In heavy snow, Baltimore groans, Canada shrugs

February 12, 2010|By Tom Malone

Since the snow and the Winter Olympics bring Canada to mind this week, and since folks have asked ... yes, we do get snows like this up north (and sometimes worse) -- but not very often, especially with accelerating climate change in the last few decades. The big differences I'm noticing between the Canadian and Baltimorean snow experiences are, first, the government's ability to deal with it; and second, citizen reactions.

First, the government. We pay higher taxes in Canada, and most of us don't mind.

Historically, the country was founded on the ideals of "peace, order, and good government" (as opposed to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). Our early ancestors include the Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) and First Nations (known here as Native Americans) peoples, or Aboriginal Peoples, as they are collectively known in Canada. Then you have the early French peasant farmers (or Habitants -- that's why there's an "H" on the Montreal Canadiens hockey jerseys), and the American Loyalists. All three groups would sacrifice freedom for peace, but early Canadian immigrants did not treat First Nations much better than they were treated in the U.S.

The difference was that the Mounties -- the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- arrived out West just after the fur traders and before most settlers. They established Canadian law there, so it was more orderly when the settlers arrived than the American "Wild West."

Culturally, we tend to love diversity and are fine with ambiguity; we have to be, or the French and English parts would have split up long ago. Be polite. Don't assume cultural norms. Keep your voice low in public -- the other folks might not speak the same language.

Immigration tends to be wanted and needed in Canada. We are no longer just French and English; we are now multicultural in a big way. The government doesn't actually classify citizens by race, though. We are all simply Canadians -- folks aren't considered German-Canadian or Chinese-Canadian anymore. Government forms do not have a line for race. We categorize by mother tongue and language preference, not ethnicity.

That doesn't mean racism doesn't exist, though. Of course it does; there's just a different approach to race, since we are more connected with French West Africa and the British Caribbean and Hong Kong and India through the Commonwealth. And we were a destination for the American Underground Railroad as well. More languages are spoken in Toronto than in any other city in the world, they say. When I taught in a top private school in Toronto, one-third of the kids were of Chinese ancestry. My home town, on the other hand, was very white and Christian, but 50-50 French-English. Comprends?

Geographically, we need each other to stay alive and to stay fed -- literally. The place is too cold and big for rugged individualists. You can be as rugged as you want, but alone you don't stand a chance against white water rapids, Lake Superior, the Northwest Passage, a grizzly bear, a swarm of mosquitoes, the Rocky Mountains, a wolverine, a brief growing season, the boreal forest, or minus-40 without the wind chill.

"We can work it out" could be the country motto (as opposed to "be all that you can be") and "We'd better work it out in a hurry, TOGETHER, or we'll all die of exposure!" Active, tough, united and busy animals that symbolize these values are on our currency: beaver, Canada goose, polar bear, caribou, loon. Nature is a big deal in Canada, literally and figuratively.

Politically, Canadians made the choice in the 1960s to work together for a healthy, educated, bilingual population, and sacrifice some freedom and income to do it. That's why we cling to universal health care and have few private schools, and why colleges and universities are high quality and publicly supported. The idea is that all are healthy and educated -- a goal never reached but always in sight. We tend to be proud of our government, and our top people are proud to work in the Canadian bureaucracy. Big government and taxation are not, by definition, bad things in Canada. They can be forces for good.

With this in mind, the roads all get plowed pretty quickly after a snowstorm, and schools don't get canceled much.

And do they react differently to heavy snow up north? Canadians are more used to snow, so it's less of a big deal. It's either too slippery to drive, or it's not. Not a lot of in-between. If the roads are bad, you just shovel and then relax at home, and make sure the neighbors get dug out, too. No one buys extra groceries because there's less fear and anxiety involved, since roads and food delivery to supermarkets aren't thrown off much. I never heard the phrases "Be safe" or "Two hour delay" before moving to Baltimore. If it snows, you have to get up early to dig out because everything is assumed to begin on time. No hype, if you please!

So as you watch the Olympics this weekend, everything may look familiar on the snowy surface, but keep in mind you're only seeing the tip of the Canadian iceberg.

Tom Malone is a native of Canada and a school principal who has lived in Baltimore 10 years. His e-mail is

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