I have only been to Canada once, about ten years ago, on what was meant to be a week-long work trip to Toronto.
It was February on that visit and minus 20 degrees Celsius (that’s minus 4 Fahrenheit for American readers), which, however you choose to express it, is pretty darn cold. Although living in Singapore at the time I was unaware of just how brutally inhuman that kind of temperature can be. So I arrived in Canada with only a thin suit jacket and scarf for protection against the elements.
Then, the first thing I (rather foolishly) did in Toronto was walk a mile outdoors, from the hotel to the office. Along the way, I remember wondering where everyone was – the streets of Toronto were strangely empty, devoid of any sign of human life.
When I finally got to the office I was shivering and in a state of near hypothermia. Icicles had formed on my eyebrows, and my snot was frozen solid. Work colleagues looked at me like I had completely lost my mind. “Don’t you know everyone gets around the downtown via a series of underground heated tunnels?” they asked. “No-one in Toronto would be nuts enough to actually walk outside in February!”
In any case, as a result of that unexpected Arctic exposure I lost my voice, and within three hours was completely unable to speak. I had to cancel my scheduled meetings and left Toronto less than 24 hours after getting there. So apart from the fact that Canada can be horribly cold, I have no recollection of the place at all.
Until this past week, when I had cause to travel to Calgary, gateway to Canada’s great outdoors, and also the hub of Canada’s massive oil and gas industry. About 1.3 million hardy folk live in Calgary, on the edge of a vast prairie in the shadow of the Rockies. For about half the year their city lies frozen, under a blanket of thick snow. The temperature while I was there got down to minus 25 degrees Celsius, if that is even a thing. Not to mention it dumped about two feet of fresh powder during the course of my visit.
Although this time round I had come prepared for the weather, with a proper coat and winter gear in my bag. I also picked up a tourist map at the airport, so I was mostly able to get around without going outdoors – like in Toronto much of the Calgary downtown is connected by a series of protected walkways and tunnels. And by not nearly freezing to death, I was actually able to experience something of the place.
Which is why I can report that the rumors are 100% true: Canada is nice.
It is no secret that Canadians have a reputation for being ridiculously nice. National niceness sits right up there alongside other well-known Canadian things, like ice-hockey and maple syrup.
Some examples: Canada’s Prime-Minster, the dapper and very hip Justin Trudeau, was recently quoted as saying “Canadians are nice and polite. It’s not just a stereotype.” Or last year, when accepting her honorary Golden Globe award, Meryl Streep complimented Ryan Gosling by saying that he, “like all the nicest people, is Canadian.” Or according to the BBC, “Canada tempts us with familiarity, blissfully cool weather and, most of all, a deep reservoir of niceness.”
There have even been some scholarly articles published on the subject of Canada’s niceness, if nothing else proving that (i) you can find anything on Google, an (ii) academics oftentimes have a bit too much free time on their hands. Although even the academic conclusions offered are always the same: Canadians are, in fact, exceedingly nice. And everything in Canada is exceedingly nice, too.
Still, I guess I thought this was another snowy urban myth – like sightings of Bigfoot, or the yeti. Honestly, in the modern age, how is it possible for a whole country to be uniformly nice?
An initial inkling of Canadian niceness came early on, when I woke up on my first morning in Calgary, turned on the hotel TV, and switched to the news. I was expecting to receive my daily dose of doom and gloom, what with an impending US Government shutdown, a collapsing stock market, tensions in Korea ahead of the Olympics, and everything ISIS. That is, the usual stuff that makes up most news broadcast nowadays.
But no, in Canada the headline news of the day was nothing of the sort. Rather, every channel was giving blanket coverage to an ‘incident’ involving PM Trudeau (the aforementioned ultra-cool forty-something running Canada right now).
The incident in question: at a town hall meeting with university students (in and of itself a pretty nice thing for a busy PM to do) a student had asked Trudeau a long-winded question about the future of ‘mankind’. With his shirt-sleeves rolled up worker style (also kind of nice) he cut her off mid-sentence: “We like to say ‘people-kind’, not necessarily ‘mankind’, because it’s more inclusive.”
Which was undoubtedly a nice sentiment. But also something that would have barely rated a mention anywhere else in the world. Whereas in Canada the whole country erupted into a frenzy of (incredibly polite) debate, analysis, discussion and navel-gazing.
Some pilloried Trudeau’s comment as a case of political correctness gone too far. Others opined that it was not within his gift to unilaterally amend the English language. While others cheered him on (almost on the same day the Canadian national anthem was officially changed, replacing a reference to ‘all our sons’ with the gender neutral phrase ‘all of us’”). Trudeau himself tried to turn it into a bit of a laugh by saying he was only making a joke, which had obviously fallen a bit flat, ha ha….
Given the beat-up, one would have thought the distinction between the terms ‘mankind’ and ‘people-kind’, as drawn by the PM of a reasonably insignificant country in global terms, was the most important issue on earth. When of course it wasn’t. Especially since just to the south the leader of a country that is, in fact, massively significant has seen fit to call half the planet a “shithole”. And no-one actually seemed to care about that…
So, watching the news in Calgary that first morning in Canada, with all the serious pontificating being directed towards something that wasn’t all that serious or even vaguely worth pontificating over, I just couldn’t help thinking to myself: “How sweet is this? It’s just so very, very… um, well … very nice.”
Anyway, everywhere I went that day in Calgary, everyone had an opinion to offer on the subject of Trudeau’s ‘people-kind’ comment. Although no matter the opinion, whether for or against or just mildly amused, it was always expressed politely, respectfully, and with a big smile.
More than that, everyone in Calgary was just so ridiculously charming and lovely. And by everyone, I mean absolutely everyone: from the hotel doorman, to the guy at a newspaper stand, to every pedestrian I passed, to the receptionist at my morning meeting, to the waitress at lunch. Which may not seem like a big deal, but in other places I have been (New York, Paris, Beijing and even prim and proper London) the freezing cold seems to bring out the worst in people, making them irritable, pushy and rude. Whereas in Calgary, not so much as a grumble. Everyone was smiley, happy, chirpy and warm. Wall-to-wall niceness wherever I went.
Later that day, in a room filled with somber-suited business folks, corporate executives and investment bankers, I was listening to a conference presentation. The Canadian presenter was delivering a masterclass in financial transaction structures. In the course of which I raised my hand and rather innocently asked: “As an alternative, could one consider approaching things by way of a takeover?”
A deathly silence fell over the room, so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. A few people looked at me like I had lost my marbles. But mostly everyone smiled at me, like one might smile at a well-intentioned but slightly dotty old uncle from abroad. And then the young analyst sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “In Canada, we don’t really go in for takeovers – we are far too nice for that. Friendly mergers are much more the Canadian way.”
I almost laughed out loud. I mean, when even investment bankers are concerned with appearing nice, you know you must be in a seriously nice kind of place.
The following evening I went for a walk around downtown Calgary (not a very long walk, mind you, it was still snowing and bitterly cold). The cityscape was nothing special or remarkable, pleasant and appealing in a slightly dull kind of way. It reminded me a lot of Perth in Western Australia, with the same feel of a remote frontier town built on the back of immense resource wealth.
Although while I have heard Perth described as many things – laid-back, sleepy, beachy, easy-going – I have never heard it described as “nice”. Yet after just a brief stroll around Calgary, snowflakes falling on my head as I exhaled clouds of misty cold air, all I could think of was “nice, nice, nice”.
Back in the hotel room and winding down for the day, I turned the television on again. After a bit more of the seemingly endless ways to discuss the ‘mankind’ vs ‘people-kind’ issue (admittedly, nice), I watched a few minutes of the local regional news. Apparently a car had collided with an elk and the driver had bumped his forehead but was otherwise unharmed (how nice is that?).
And then I swapped to a documentary channel. On it, in anticipation of the upcoming Winter Olympics, I got a full hour’s education in the history and art of the little-known sport of curling. And which, I quickly concluded, is possibly the nicest sport in the universe. I mean, c’mon: the object of the game is for clean-cut folks to slide a polished stone down a lane of ice and, using something that looks a lot like a domestic mop, sweep furiously at the ice as it goes.
So perhaps it is not surprising to hear that Canada has been dominant in this very nice sport forever, blitzing the curling medal board Olympic after Olympic (although to be fair, it is also worth mentioning that Canada routinely hogs the medal board for ice hockey, too, which is possibly the least nice sport in the universe. I suppose every rule has its exceptions…).
But what really drove this whole Canadian niceness thing home for me was my parting experience at the airport, just as I was leaving Calgary.
I had been amongst the first to board the plane. I got to my seat, which was all the way at the back, only to then discover I didn’t have my wallet. It took me a second to recall I had put it down on a bench in the waiting hall while I had a coffee, and had forgotten to pick it up. So I turned around, and made to get off the plane to go look for it.
Only now the aisle all the way back to the front of the plane was packed, with people and their luggage, all moving forward to their seats. This meant that getting back to the front of the plane would be a bit like a salmon swimming against the stream. Still, my wallet (and every credit card I have, not to mention $400 of cash) was at stake, so I had to try. Losing it would have been an expensive hassle.
Now, I am pretty sure that if I had tried to pull the same stunt anywhere else in the world my fellow passengers would have been entirely unhelpful. On account of the snow we were already running an hour late for our departure, and now I was going to cause a commotion and probably delay things further. In the US, Europe, Asia, or even Australia, most people would have glared at me with hostility, and it would have taken a huge amount of pushing and shoving to work my way back out of the plane.
But in Canada, thing were different. The person standing directly in front of me asked what I was doing. I explained my predicament, and she immediately stepped aside to let me pass. She also called out to the next passenger along: “He needs to get off to go find his wallet.” And then the next passenger smiled at me, happily stepped aside, and he too passed the message on up the chain.
It was seriously weird. Within two minutes a smiling pathway had been cleared all the way up the aisle for me, and I was more or less able to casually walk off the plane and go look for my wallet. The only people annoyed about it were non-Canadians passengers, but then the Canadian passengers jumped to my aid, dishing out instructions and ordering these other passengers to move aside and be more helpful. Even the crew seemed to have gotten the memo – at the front door of the plane a smiling flight attendant patted me gently on the back and said: “Don’t worry sweetie, I am sure you’ll find it. We won’t leave without you!”
Then, miraculously, my wallet was waiting for me. And not just sitting on the bench where I had left it, but in protective custody. A young fellow in a lumberjack shirt saw me hunting around frantically, and asked, “You looking for a wallet?” I nodded. Lumberjack man pointed to one of the other passengers waiting to get on the plane, and told me that that he had it. “I saw you leave your wallet lying there on the bench and thought you might want it back, so I gave it to that guy to give back to you once on board, I hope you don’t mind, sorry.”
All of which seemed ridiculously nice to me. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to kiss these people, or give them a reward. I mean, like a shmuck I had left my wallet on a public bench, some guy picked it up, another passenger returned it to me whole, and then they felt the need to apologize to me?
As if to complete the whole story perfectly (nicely?), when I reboarded the plane the aisle had cleared. By then everyone was in their seat. I hadn’t delayed things much, but no-one seemed to mind anyway.
As I went back to my seat every second person had something sweet to say. “You got it!” “I am so pleased for you.” “That’s a relief!” A pair of old ladies clapped in delight – my wallet’s safe return was the feel-good story of their day. And just after takeoff a flight attendant found me out and brought me a complimentary drink – “You probably need one of these!” she chirped.
What can I say? It was an experience that, anywhere else in the world, should have been a nightmare. But in Calgary, Canada, on a packed plane full of Canadians, it was a different thing altogether: nice, nice, and nice, from beginning to end.
Only last month The Daily Mail officially labelled Canada as “the nicest place on the planet.” Based on my time there, I have to agree. It is indeed a land of snow and nice.