12 things one local wants you to know about Canada

by dattran

As a born-and-raised Canadian, I’m often surprised by how little people know about my country.

I’ve been asked what it’s like to live in an igloo. (For the record, I don’t; it rarely snows in Vancouver, which I call home). About the best way to explore the entirety of Canada in a one-week trip. (Since it’s the second-largest country in the world, this would be difficult.) I’ve heard it all.

Which is why I put together this list of things any traveler to Canada should know before their trip.

A male hiker looking away while standing against mountains, Canada
Yes, Canada is as big as you’ve heard © stockstudioX / Getty Images

1. Canada is too big to see in one visit

Canada is big. Like, really big: we’re talking a landmass of nearly 10 million sq km (3.86 million sq miles). The country is home to the second-highest mountain peak in North America (Mt Logan in Kluane National Park, Yukon), not to mention the world’s longest coastline, which meets three oceans: the Pacific, the Arctic and the Atlantic. 

With 10 provinces, three territories and six time zones, it’s safe to say that Canada is a country that offers endless experiences.

When thinking about visiting to Canada, I’d recommend pinpointing one province or territory to discover. From the lush green forests, coastal beaches and snow-capped ski hills of British Columbia to the vibrant and culturally diverse cities in Ontario to snow-and-ice-covered Nunavut, each region has a unique landscape, culture and people. 

2. Despite being a bilingual country, not all Canadians speak French 

But we don’t all speak English, either. Canada is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.

And while French and English are both official languages in Canada (Québec is the only province where French is the sole official language), there are many regions where people only speak one of the two languages fluently. There are even some regions where neither language is spoken. 

Whatever language locals speak, signage and packaging around the country are typically in both English and French – a rule in place since the Official Languages Act came into force in 1969. 

A young man in a snowy street in Vieux Montréal, Québec, Canada
In Canada, it’s not a hat. It’s a toque © NicolasMcComber / Getty Images

3. Be prepared to hear unfamiliar words spoken in Canada

In Canada, we have our own special (English) words for everyday items. These are some common examples:

  • Toque: a knitted hat usually worn in winter
  • Two-four: a 24-pack of beer
  • Pablum: a common Canadian name for baby cereal
  • Freezies: ice pops
  • Washroom: bathroom or restroom
  • Clicks: used to refer to kilometers when driving
  • Canadian tuxedo: denim top and bottom 
  • Tobogganing: sledding in the snow

4. Canada uses the metric system

Canadians measure measured in kilometers, pump gas in liters and express weather forecasts in Celsius. While many other countries do the same, it’s a common assumption that Canada follows the same measurement system as our friendly neighbors to the south. This is a big one for visitors from the USA who use the imperial measurement system. Get used to it.

An Inuit woman in a fur hood smiles, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
It doesn’t snow in every part of Canada – though it probably is right now in Nunavut, in the far north © RyersonClark / Getty Images

5. It’s not always snowing in Canada

In a country with such vast geographical reach, the climate ranges substantially. For example, the west coast of British Columbia has a mild climate year-round. It doesn’t always snow during the winter months, and summer temperatures average 22°C (or 71°F). 

If you go further north, the temperatures become more frigid: Nunavut sees an average temperature of −20°C (or −3°F) for the entire year. Much of the upper half of Canada only has two seasons, with short summers and long, cold winters with heavy snowfalls and icy temperatures. 

Wherever you plan to visit in Canada, be sure to check the climate averages before you go and pack for varied weather – especially on the West Coast, where it rains often.

Two female First Nations people dressed in traditional clothing, Canada
Booking travel experiences with Indigenous-owned businesses is an excellent way to learn about Canadian culture © AscentXmedia / Getty Images

6. Indigenous cultures are of great importance 

The First Nations, Métis and Inuit Indigenous Peoples are Canada’s first inhabitants. Canadians recognize and appreciate the importance of the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures, which form not only an essential part of our history but a vibrant part of contemporary Canadian culture today. 

Certain terms used to describe original habitants of the land elsewhere in the world may not be acceptable in Canada, so do your research before you arrive to ensure that you don’t use language that may be offensive.

In order to truly enjoy and appreciate Canada, consider adding Indigenous experiences in your travel plans. Indigenous-owned luxury lodges offer immersive cultural experiences; a multi-day guided paddle excursion is another option. Go on hikes through the country’s most stunning, untouched landscapes while learning about the surroundings through a cultural lens. This different approach to your trip will surely leave a lasting impact.     

A woman in a red beret holds open a shop door, Montréal, Québec, Canada
Extreme politeness is a big thing in Canada © martinedoucet / Getty Images

7. Prepare for over-politeness

The cliché of the courteous Canadian…is entirely accurate. In Canada, we say “sorry” a lot – and not just when we’ve done something wrong. Also, don’t be surprised if someone holds the door open for you or you receive a friendly “Hello!” from a stranger. 

In formal exchanges, “please” and “thank you” abound. Canadians are even courteous on the road, flashing a friendly wave when someone lets you in while changing lanes. Generally, Canadians are friendly and approachable – though there are always exceptions.

Workers with piles of baked goods in Boulangerie St-Viateur Bagel Shop, Montréal, Canada
Sorry, New York: Montréal might have the best bagels in the world © Joanna K Drakos / Shutterstock

8. Be sure to sample Canadian cuisine

From poutine (fries topped with gravy and cheese curds) to beaver tails (hand-stretched fried-dough pastries topped with icing sugar; actual beavers are not an ingredient), Canada has siganture tasty treats that are a must-try.

Other Canadian specialties include bannock (a staple Indigenous bread) and butter tarts (a small pastry tart with a sweet filling).

Certain regions have specialties, too, such as lip-smacking lobster rolls in Nova Scotia, mouthwatering Montréal bagels or the chocolatey Nanaimo bars of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. 

9. Always leave a tip

Whether dining in a restaurant or getting a new haircut, tipping is customary in Canada, to the tune of 18% of the total bill. Not tipping is considered rude, and people will often tip above the average if they find the service exceptional.

10. The legal drinking age varies across the country

In AlbertaManitoba and Québec, the legal drinking age is 18, while in the rest of Canada, the legal age to purchase, possess and consume alcohol is 19. 

In some provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, the government is responsible for the distribution and retail sale of alcoholic beverages. 

Bear mother with two cups on a lawn with flowers near Jasper, Canada
There are laws in Canada that prevent people from getting too close to wildlife © Christoph Brand / Getty Images

11. Respect wildlife

Whether it’s burly black bears and spawning salmon in British Columbia or playful foxes and perky piping plovers in Prince Edward IslandCanada is home to a thrilling range of flora and fauna.

Feeding wildlife is illegal, and there are laws that prevent people from admiring wild animals in close proximity. Stay alert and be aware of your surroundings when exploring nature. If you spot any creatures, keep your distance.

12. Canada is one of the safest destinations in the world

Canada is generally very safe. Strict gun-control laws obtain throughout the country, and crime rates are low. Overall, the police are trusted and respond to calls quickly. Yet despite the country’s reputation, it’s always best to keep your wits about you and proceed with caution, especially when walking through some neighborhoods at night.

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