA, “free trade” remains an elusive concept — particularly at entry levels. After completing a guidebook (see About this Author) to sea kayaking the Inside Passage (three-quarters of which traverses the BC coast), I submitted the manuscript to Rocky Mountain Books, Canada’s premier outdoor guidebook publisher. They wanted it. However, because of my US citizenship, it did not qualify for certain subsidies offered by the federal and provincial governments — in effect, a quota system for Canadian authors that makes it hard for non-Canadians to compete (which is its intention). So, in the end, they declined it.

Just before crossing into Canada to start our bike trip, my wife and I stopped at Smith Rocks State Park in Oregon to do a little rock climbing. For this sport, Smith Rocks is a world-class destination. It is the birthplace of “sport climbing”, a relatively safe technique that in the 1980s allowed standards of difficulty to be pushed way beyond what anyone ever imagined.

Though he was apprehensive about buying the gun, he was untroubled about smuggling it into Canada.

Lacking a guidebook, I approached a large group of young climbers in the campground to get “beta” — route information. They were from NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outgrowth of Outward Bound. NOLS teaches outdoor wilderness and survival skills. These kids had signed up for a month-long rock climbing course that was to take place at Squamish Chief, BC — Canada’s Yosemite. But a Canadian immigration officer had different ideas.

When asked the purpose of their visit, the instructors responded innocently and honestly. Although tuition had been paid in the US — and was already a done deal — the martinet declared that the NOLS program would unfairly compete with Canadian guide services. He refused entry into Canada to the two trailer-hauling vans with 24 kids and instructors. Smith Rocks was their consolation destination.

* * *

In spite of the border crossing unpleasantness and the high prices, it is alwaysa pleasure to be in Canada. A leisurely civility and understated formality barely conceal an endearing earnestness — about the most trivial of life’s minor curiosities — that disarms even the most irascible visitor. Canadians are patient, tolerant, and egalitarian to the core. While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.” As Pierre Trudeau once belligerently declared, “We are in the extreme centre, the radical middle. That is our position!”Nonetheless, to the average American, Canadian politics are an irrelevant baffle mired in minutiae.

Perhaps what makes Canadian politics so unintelligible, frustrating, and yes, even boring to Americans, is the more than usual lack of congruence between political parties and any sort of principled political philosophy. Consistency has been sacrificed to national unity, growth, and development, which — in such a geographically sprawling and climatically extreme country — all parties promote through vigorous federal intervention and subsidies to make settlement and development of its inhospitable extremities more attractive.

While the American Declaration of Independence celebrates “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Canada’s founding document promises “peace, order and good government.”

This was all the easier because, unlike the US, which attempted to design a government from scratch based on the latest Enlightenment philosophy hot topic, Canada simply continued being a part of Britain, developing the same structure of government as the mother country, and following its lead in foreign and domestic policy.

Each election seems to be contested by politicians with a big wish-list of concrete promises that expediency and the demands of a fractious confederation often reverse 180 degrees within days of victory. Canada dodged the 2008 financial crisis through fiscal health and well-capitalized banks, with the “Loonie” shooting ahead of the US dollar for the first time ever. The Economist, however, avers that the housing market is frothy and likely to pop.

But we had more practical matters to consider. We drove to a West Vancouver marina and found a safe place to park our van for the duration of the bike ride, spending the rest of the day packing camping gear, tuning up the bikes, and making the myriad arrangements requisite for our trip — with Canadian talk radio in the background.

The controversy du jour was emblematic of Canadian attitudes, politics and the rise of China. A handful of young Oriental men (some of whom couldn’t speak English) had been arrested drag racing on a Vancouver street in Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfa Romeos and other such jet engines on wheels. The police had released them without filing charges. Speculation focused on the idea that wealthy and influential parents had pulled strings. Besides the predictable indignity over favoritism, suspected pay-offs, and police malfeasance, callers and host alike were incredulously outraged that common standards of Canadian propriety had been so contemptuously flaunted by drag racing on a staid city street.

Canada, with British Columbia in particular, has had a huge influx of rich Chinese immigrants — crony capitalists and rent seekers who have made fortunes in a changing China that lacks a rule of law and are using every trick availableto get their money out of the country. Unsurprisingly, China has currency export controls. With its lax immigration policy, passports that are virtually given away, comparative economic freedom, and relative proximity to China as a Pacific Rim neighbor, Canada is a preferred destination for Chinese oligarchs.

Our first day out covered 70 muscle-grinding miles through Vancouver and its suburbs, followed by a torrential downpour the following day. We took a rest day. By the end of the second week, we’d hit our stride and required a rest day only every 5 or 6 days. Much of our way was on “rails-to-trails”, old railway beds reclaimed for recreation. When present, these wilderness throughways profiling no more than a 3% grade made pedaling over BC’s mountain ranges a transcendent experience.

I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of “O Canada.” She smiled and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

One of the first small towns we passed through, Gray Creek (pop. 125), had a refreshing libertarian flavor. The welcoming sign at the town limits proudly announced, “Gray Creek, still metric free.” When I groused about the $38 one-night, one-tent camping fee and the over-priced stale groceries, the good-humored campground and store owner-manager glibly blamed it all on the government.

Canada’s metric system is a bit of a Potemkin village — but with one real cannon that occasionally lobs a ball and messes things up. For one (as in Gray Creek), revanchists stubbornly adhere to the ergonomic English system. Yet, more fundamentally, the Dominion, surveyed by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, is stuck with the mile-based Range & Township sectional land division, which rears its head nearly every time a property survey is necessary. In agricultural areas, rural roads retain a mile-based nomenclature (“Mile 154 Road”) and are located according to the old distances.

At Castlegar, a town of nearly 8,000 people located in the Selkirk Mountains at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, we decided to splurge on an extended rest at a B&B. When we inquired at the tourist office, the attendant — without a hint of irony — informed us that Castlegar had suitably good motels, two campgrounds, but no B&Bs. Since British Columbia is the most British of Canada’s provinces, and B&Bs are a British invention, and they are common in Canada, I sensed something was amiss.

According to a cafĂ© owner we befriended, a few years before — during an economic development spurt — the city fathers had invited a large, upper mid-range lodging chain to open a unit in town. In the US, when towns come calling for a local franchise, the chain, knowing it has an advantage, is not beyond asking for tax breaks or demanding a location it covets through the use of eminent domain. In Castlegar the quid pro quo took more of a Canadian turn — the elimination of an entire segment of the competition. In return for a fancy motel, the city council banned B&Bs.

An American can never spend much time in Canada without bumping — one way or another — into its famed health care system, usually (at the very least) as one of the first topics of conversation after an exchange of basic pleasantries. We’d heard of doctors going on strike and actually seen nurses striking (all of them are now public sector employees). In Castlegar, signs urging the government not to close 24/7 emergency medical services at the local hospital because of budget constraints were prominently displayed. These were nearly always twinned with another sign, hung by the firefighters’ union expressing opposition to theproposed closure.

As uninvolved tourists, we were entertained to observe another country’s political minuets without directly being involved. They gave us fodder for discussion as we pedaled up the Selkirk Range — but not enough to get us up the western slopes of the Rockies into Banff, where every breath up the technical single track was so precious it precluded conversation.

The town of Banff (Canada’s Aspen, Estes Park or Crested Butte, take your pick — but better), on the BC-Alberta border, is the center of Canada’s oldest national park: Banff National Park, the anchor for a series of parks that straddle the Rocky Mountains. Typical of such quaint alpine villages, it struggles to balance demand and development with retention of the picturesque ambiance that attracts tourists.

No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence.

According to the August 30 issue of the Rocky Mountain Outlook, “Banff’s politicians are poised to revisit the controversial issue of setting quotas to control corporate chain stores and restaurants in the national park tourist town,” not only to preserve the community’s character but also because some homegrown businesses had already gone belly-up due to competition from recently opened national chain stores. Banff is already home to Starbucks (of course), Tim Hortons the coffee-and-doughnut chain(it wouldn’t be Canada without Tim Hortons), McDonald’s (which everyone abuses but patronizes), The North Face (it wouldn’t be a mountain town without The North Face), Tony Roma’s, The Gap, and others.

As with any scheme that preferentially treats one business over another, the details of this one are devilish to draw up and subject to corruption, with arbitrary choices that are based on aesthetics but that fundamentally affect livelihoods. As the newspaper reports:

The question of what level to set the quota is a challenging one. Options include back-casting the quotas to reflect the mix that existed during the 2008-2009 period when visitor surveys were done, capping at current levels or allowing a cushion, like 10% more. Banff’s senior planner said a quota below current levels creates instant pressure on existing situations, including the creation of legal, non-conforming uses, while a quota set too high doesn’t achieve the regulatory goals and becomes a zoning “paper tiger.”

So as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg — not completely, at least — service stations, hotels and banks are not included in the proposedquota system.

Out of seven Banff City Councilors, only one declared unequivocal support for the free market; while the Mayor — like a good politician — concurred with him, but artfully hedged her position.

* * *

We took another multi-day rest at a friend’s home in Canmore, less than 20 miles from Banff and in just as stunning a location, to attend the annual Canmore Highland Games, an event Canadians take very seriously. It is absolutely nothing like the ersatz, corn-ball, out-of-tune bagpipe-screeching “highland games” not uncommon south of the border, attended by pot-bellied old men with giant calves in tams and kilts who can talk at length about Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie and what Mel Gibson doesn’t know about Robert the Bruce.

Attendance in the thousands, in spite of a prohibitively expensive admission fee; way over 100 pipe bands from all over the country, with electronically tuned bagpipes played by top-notch musicians of all ages, genders and colors; full-sized telephone poles that few men could even get erect for the caber toss; endless imported tap bitters, ales and stouts; more single malt whiskeys than you ever thought existed; haggis to die for (really!) and fish-and-chips with cod, haddock, salmon, and halibut choices. Even the step dancing competitions, from schools from all over Alberta, were top-notch. All on a perfectly turfed, quadruple-size football pitch ringed by giant, blindingly white campaign tents topped by Canadian flags — the whole surrounded up close by the crenelated limestone summits of the Fairholme and Rundle Ranges.

The festivities opened with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police regiment, an infantry division, and its 50-member pipe & drum band marching to the fore under the skirling strains of Scotland the Brave. The M of C then asked the crowd to stand for an a cappella rendition of O Canada, a composition I’d read much about but never heard — so I was particularly curious. Although the young lady did her best, the anthem was underwhelming. I commented to our host that I couldn’t imagine marching into battle to the strains of O Canada. She smiled, posed as if she were step dancing, and retorted, “We’re all about peace — and having fun!”

Descending the Rockies was a roller coaster ride. Nevertheless, we were concerned that once we were on the prairies, the ride would get boring over the flat, featureless terrain buffeted by endless winds. But when one expects the worst, things can only get better. And so it turned out. Our west-to-east direction virtually guaranteed a tail wind, and the artful design and routing of the TCT avoided traffic and kept our interest at ADD levels.

The prairies are cut by water courses carved through deep declivities and bordered by sirenic glens peppered with deciduous and evergreen copses. Quaint, colorful Hutterite colonies and Mennonite and Eastern Orthodox settlements, complete with metallic onion-domed churches incongruously plopped down in the middle of nowhere, enthralled us.

Even the imported oil-boom labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — can get mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules.

Still, we were concerned about a couple of routing questions. The TCT — again in typical Canadian all-inclusive fashion — was designed to go through every provincial capital. Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is halfway up the province — far from the southern alignment we’d been following. The TCT then heads east and (back) down to Regina (rhymes with vagina, source of many a snicker), capital of Saskatchewan. Additionally, urban bike riding, especially with fully loaded BOB trailers, can be very trying. No worries — the TCT tied into extensive riverside urban trails through Calgary and Edmonton that displayed the best of both cities, slicing through downtowns and suburbs with equal aplomb.

We’d taken to eating breakfasts at fast food joints and cafes where the portions — and the clientele — were gargantuan (giving the lie to the old nutritionist’s tale that eating a healthy breakfast inhibits weight gain). The ubiquitous “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs posted in US cafes were nowhere to be found — probably too confrontational for Canadians. They were replaced by “Abuse will not be tolerated” signs that seemed to serve the same function — more politically correct, I suppose. These were sometimes coupled (at one Safeway, for example) with a poster of smiling employees — a black, a Caucasian, an oriental, an Indi…er, First Nations member, a Latino, an Inuit, an Indian or Pakistani-origin Muslim (you could tell from the forehead dot or the Muslim kufi), and of course, both sexes — touting diversity in employment practices.

Every one of these establishments in the Edmonton area carried the morning’s The Edmonton Sun with daily reports on the firing of Lynden Dorval, aka “the zeros teacher.” The Ross Shepard High School (part of the Edmonton Public Schools system) physics teacher had been fired after he gave a student a zero for not handing in an assignment.

“If students don’t do the work, they don’t deserve (a grade) and I stand by that,” Dorval was quoted as saying. Students, parents, the principal and even Edmonton Schools Superintendent Edgar Schmidt sported “Real heroes give Zeros” T-shirts in his support. But it was Schmidt, caving in to demands by the school board, who made the final call, stating that the firing was for “insubordinate, unprofessional” conduct.

The Sun, quoting Dorval,claimed that the firing was “for going against school policy by assigning students with a zero, rather than using the code system the school uses to evaluate work.” Both the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the union) and the school board were conducting investigations. Unstated but suspected is that the “code system” assigns some value to all work — including its absence. Perhaps, these people must reason, there is merit to merely being present — like Forrest Gump — when homework is assigned.

Political correctness (PC) run amuck? Definitely. We mustn’t ruin the students’ self-esteem.

I once argued with a couple — both teachers, one in the Pennsylvania Public School System, the other an Outward Bound instructor — about the consequences of failing students. The public school teacher, a union member, supported her school’s policy of never failing or expelling a student. Since “bad” students were usually “at risk” kids, failing or expelling them would just make an already bad situation worse, she argued. Her husband, the OB instructor, agreed.

So I asked them to imagine applying the same logic to instructing in rappelling (a technique for descending a cliff by zipping down a rope). In other words, telling a student who hadn’t mastered the technique that he was actually proficient at it. I said, “If he went out and tried rappelling on his own, the well-intentioned lie could cost him his life.” They couldn’t muster a reply.

The core problem with PC is that it wishfully reverses the order of cause and effect. No amount of passing grades, accolades and applause, mortar boards and robes, paper diplomas or false confidence can replace or instill competence. Moreover, it is condescending and patronizing — visibly signaling that the recipient can’t handle the truth. In fact, PC functions primarily, as David Foster Wallace has so eloquently expressed, “to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker — scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language — and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups” who are the recipients of it. It is hypocrisy legitimized.

What’s more, many ofthe“at risk” kids (previously known as JDs — juvenile delinquents) are sharp, with well-developed BS antennae that can see right through the hypocrisy of patronizing, deceptive schemes. And they learn from them, using their new insights to game the system, while losing all respect for adults that are complicit in such manipulative behavior. That’s why they supported Dorval, who, by the way, was soon hired by a private school.

We didn’t run short of conversational topics when we turned east out of Edmonton and headed for the Saskatchewan border. Although the architects’ primary reason for this route was running through each province’s capital, there was a bonus: Edmonton’s latitude approximately coincides with the limits of agriculture.

North of the line, farms and roads disappear and the great northern Canadian wilderness rules. This made for a stunning ride. In places, giant combines were harvesting wheat and rape seed, the source of canola oil (Canadian oil) on farms run by Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. In others, hills studded with evergreens alternated with picturesque lakes surrounded by deciduous trees turning red and gold in the mid-September cold.

Peppering both the fields and the glens were “nodding donkeys” (oil pump jacks) and drilling rigs, while the occasional convoy of “thumpers” (seismic prospectors) tested the road shoulders for underground paydirt. Canada has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves — most of it in northern Alberta’s oil sands — and 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its shale beds. BC residents who live near the border nip over to Alberta for a cheaper fill-up.

The new discoveries, advanced drilling and fracking technology, and, as one oil-industry booster puts it — referring to less politically salubrious climes — “no bribes or body bags” are driving a boom no one is able to keep up with.

Several factors are holding back the bonanza. For one, there is no easy way to transport the thick crude out of northern Alberta. The US section of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas has not yet been approved by the Obama administration; while the Northern Gateway pipeline, proposed from Edmonton to Kitimat, BC, on the Pacific Coast (for exports to Asia) is being held up by environmental concerns and First Nation objections. The pipeline would cross aboriginal reserves.

“The other big bottleneck,” the November 17 issue of The Economist reports, “is human capital.” Hardly anyone lives near Fort McMurray, the closest city, and fewwant to move there in spite of the high wages and attractive incentives. Even the imported labor — people from 127 countries speaking 69 languages — gets mired in way-more-liberal-than-the-US Canadian immigration rules. “An Irish worker in Fort McMurray,” The Economist continues, “complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.”

* * *

When our canteens began freezing overnight, we decided it was time to go home.

At St. Paul we cadged a couple of discarded cardboard bike boxes from Canadian Tire, a megastore that combines aspects of Wal-Mart, Checker Auto and Sears (and whose business model still escapes me), to pack up our bikes for the Greyhound bus trip back to our van.

Next year — in Saskatchewan.

And, perhaps, another report.




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Comments

Fred Mora

Excellent article, quite entertaining! When I last visited Quebec, three years ago, the press was full of indignation and protestations about the waiting list to get MRIs and tomography scanner exams in life-threatening situations. The average wait time cited by the press was 8 months, and a lot of patients didn't make it.

The reasons for that shortage were the cost of the examinations.

Government-run health insurance leading to healthcare rationing in Canada, just like in the UK? You don't say.

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