Montreal, Toronto, Niagara Falls


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The differences between Canada and the USA strike you more immediately than the similarities, although it is possible that that is always the case when moving between two places you know little of. There is an assumption that Canada is America on a smaller scale – one that would be fairly accurate if you were confining yourself to a soda-tasting tour of North America. In truth, however, the difference is more often qualitative than quantitative.

The most overwhelming feature of Canada is how cosmopolitan it is. Of course, this feeling is most pronounced in Montreal, in the French-speaking Quebec Province, but stepping off the bus in Toronto’s Chinatown is an equally alienating experience at first.

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Naturally, the US has minorities and Chinatowns a-plenty. There, however, everyone is a hyphen, a something-American. Canada is at once a looser and more relaxed conglomeration, federal by necessity it seems and not aggressively bound up by some ‘manifest destiny’ as the United States are. Politics and history both play a part in this, Canada being largely a British construct once the French withdrew from North America and until self-government was granted in 1867, but with the Québécois party holding a significant number of seats as the fourth largest in Parliament.

There may be two official languages in Canada, but whereas in the United States there is only one official language and many that are spoken in the diverse communities, there does seem to be a greater level of integration in Canada. It is far more common to hear English in Toronto’s Chinatown than it is in New York’s, and Anglo-Saxon passers-through appear to be much less a subject of curiosity or hostility.

Another difference between Canada and the United States is the way their cities have been cultivated. Only Niagara Falls, driven by the demands of tourism is so relentlessly contemporary (and tacky) in outlook. Montreal, in particular is a pleasant example of a city that has grown organically from historical roots.

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Founded by French missionaries in 1642 as Ville-Marie, Montreal is rare in that it was founded for missionary purposes rather than for trade. Although religion has been following the same trend as much of the developed world (America excepted) in declining, there are some pleasant reminders of Montreal’s origins in the Basilica of Notre Dame, a stunning wooden church inside a stone shell, and a cross atop the Mont Royale that commemorates the trek of the city’s founder to the top of what was then the natural boundary of the town with a cross on his back as recognition that the town had been saved from floods.

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If Montreal is proud of its distinctiveness from America (although one of its best buildings, the biosphere, was the USA’s contribution to the 1967 World Expo), Toronto makes its living from being America but bigger. Even Niagara Falls is far better viewed from the Canadian side. The CN Tower is the tallest freestanding structure in the Northern Hemisphere – about 25% taller than the Empire State Building – and one of its sports bars, recently voted the best in the world, has the largest indoor restaurant screen in the world at two stories high. Unfortunately the bar doesn’t extend back far enough to take it all in. It is also worth mentioning that the Rogers Centre was the first stadium in the world to have a retractable roof, and that the city art gallery is home to what was once the most expensive painting in the world – a Rubens, since you ask.

Sport is a phenomenon in Canada, and ice hockey in particular, which it can reasonably claim to have invented (the original four teams that would form the NHL were all Canadian). Both the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs are living on past glories somewhat (the early ‘seventies and the ‘forties and early ‘sixties respectively), but hockey is nonetheless considered a religion to the point where today’s paper carried an article about the dangers of serious head injuries in youth leagues. The Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto is part museum and part-shrine, with the Stanley Cup (the world’s oldest continuing cup competition) and memorabilia from the greats on display.

Hockey is at once a thrilling and frustrating sport to begin watching. The pace at which it is played and the gracefulness of a player with control of the puck make it more graceful in many ways than football, and yet the myriad of rules relating to ‘icing’ and offside make the constant breaks difficult to comprehend. A bad game can be a nightmare to watch, with the players constantly scrabbling and shoving rather than passing and moving, or simply dumping the puck in the end zone and giving chase.

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The basic element of the game is territory, rather than possession. Players are not allowed to receive the puck in the opposition’s third of the ice until it has already crossed the line, while the puck cannot be passed from inside the player’s own third to the very end of the ice, meaning that teams need to press forward, or to play the puck off the boards and chase in order to get a shooting opportunity.

Five players (plus goaltenders) for each side can quickly congest a rink, so the play can appear sloppy or unattractive for whole periods at a time if it is close. Goals can come from flowing moves, or be snaffled rebounds, but the difficulty of the game is surely part of the appeal as the expectation of the crowds is heightened to the point that when a player does the improbable, it is immediately declared impossible and the player regarded a miracle-worker. The hugely inflated atmosphere (an unprompted arena-wide chant is unusual when so much rock music is played during every break in play) is also almost unbearable to the English fan.

Finally, the ethos of sport in both America and Canada is considerably different to in Britain. The emphasis on sportsmanship – the amateur ethos of sport – is considerably more pronounced in Britain, whereas in North America the focus is undoubtedly on being the best. To give an example, it is considered shocking in Britain when two players do not shake hands before or after a game. In America or Canada, players sing the national anthems, but do not acknowledge each other. In one amusing caption at the Hall of Fame referring to the 1970 series between Canada and the Soviet Union, which the latter stood poised to win on goal difference or something of the sort, the museum referred to a looming national identity crisis and then compared the winning goal to a moment as significant as the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

I have digressed long enough on hockey (although in case you were wondering, the Maple Leafs beat Buffalo Sabres 4-3 and the Bruins continued their current run of form with a 3-0 win).

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One area in which Canada certainly matches America and the rest of the world, if not exceeded relative to it’s size and population, is in its influence on the music world. Montreal gave the world the poet and novelist turned song-writer Leonard Cohen (I did a blog on Cohen some time ago, see if you can find it), Ontario; Neil Young (whose 1971 concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall is one of the great live albums of all time) and Saskatchewan province; Joni Mitchell, which is not to mention Steve Stills from the golden generation. Today, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Wilco, Arcade Fire and most recently Justin Bieber are all added to that list, although ironically, Neil Young picked up best male artist at the Juno Awards (the Canadian music awards) after an under-par album. I have heard a few theories about Canada’s success in the music field, among them that the prairies and sheer boredom of Canadian life apparently offer a unique muse, but I think it must remain another unexplained mystery.

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I ought to make a much bigger deal of many things; Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery and the architecture of the university in Toronto, the underground network of walkways and shops ‘where they all live in the winter’ in that city, and the magnificence of Niagara’s almost 180 degree cascade, which I fear I could hardly do justice.

I could also add that Canadian junk food is arguably better than American, or give an honourable mention to the hot dog stands of Toronto, or even note that the Canadian government fell last Friday on an unprecedented charge of contempt of Parliament (though Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are regarded as front-runners on the back of the bounce back that Canada’s economy has enjoyed since the recession). Instead I will content myself to say that where the elements have been tamed, Canada does appear to offer a pretty nice sort of life. Anyone who has seen that dreadful old show Due South about the Mountie and his pet Husky who go to fight crime in Chicago will appreciate the shock we are likely to get when we reach those streets.

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