Why it's the best time ever to be a Canadian - Macleans.ca

Why it’s the best time ever to be a Canadian

By many global measures we are a blessed bastion of privilege, peace, freedom—and big roomy houses

Ten reasons why there has never been a better time to be a Canadian
Dave Chidley/CP; Illustration by Taylor Shute

We are Canada. At 144 years we are neither young nor old, as nations go. And nations do come and do go, it bears remembering. You don’t have to be very old to appreciate that the world map that occupied a corner of your childhood classroom is a relic of another age; that borders once drawn in blood aren’t indelible at all, they are just lines to be moved, or bent or erased by popular will. Yet, here we are, still in this together, and doing rather well.

Like any worthy anniversary, it is deserving of celebration but also of the appreciation that future years together aren’t guaranteed, they must be earned, and mutually agreed upon. Back when Canada was a mere pup of 115 years, Ralph Klein, then the brash young mayor of a brash young Calgary, called Canada, “perhaps the only country in the world held together by curiosity.” He asked if such a confederation of interests and regions can endure. “[N]o one is quite prepared to give up on her yet,” he said, “as if we all have some lingering desire to see how this ongoing exercise in nation-building ends.”

And why not? No. 143 was not the easiest of years, but it was largely free of any soul-sucking existential debate on Canada’s future. There was a federal election, and no one died in the process. Economic uncertainty lingers, but we emerged stronger than the year before, and healthier in most every sense than a long list of wealthy, developed nations. And, yes, let’s not lose sight of that inarguable fact: we are rich.

Read on. Our Canada Day gift to you is a gentle reminder that by many global measures we are a blessed bastion of privilege, peace, freedom—and big roomy houses. Ken MacQueen

REAL ESTATE: We have the roomiest homes on earth

You’d never know it from watching MTV Cribs, a program where rapper 50 Cent once showed off his 50,000-sq.-foot Connecticut mansion (18 bedrooms, 25 bathrooms, an elevator, two billiard rooms), but the average Canadian family actually has their American counterparts beat when it comes to living large. A recent survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found the average Canadian home boasts 2.5 rooms per person, more than the 2.3 room average in the U.S., and the highest among the 34 OECD member countries, where the average was just 1.6 rooms.

Canada’s reigning status as a country of big, roomy houses is a direct result of our hot real estate market, which escaped the global economic downturn relatively unscathed. While the U.S. has yet to recover from the subprime mortgage crisis and the subsequent recession, Canadians have continued to take advantage of rock-bottom interest rates to buy bigger and better properties, forcing prices ever higher. That includes first-time homebuyers who abandoned cramped rental suites for more spacious condos, and existing homeowners who jumped at the opportunity to sell into a hot market and move into their dream homes. More impressive is that Canadians have managed all this while working an average of just 1,699 hours a year. That’s well below what the average American works (1,768 hours) and the OECD average (1,739 hours).

The country’s infatuation with home ownership has been a boon for real estate agents, lawyers, house “fluffers” and contractors of all stripes. Meanwhile, retailers like Rona and Canadian Tire are riding a resulting wave of DIY home improvement efforts. (It’s no coincidence that when Ottawa sought to prop up the economy in 2009, it introduced a popular tax credit of up to $1,350 for Canadians who spent money on home renovations.) Canada has even managed to accomplish a rare feat in the world of television after HGTV Canada launched the program Property Virgins in 2006, only to have the series expanded to the U.S. market the following season (Canadian viewers were also treated to their own version of MTV Cribs around the same time).

But before we get too cocky, it’s worth recalling that we got here largely by borrowing a lot of money. Canadian household debt levels now sit at 146.9 per cent of income. That’s significantly higher than the 130 per cent reached in the U.S. prior to the crash (it has since fallen to 113 per cent). With Canadian homeowners increasingly stretched thin, some economists are worried about the country’s ability to withstand another economic shock. On the other hand, cash-strapped Canadians will always have the option of renting out an extra room to make ends meet. Chris Sorensen

IMMIGRANTS: We attract the brightest newcomers

That the director of research at the Association for Canadian Studies (ACS) is not yet a Canadian citizen says a lot about the way many immigrants thrive here. Siddharth Bannerjee moved from India to Canada in 2004 after stints in the United States and South Africa. He came to pursue his master’s degree in public policy, and wound up a Sauvé scholar at McGill University, where he participated in the reasonable accommodation debates in 2007. A couple of years later, Bannerjee landed his post at ACS in Montreal, an organization that “strives to raise public awareness of Canadian issues.” Even though the final stage in Bannerjee’s quest to become a Canadian, the citizenship ceremony, is still several weeks away, the 30-year-old has long thought of this land as home: “Canada,” says Bannerjee, “is a better place than most other countries for immigrants.”

In fact, it’s one of the very best, as mounting research reveals. Canada ranks third, after Sweden and Portugal, of 31 countries in Europe and North America for how well it grants equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities to immigrants, according to the latest Migrant Integration Policy Index. The study partly measures how easily immigrants can enter the labour market, gain education, and sponsor family, and was co-researched by international think tanks, including ACS. “It’s not just about assimilation in Canada. Immigrants are encouraged, or at least permitted, to maintain their identity to a large extent,” says Bannerjee. That improves their chances of success because “identity conflicts” are mostly taken out of the equation. Although issues arise, more often “that’s not on your mind, so you can go about the most important parts of your settlement.”

Like earning a good living. A recent survey showed that 30 per cent of the country’s wealthiest families (those with investable assets of $1 million or more) are new Canadians, or individuals born elsewhere. “About 95 per cent of the families are self-made; they’ve created their wealth,” especially through business ownership, explains Andrew Auerbach, head of BMO Harris Private Banking, which commissioned the study. “We live in a fantastic country. It is very welcoming to new Canadians and there’s great opportunities to prosper.” The success of immigrants here may also be explained by a 2009 Gallup poll showing that Canada attracts older and more educated individuals than the United States.

Among immigrants, adults aren’t the only high achievers. Fifteen-year-old immigrant students (those born elsewhere or whose parents were) perform just as well as their Canadian-born peers in reading, according to the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s international student assessment project, which includes 34 developed nations. Previous studies examining math and science literacy found similar trends. “In most countries, immigrants don’t do so well, whereas in Canada there is virtually no difference between immigrant and Canadian-born students,” says Pierre Brochu, a coordinator for the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada. “That’s very unique.”

The possible explanation is equally intriguing: “It’s always hard to pin down success to particular policies and practices, but when you study the example of Canada you are struck by the high expectations that immigrant families have for their children. And even more by the fact that those high expectations are, by and large, held by educators as well,” explains Andreas Schleicher, head of indicators and analysis at the OECD, in an online video. That teachers expect immigrant students to do well is significant: “The value placed on the high achievement of immigrant children seems to have positive spillover effects for the expectations of other children too.” That is to say, new Canadians do well for themselves by joining this country—and native Canadians are the better for it too. Cathy Gulli

BUSINESS: We’re more entrepreneurial than the U.S.

Back in November 2008, around the time the global economy began its historic meltdown, Ryan Smolkin decided to start a business. Of all things, the 37-year-old Torontonian wanted to sell poutine to the masses. Three years later, Smoke’s Poutinerie now has 15 stores between Halifax and Winnipeg, each one pulling in $750,000 in annual sales.

It’s always tough to start a new business, especially a restaurant, but Smolkin’s success story is just one of hundreds to come out of what business expert Rick Spence calls Canada’s “entrepreneurial revolution.”

In 2010, the number of business bankruptcies was 65 per cent lower than in 1990. In fact, the bankruptcy rate for businesses is lower than it’s been in at least 30 years. The number of self-employed Canadians also increased by more than 18 per cent between 2001 and 2006, double the rate of growth for normal employment. And by 2008, there were 2.8 million self-employed Canadians. “You can say it’s never been a better time to start a business, but the point is that it actually is getting better and better,” says Spence. “Basements and spare bedrooms are where the future of Canadian business is being decided.”

A recent report by the U.S. Small Business Association ranked Canada second only to Denmark for entrepreneurialism based on the “quality and quantity” of its businesses, as well as the attitudes and aspirations of its entrepreneurs. America, the self-styled land of opportunity, came in third. In fact, one in five Canadians who don’t already own a business are considering starting one at some point in the next five years, according to the RBC Canadian Consumer Outlook report for April 2011.

Satinder Chera, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says the business environment has improved in the past few years, with governments cutting back on red tape and onerous paperwork requirements. The HST, for example, has made bookkeeping and tax returns simpler for business owners. More importantly, Chera adds, there have been tax cuts for businesses large and small. At the same time, middle-management jobs are disappearing and many people are retiring without enough money to live comfortably. Spence says these conditions have created a “push and pull” effect that encourages entrepreneurialism. Consumer markets have also become more “fragmented and sophisticated,” creating opportunities in niches that cater to specific tastes, says Spence. That’s why someone like Smolkin can start a successful business selling nothing but poutine. “We’re an indulgence, a luxury,” says Smolkin, who started his first business when he was 16. “I’ve never worked for the suits,” he says, speaking of a sense of empowerment that comes from being your own boss. “You can totally control whether you make it or break it.” Alex Ballingall

PEACE: We’re more peaceful than the Swiss and Aussies

For a long time, a Canadian flag on a traveller’s backpack has been nearly as valuable as travel insurance: its wearer would be treated with respect no matter the locale, a privilege growing out of Canada’s peaceful reputation. Some think that comforting truth had faded. In 2009, Louise Arbour, the former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and former UN Human Rights Commissioner, put it this way, in speaking of Canada, post-Afghanistan: “There is a bit of a loss of innocence that the [Canadian] public is perhaps not aware of. We think of ourselves as the ‘few that everyone loves.’ But I am not certain that’s always the case. The flag on the backpack has run its course.”

More recently, however, we seem to have nudged our way back into the good books. The Global Peace Index just ranked Canada the eighth most peaceful nation out of 153 countries, its highest ranking since the survey was established in 2007, and up six places from last year. Iceland took the top spot this year, while the U.S. placed 82nd. Despite a rise in the likelihood of violent demonstrations, improvements in relations with neighbouring countries and respect for human rights led to Canada’s rise in the rankings. So don’t go ripping that flag off your backpack just yet. Cigdem Iltan

SPACE: We build the coolest robots in the universe

We’ve never planted a Canadian flag on the moon, but in space, our robots—most famously the Canadarm—do the heavy lifting. After July 8, when NASA launches its last shuttle mission, the Canadarm will be retired, but Canada’s role in space robotics won’t come to an end. Designers are working on a “next-generation Canadarm” that could be used on a mission to another planet.

In fact, Canada’s space industry is “the most commercially successful in the world,” says Steve Oldham, vice-president of robotics at MDA, the Brampton, Ont.-based company that helped build the Canadarm. According to a recent report from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the space sector’s revenues surpassed $3 billion in 2009, and export represented almost half of this—larger than any other nation’s, he notes. Canadian technology is in demand because “we have great capabilities in communication, radar,” and of course, robotics, Oldham says.

Space agencies are still settling on the next major manned mission, but Barack Obama has said he’d like to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars a decade later. With the CSA’s help, MDA is working on prototypes for robotic arms that could be adapted to all sorts of scenarios. “If you’re going to go to Mars or an asteroid, you’d likely want to have a staging post,” says Oldham. The next Canadarm, which would be a “smaller, more capable robot,” could be mounted on an exploration base to perform different jobs, “or on vehicles that go off to other planets,” he notes. One of the new prototypes has the same 15-m reach as the Canadarm2 (which is attached to and building the International Space Station), but it is lighter and more compact, designed for use on a futuristic spacecraft. Another prototype is smaller, reaching just 3.4 metres, and could perform workstation repairs.

Beyond robotics, the Canadian space industry stands out in some more unexpected areas, too. Mike Dixon at the University of Guelph, for example, is working to develop ways to grow crops in high-tech, radiation-proof greenhouses on the moon or Mars, suggesting Canadians could be the space farmers of the future. When trying to grow food crops, “as far as challenging environments go, a snowbank in Canada comes pretty close to the moon,” jokes Dixon. So even if we don’t plant a flag on the moon, maybe one day we’ll plant tomatoes. Kate Lunau

HEALTH: We’re leading the way in medical research

The intersection of College Street and University Avenue, in Toronto’s aptly named Discovery District, has one of the highest concentrations of stem-cell researchers anywhere: the Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto, Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network, and MaRS (which brings together scientists and entrepreneurs) anchor the corners. “We’re all so close together,” making it easy to collaborate, says Gordon Keller, director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, which is housed in the MaRS Centre. Ontario has been eager to support these and other researchers, investing $70 million into the MaRS Centre alone, says Ilse Treurnicht, its CEO; the private sector has pumped in $220 million.

And the work being done is astounding. Keller’s team was the first in the world to succeed at making crude human heart cells from embryonic stem cells; they’re now doing it with induced pluripotent stem cells (also known as iPS cells), which are adult cells that have been transformed to an embryonic-like state. Observed under a microscope, these human heart cells can be seen beating away. Others are working on everything from lung regeneration and treatments for spinal-cord injuries, to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes.

It’s only fitting that Toronto has become a hub for this type of work: stem cells were discovered here 50 years ago, by Canadians James Till and Ernest McCulloch. “Once you become known,” says Keller, “good people keep coming.” He’s proof of that. Born in Saskatchewan, Keller held prestigious positions in Switzerland, Austria and the U.S. before returning to Canada to head the McEwen Centre in 2007. Andras Nagy, another star Toronto researcher who is from Hungary, established Canada’s first human embryonic stem cell lines in 2005.

And Toronto isn’t the only Canadian city that boasts heavy hitters. The University of Calgary’s Sam Weiss, for example, discovered neural stem cells in the adult brain, suggesting they could be used to regrow damaged brain tissue. (In 2008, Weiss, who is director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, won the Gairdner International Award, one of the most high-profile awards in science­—73 Gairdner awardees have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.)

Stem cells are “the building blocks of human tissue,” says Keller, and offer the potential, one day not too far off, to treat a patient with their own cells. They’ll help personalize medicine to an even greater level, as well. A patient’s cells could be transformed into iPS cells, for example, then be used in the lab to study that patient’s disease and test which drugs will work on it. In downtown Toronto and across the country, scientists are working with stem cells to tackle the questions that will redefine medicine over the next century. Kate Lunau

FOOD: We have cheese that’d make the French jealous

We’ve done maple syrup. We’ve done Sauternes-inspired ice wine. We’ve watched Brooklyn hipsters gobble down our foie-gras poutine. And we proved we can compete with global gourmands: Quebec’s La Maison Alexis de Portneuf chèvre won the World Cheese Awards in 2009 over more than 2,000 entries. But the Canadian food gaining recognition in international culinary circles these days has less to do with aping tradition than forging a new culinary path with fare that is sustainable, innovative and nutritious—as well as delicious.

Keith Froggett, co-owner and executive chef of Toronto’s acclaimed Scaramouche, cites Sustainable Blue, a fish-farming enterprise in Centre Burlington, N.S., as an exemplar of this new conscientiousness. High-end restaurants give the company—which produces European sea bass and European sea bream and is working with a local First Nations group to produce fresh-water Arctic char—marquee status on their menus: Scaramouche features a $38 entree “sustainable blue European sea bass with grilled calamari, sweet garlic whipped white beans, chorizo, tomato confit on a saffron-white-wine-herb nage.” Froggett, who receives the fish via UPS within 24 hours of harvesting, praises its sustainability and taste: “It’s a really clean, fresh-tasting fish. An awful lot of farmed fish tastes muddy. These guys know what they’re doing.” With demand growing, the company is planning to set up similar units across Canada and even into the U.S.

Also in growth mode is Breviro Caviar, a Pennfield, N.B., enterprise gaining international fame for sustainably reviving rare sturgeon stocks. Reception at the European Food Fair this March in Brussels was “fantastic,” says company president David Cassidy, who hopes to sell the Bay of Fundy product, marketed as a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and D, in Paris, London and Hong Kong later this year. Meanwhile in their homeland, customers who could shop anywhere are selecting it: last week, Cassidy says, they shipped a kilo—some $4,000 worth—to a customer in Vancouver planning a major blowout.

There’s no better example of Canucks smartly tweaking tradition than La Face Cachée de la Pomme, the cidery in Hemmingford, Que., that pioneered apple ice wine in that province. Martin Juneau, chef at Montreal’s Newton restaurant and winner of this year’s Canadian Culinary Championship, created his winning entry (St-Canut piglet painted scarlet with beets—pickled, puréed and flecked with dill, and used as a crimson glaze—beneath a crackling-soft square of pork belly) to pair with the cidery’s Dégel, a barrel-aged still cider. “There was no winery interesting enough and I wanted to keep it local,” he says. The cidery has won a bushel of international awards for its products, which are sold in 23 countries, says co-owner François Pouliot, who recently presented at VinExpo in Bordeaux. They’ve been working for almost a decade to establish a Sauternes-like designation for Québec ice cider, which could come to fruition next year: “It’s vital in order to give credibility to the category,” Pouliot says. Not that his product doesn’t already have that: producers in Spain, Germany and Vermont are vying to duplicate the cidery’s methodology. And to that we say, “Salute, eh.” Anne Kingston

GOLF: We have more passion for the game than the Scots

Could there be a better indicator that Canada is one of the world’s most prosperous, contented and civilized nations than this? We have the highest golf participation rate in the world.

At least we did in 2006, the last time it was measured, when 21.5 per cent of Canadians played at least one round of golf. And there’s little reason to believe that’s changed, since Canadians still spend over $13 billion on golf annually and played more than 70 million rounds per year during the recession.

And where can the most avid golfers in the country, and thus, the world, be found? In Saskatchewan, where nearly 30 per cent of the population play a round a year. In fact, with 289 golf courses and a population of just over one million, the land of the living skies has the most golf courses per capita of anywhere on Earth. That’s one course for every 3,640 people—more than even Scotland, the widely recognized birthplace of the game, where there are 9,379 people per course.

This may come as a surprise, given Saskatchewan’s reputation as sprawling flatland. But Lynda Haverstock, president and CEO of Tourism Saskatchewan, says golfers can play in river valleys, sand dunes and alongside lakes in the province’s boreal forest. Courses range from pitch ’n’ putts to award-winners like Saskatoon’s Dakota Dunes, which was named Canada’s best new course by Golf Digest in 2005. And it doesn’t hurt that, on average, 18-holes costs about $50 on weekends.

It’s true that there isn’t a single Canadian golfer ranked among the top 100 in the world. And the last time a Canadian won a major—or, for that matter, was even in contention—was Mike Weir at the Masters way back in 2003. But then, Mike Weir is from Ontario. Alex Ballingall

ENVIRONMENT: We have the most cities that care

When Calgary eco-moms Melanie Risdon-Betcher and Lavonne Ries learned that over 190,000 children’s car seats are thrown into Canadian landfills every year, they formed KidSeat Recyclers. “Car seats are rarely recycled,” says Risdon-Betcher, “even though they are so rich in resources.” The co-op has recycled more than 600 seats so far, stripping each one to its core. According to Risdon-Betcher, the disassembled pieces are usually turned into rope and carpet. “We’ve broken many a nail,” she says. “But it’s worth it.”

This kind of grassroots effort, plus larger environmental endeavours, like the new $430-million Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which can handle 100 million litres of water a day, helped earn Calgary the top spot, just ahead of Honolulu, in the latest Mercer Ecology Study, a ranking of the world’s most eco-friendly cities. Canada was well-represented in the 212-city survey, which took into account a host of factors, including water availability, sewage, air pollution and traffic congestion. Ottawa, which boasts the country’s first all-ethanol gas station, finished third. Montreal and Vancouver tied for 13th. Vancouver officials had previously pledged to make it the most eco-friendly city by 2020. Some would say they’re off to a good start. Emma Teitel

BASEBALL: We’re not just riding the pine anymore

At the completion of this month’s Major League Baseball amateur draft, a total of 35 Canadians had been selected. And what was perhaps most remarkable about this total was how unremarkable it is. A year ago, 31 Canadians were selected. Three years ago, the total was 32. Five years ago, it was 38. Most years now, 30 or so young Canadians can expect to be drafted when big league clubs go searching for the next generation.

Indeed, Canada has quietly become a reliable producer of quality ballplayers. Twenty Canadians have appeared in the majors this year. More than 70 are in the minor leagues and another 600 are playing American college baseball. And beyond merely making it, Canadians are thriving as stars. Ferguson Jenkins was a superstar pitcher in the 1970s, but between Terry Puhl’s all-star appearance in 1978 and Larry Walker’s all-star debut in 1992, not a single Canadian-born player appeared in baseball’s mid-season classic. In the last 10 years, Canadians have been named to all-star rosters more than a dozen times. In fact, Canadians are comfortably ensconced in the highest ranks of the game. Last year, Joey Votto, a first baseman with Cincinnati, became the second Canadian to win MVP honours in five years (Justin Morneau won the American League honours in 2006). Over the last decade, Canadians have combined to win Cy Young (Eric Gagne in 2003) and rookie of the year (Jason Bay in 2004) honours.

The growth of the game in Canada includes continued progress at the elite amateur level, a year-round national junior program run by Baseball Canada, and the involvement of current and former players in the coaching and mentoring of emerging prospects (former Blue Jay Paul Quantrill, for instance, was a pitching coach with last year’s junior team). “Talented, athletic kids can look at baseball now and say, ‘At 15 years old, there’s something there for me,’ ” says Greg Hamilton, head coach and director of Canada’s national teams. And with so many among baseball’s best, aspiring all-stars now have plenty of examples to justify their dreams. “There’s a legacy in baseball now,” says Hamilton, “that kids can look at and legitimately say ‘I want to be that.’ ” Aaron Wherry