Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gaining perspective by crossing Canada

My wife and I recently drove across Canada on our way to Hawaii. Having visited all fifty US states, we thought it time to explore Canada more fully. Decades ago, we had camped in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and sometimes bought gas in Woodstock, New Brunswick, when we lived in northern Maine.

Times have changed. Instead of near parity, the Canadian dollar is now worth substantially less than the US dollar. Gas is now somewhat more expensive in Canada than in the US states we have traversed on this trip.

Most of the time, we traveled on two lane roads because Canada has few true, controlled access motorways. Initially, we were concerned that the lack of motorway driving would greatly lengthen our trip; in time, we realized that traffic usually flowed smoothly and at speed.

We mostly encountered better drivers than in the States and saw far less traffic. Canada's population density is approximately one tenth that of the US, having 34.5 million people (that's less than the population of California) inhabiting a geographic area larger than the US. Over half of Canada's population lives in just 20 cities. Consequently, Canada has many wide-open spaces even in its lower tier of provinces that abut the US.

While driving, we saw elk, deer, bison, and even a black bear that loped across the road in front of us. Although we saw dozens of signs warning about moose, we did not see any – our biggest disappointment, wanting to compare them in size to the Maine and Alaskan moose that we have seen. We also saw some spectacular scenery, most especially in the Canadian Rockies.

The drive gave me a fresh appreciation for the spirit of adventure and ambition that must have motivated the first settlers who crossed the continent, traveling by foot or horse. Thinking about those pioneers and the Native Americans (or first nations, the Canadian term) also highlighted the importance of self-reliance, interdependence, and trust –themes that I occasionally emphasize in Ethical Musings.

Unlike in Europe, in Canada most of the people we met working in service businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.) were native Canadians. The few non-Canadians were from Western European nations, e.g., The Netherlands.

We saw very few beggars, and then only in large cities such as Montreal. My guess is that Canada has an effective social safety net and a climate that makes living rough unattractive. In contrast, every street corner in San Francisco seems to have a beggar, presumably living rough, who has claimed the spot as his/her own. Cursory observation suggests that most of these people have significant mental health (a category that includes addiction) problems, a poignant reminder of gaps in our collective commitment to care for our neighbors.

I did see more road construction and repair in Canada than I have ever seen in the US. My guess is that this not only reflects Canada's prosperity but also that Canada spends a much smaller percentage of its Gross National Product on defense than does the US (1% vs. 3.5%). Government spending on high-tech weapons that the US will probably never adds economic value only when the procurement dollars are spent; in contrast, government expenditures on infrastructure (roads, bridges, utilities, etc.) adds economic value as long as the infrastructure is used.

The vistas in Canada were often sweeping with striking blue skies. However, we saw clear photographic evidence that the glaciers were receding. And, as we neared the border between British Columbia and Washington, the skies became more overcast. The officer at the border control point warned us that forest fires had closed some of the roads that we might want to take on our way south. Several times, we passed signs indicating the closure of particular roads because of fire, e.g., the northern access to Crater Lake and a road from I-5 to California 101. We saw lots of smoke, lots of ash, and lots of burned areas but thankfully no fires. Our trip provided a first-hand, even if anecdotal, reminder of global warming.

Based on observation, probably half of the tourists I saw during my visit were Chinese. A majority of the rest were from Europe. I saw surprisingly few US license plates in Canada, especially given the number of Canadian license plates I have note in Maine and Florida. We US citizens would make better neighbors if we made more of an effort to visit and to understand our Canadian neighbors. For example, visiting Canada helped me to appreciate why Canada often feels dwarfed by the US economically (e.g., many of the businesses and industries we saw were US owned or franchised) and politically.

Finally, my visit also left me questioning the value of guarding the northern US border. In the early 1980s, when I lived a couple of miles from the Canadian border, crossings were mostly unguarded and unregulated. I even had parishioners who lived in Canada. Today, the border is vigilantly patrolled and policed. Yet Canadians are as concerned about terrorism as is the US. They have as much to lose from terrorism as does the US. My bet is that a cost-benefit analysis would demonstrate that both countries would be safer if they returned their border controls to what prevailed before 9/11, devoting the personnel and other resources thereby freed to stopping illegal entry and smuggling from other directions.


Robert Frost was only partially correct. Good fences can make for good neighbors, but only when neighbors also have mutual respect and trust.