Federation with Parliamentary Democracy and Constitutional Monarchy
Canadian dollar (CAD)
34,482,779 (2011 est.)
English 59.3% (official), French 23.2% (official), other 17.5%
Roman Catholic 43.6%, Protestant 29.2%, No religious affiliation 16.5%, Other 10.7%
Canada is by size, the largest country in North America, second in the world overall (behind only Russia). Renowned worldwide for its vast, untouched landscape, its unique blend of cultures and multifaceted history, Canada is one of the world's wealthiest countries and a major tourist destination.
Canada is a land of vast distances and rich natural beauty. Economically and technologically, and in many other ways she resembles her neighbour to the south, the United States, although there are significant differences between the two countries. One should not make the common and embarrassing mistake of assuming everything is more or less the same in the two countries. Canada is perfectly happy with its British heritage and most Canadians are proud of this. Moreover, Canada has always been heavily influenced by immigrants from two European nations, the British and the French. This dual nature is very different to the United States. Canada became a self-governing dominion in 1867 by an act of the British parliament (making it younger by nearly 100 years), and is still a proud member of the Commonwealth of Nations. By 1931 it was more or less fully independent of the United Kingdom. Though a medium sized country by its population (35 million), Canada has earned respect on the international stage for its strong diplomatic skills as a kind of "Switzerland of North America." Domestically, the country has displayed success in negotiating compromises amongst its own culturally and linguistically varied populations, a difficult task considering that language, culture, and even history can vary significantly throughout the whole country. In contrast to the United States' traditional image of itself as a melting pot, (now also falling out of use), Canada prefers to consider and define itself a mosaic of cultures and peoples. Canadians are used to living and interacting with people of different ethnic backgrounds on a daily basis and will usually be quite friendly and understanding if approached in public. The country is largely urban-based, where peoples of all backgrounds rub elbows with one another (although this will be less so in rural areas).
Canada's official measurements are metric, however some people, especially those aged 40 and over, will still use the imperial system for many things. One of the most common holdovers from the imperial system is the use of feet and inches for measurement of short distances and heights, and especially the use of pounds for masses, even among younger Canadians. However in the province of Quebec, the metric system is used more widely by the population. You will still hear older Canadians use the term 'mile' when referring to informal distances, and may also give temperatures in Fahrenheit when referring to pools and hot tubs. All weather forecasts will be in °C, except for border towns such as Windsor and Niagara Falls where media often give weather forecasts in °F.
Trying to distil the climate of Canada into an easy-to-understand statement is impossible, given the vast area and diverse geography within the country. Overall, in most places, winters are harsh compared to much of the world, on par with Eurasia. The most populated region, southern Ontario has a less severe climate, similar to the bordering regions of the midwestern and northeastern United States. Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is just south of the Arctic Circle and remains very cold except for the months of July and August, when the July average maximum is only 12°C (54°F). On the other hand, the coastlines of British Columbia are very mild for their latitude, remaining above freezing for most of winter, yet they are not far away from some of the largest mountain glaciers found on the continent.
Most of the large Canadian urban areas are within 200 kilometres (124 mi) of Canada's border with the United States (Edmonton and Calgary being the only exceptions). Visitors to most cities will most likely not have to endure the weather that accompanies a trip to more remote northern or mountainous areas often pictured on postcards of Canada. Summers in the most populated parts of Canada are generally short and hot. Summer temperatures over 35°C (95°F) are not unusual in Southern Ontario, the southern Prairies and the southern Interior of B.C., with Osoyoos being the hot spot of Canada for average daily maximums. Toronto's climate is only slightly cooler than many of the larger cities in the northeastern United States, and summers in the southern parts of Ontario and Quebec (includes Montreal) are often hot and humid. In contrast, humidity is often low in the western interior during the summer, even during hot weather, and more cooling occurs at night. In the winter, eastern Canada, particularly the Atlantic Provinces, are sometimes subject to inclement weather systems entering from the U.S. bringing snow, high wind, rain, sleet, and temperatures in their wake of under -10°C (14°F).
Many inland cities, especially those in the Prairies, experience extreme temperature fluctuations, sometimes very rapidly. Owing to a dry climate (more arid west than east on the southern Prairies), bright sunshine hours are plentiful in the 2300-2600 annual hours range. Winnipeg (also colloquially known as 'Winterpeg') has hot summers with bouts of aggressive humidity, yet experiences very cold winters where temperatures around -40°C (-40°F) are not uncommon and can stay below -15°C (5°F) for long stretches. The official hottest temperature in Canada ever recorded was in southern Saskatchewan, at 45°C (113°F), while the coldest was in Snag, Yukon -63°C (-81°F). Summer storms in the Prairies and Ontario can be violent and sometimes unleash strong damaging winds, hail, and rarely, tornadoes. On the west coast of British Columbia, Vancouver and Victoria are far more temperate and get very little snow, average low wind speeds and seldom experience temperatures below 0°C or above 27°C (32-80°F) but receive high rainfall amounts in winter then in turn dry, sunny, pleasant summers.
The average temperature is typically colder in Canada than in the U.S. and Western Europe as a whole, so bring a warm jacket if visiting between October and April, and early and later than this if visiting hilly/mountainous terrain or areas further north. The rest of the year, over most of the country, daytime highs are generally well above 15°C (60°F) and usually into the 20s-30s°C(70s-90s°F) range during the day.
Canada's government is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system inherited from the British and similar to the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Canada is formally a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. She is represented in Canada by the Governor-General, currently David Lloyd Johnston, who carries out her duties. The monarchy serves mostly as a bygone figurehead, though, and in practice the Prime Minister is largely seen to wield political autonomy and power.
Canada is a federal state and provinces have a great deal of autonomy. Each province has its own legislature and provincial government, and the Canadian constitution defines certain areas of exclusively provincial jurisdiction. For example, each province sets its own drinking age, minimum wage, sales tax, labour regulations, and administers their own road, healthcare and education systems. Two of the three territories' legislative assemblies (Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) are peculiar, as they are non-partisan - no political parties are represented.
There are four main parliamentary parties at the federal level: the Conservative Party (right of centre), the Liberal Party (left of centre), the New Democratic Party (left), and the Bloc Québécois (a left-wing, Québécois nationalist party that promotes the separation of Quebec from Canada and does not run candidates outside of Quebec). Only the Conservatives (currently) and (more often) the Liberals have ever been the national government, though the NDP have governed various provinces and as of 25 Apr 2013 form the Official Opposition. The Bloc - who are for obvious reasons regarded somewhat negatively in other parts of the country - do not participate in provincial-level politics, but another provincial-level sovereignitist party, the Parti Québécois, has won provincial elections and formed the government in Quebec on several occasions. Compared to American politics, all of these parties trend somewhat more "liberal".
English and French are the only two official languages in Canada. All communications and services provided from the federal government are available in both languages. Most Canadians are functionally monolingual, although some parts of the country have both English and French speakers. Over a quarter of Canadians are bilingual or multilingual. Many people in Montreal and Quebec City are at least conversationally bilingual.
English is the dominant language in all regions except Quebec, where French is dominant and actively promoted as the main language. However, there are numerous francophone communities scattered around the country, such as:
- the national capital region around Ottawa,
- some parts of eastern and northern Ontario,
- the city of Winnipeg and areas to the south,
- the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood in Edmonton,and several surrounding communities,
- many parts of the Acadian region of Atlantic Canada, scattered across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the French Shores of Newfoundland).
Likewise, there are anglophone communities in Quebec, such as some of the western suburbs of Montreal.
Canadian English uses a mixture of British and American spellings, and many British terms not usually understood and employed in the United States are widely used in Canada. Certain words also follow British instead of American pronunciations, but the accents of Anglo-Canadians and Midwestern Americans are nonetheless still quite similar.
Atlantic Canada is reported to have the greatest variety of regional accents in English-speaking North America, largely as a result of the isolated nature of the fishing communities along the Atlantic coastline prior to the advent of modern telecommunications and transportation. A visitor to the Atlantic provinces may have some difficulty understanding strong local accents rich in maritime slang and idiom, particularly in rural areas. From Ontario westward, the accent of English Canadians is more or less the same from one region to another and is akin to that spoken by those in northern US border states.
English-speaking Canadians are generally not required to take French after their first year of high school, and thus many citizens outside of Quebec do not speak or use French unless they are closely related to someone who does, or have chosen to continue French studies out of personal or professional interest. Education in many other languages is available, such as Spanish, German, Japanese, etc. However, these are rarely taken. Most immigrants learn English or French in addition to speaking their native tongue with family and friends.
In Quebec, one can usually get by with English in the major tourist destinations, but some knowledge of French is useful for reading road signs as well as travels off the beaten path, and almost essential in many rural areas. It may also be useful to know at least a few basic French phrases in the larger cities, where some attempt by travellers to communicate in French is often appreciated. The French spoken in Quebec and the Acadian regions (Southern Gaspe and Northern New Brunswick) differs in accent and vocabulary from European French, although if you speak European French you will get by with few problems.
Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are home to large Chinese migrant populations, and Cantonese is commonly spoken in the Chinatowns in these cities.
There are also dozens of aboriginal languages spoken by many Canadians of aboriginal descent. Almost all first nations inhabitants that speak their native communities tongue are still bi-lingual in either English or French depending on what province you are in. In Nunavut more than half the population speaks Inuktitut, the traditional language of the Inuit.
Two sign languages are predominant in Canada. American Sign Language, or ASL, is used in Anglophone Canada; Quebec Sign Language, or LSQ, is used in Francophone Canada. While the two are distinct languages, they share a degree of mutual intelligibility. Both are part of the French Sign Language family, and LSQ is believed to be a mix of French Sign Language and ASL.
Safety in Canada is not usually a problem, and some basic common sense will go a long way. Even in the largest cities, violent crime is not a serious problem, and very few people are ever armed. Violent crime needn't worry the average traveler, as it is generally confined to particular neighbourhoods and is rarely a random crime. Drug-related crimes also happen. Street battles between gangs happen rarely but have made national headlines, these outbreaks of violence usually happen in bunches over a given area because of a turf war or drug supply shortage. Overall crime rates in Canadian cities remain low compared to most similar sized urban areas in the United States and much of the rest of the world (though violent crime rates are higher than most western European cities). Crime is higher in overall in western provinces than in Eastern Canada, but is even higher in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Recently there have been several high-profile shootings in public/tourist areas - i.e. the June 2012 shootings at Toronto's Eaton's Centre and HUB Mall in Edmonton; the fact these incidents are so heavily covered by the media is related to the fact that they are considered very rare events.
Police in Canada are usually hardworking, honest, and trustworthy individuals. If you ever encounter any problems during your stay, even if it's as simple as being lost, approaching a police officer is a good idea.
There are three main types of police forces in Canada: federal, provincial and municipal. The federal police force is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP or "Mounties"), with a widespread presence in all parts of the country other than Quebec, Ontario, and Newfoundland & Labrador, which maintain their own provincial police forces. These are the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the Surete du Quebec and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. All the other provinces and territories contract their provincial duties to the RCMP.
In their capacity as a federal police force, RCMP officers typically wear regular police uniforms and drive police cruisers while performing their duties. However, a minority of RCMP officers may appear in their iconic red dress uniform in tourist areas, and for official functions such as parades. Some RCMP officers participate in elaborate ceremonies such as the Musical Ride horse show. While wearing their full dress uniform, their main function is to promote the image of Canada and Canadian Mounties. RCMP officers in full dress are generally not tasked with investigating crime or enforcing law, although they are still police officers and can perform arrests. In some tourist regions, such as Ottawa, both types of RCMP officers are commonly encountered. This dual-role and dual-appearance of the RCMP, both as federal police, and as a tourist attraction, may create confusion among tourists as to the function of the RCMP. Keep in mind that all RCMP officers are police officers, and have a duty to enforce the law.
Cities, towns and regions often have their own police forces, with the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal forces being three of the largest. Some cities also have special transit police who have full police powers. Some quasi-government agencies, such as universities and power utilities also employ private special police. The Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway each have their own police force.
Canadian Forces Military Police can be found at military bases and other defence-related government facilities.
All three types of police forces can enforce any type of law, be it federal, provincial or municipal. Their jurisdiction overlaps, with the RCMP being able to arrest anywhere in Canada, the OPP and municipal police officers being able to arrest anywhere within their own province. Powers of arrest for Federal, Provincial and municipal police agencies in Canada exist for officers both on, and off duty.
In the national capital region of Ottawa-Gatineau, one can encounter more police jurisdictions than in any other part of Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (both regular uniformed and full dress), the Ontario Provincial Police, the Ottawa police, the Surete du Quebec, the Gatineau Police, Military Police, and OC Transpo Special Constables, all operate in the region, each with a different style of uniform and police cruiser.
Snatching of Luggage
If you are unfortunate enough to get your purse or wallet snatched, the local police will do whatever they can to help. Often, important identification is retrieved after thefts of this sort. Visitors to large cities should be aware that parked cars are sometimes targeted for opportunistic smash-and-grab thefts, so try to avoid leaving any possessions in open view. Due to the high incidence of such crimes, motorists in Montreal and some other jurisdictions can be fined for leaving their car doors unlocked or for leaving valuables in view. Try to remember your license plate number and check that your plates are still in place before you go somewhere as some thieves will steal plates to avoid getting pulled over. Auto theft in Montreal, including theft of motor homes and recreational vehicles, may occur in patrolled and overtly secure parking lots and decks. Bike theft can be a common nuisance in metropolitan areas.
Canada is very prone to winter storms (including ice storms and blizzards). In Eastern Canada, they are the most likely, but the occasional small one will pop up west of Northwest Ontario usually there it is wind-whipped snow that is the main hazard. Reduce speed, be conscious of other drivers, and pay attention. It's best to carry an emergency kit, in case you have no choice but to spend the night stuck in snow on the highway (yes, this does happen occasionally, especially in more isolated areas). If you are unfamiliar with winter driving and choose to visit Canada during the winter months, consider using another mode of transportation to travel within the country. Make note that while the vast majority of winter weather occurs, naturally, during the winter months, some parts of Canada such as the prairie provinces and north and mountain regions may experience severe, if brief, winter-like conditions at any time during the year.
If you are touring on foot, it is best to bundle up as much as possible in layers with heavy socks, thermal underwear and gloves; winter storms can bring with them extreme winds alongside frigid temperatures and frostbite can occur in a matter of minutes.
Firearms and Weapons
Unlike the U.S., Canada has no constitutional rights relating to gun ownership. Possession, purchase, and use of any firearms requires proper licenses for the weapons and the user, and is subject to federal laws. Firearms are classed (mainly based on barrel length) as non-restricted (subject to the least amount of training and licensing), restricted (more licensing and training required) and prohibited (not legally available). Most rifles and shotguns are non-restricted, as they are used extensively for hunting, on farms, or for protection in remote areas. Handguns or pistols are restricted weapons, but may be obtained and used legally with the proper licenses. Generally the only people who carry handguns are Federal, Provincial, and Municipal Police, Border Services Officers, Wildlife Officers in most provinces, Sheriff's Officers in some provinces, private security guards who transport money and people who work in remote "wilderness" areas who are properly licensed. It is possible to import non-prohibited firearms such as most types of rifle and shotgun for sporting purposes like target shooting and hunting, and non-prohibited handguns for target shooting may also be imported with the correct paperwork. Prohibited firearms will be seized at customs and destroyed. Travellers should check with the Canada Firearms Centre  and the Canada Border Services Agency  before importing firearms of any type before arrival.
Be aware that it is unusual for civilians to be seen openly carrying weapons in urban areas. While not illegal, openly carrying a weapon will likely be treated as suspicious by the police and civilians.
Switch blades, butterfly knives, spring loaded blades and any other knife that opens automatically are classified as Prohibited and are illegal in Canada. As are Nunchucks, Tasers and other electric stun guns, most devices concealing knives, such as belt buckle knives and knife combs, and articles of clothing or jewelry designed to be used as weapons. Mace and pepper spray is also illegal unless sold specifically for use against animals.
Forest fires usually occur in summer and are possible across a wide swath of the country, most frequently in the western Provinces. Always check the news for info on forest fires and if you must go through them, be very cautious. Often the roads are impassable; alter travel plans accordingly and be prepared for evacuation if forest fires are on your doorstep.
Fires in British Columbia are particularly vicious because of steep mountainous terrain. The combination of dry summers, dry lightning strikes and large forested sections are all factors. The province had serious issues with forest fires in the summer's of 2003 and 2009, with many thousands having to be evacuated.
Illicit Drug Use
Marijuana use is illegal in Canada (with exception to medical marijuana). Under the present Conservative government the tide is turning back toward stricter penalties for drug offenses.
Because of its popularity, easy availability and allowances for "medical purposes", many visitors believe that its use is legal, however being found in possession of marijuana or other controlled substances can result in deportation.
Driving while impaired by drugs (including marijuana and even legal "drowsy" drugs) is a criminal code offense and is treated in the same way as driving under the influence of alcohol, with severe penalties. Do not attempt to drive while high; visitors can expect to be deported after serving jail time or paying very large fines.
Be advised that unlike many other countries, Khat is illegal in Canada, and will get you arrested and deported if you try to pack it in your luggage and get caught by customs.
Needless to say, under no circumstances should you attempt to bring any amount of anything that even resembles a controlled substance into the United States from Canada. This includes marijuana. Penalties in the U.S. for drug smuggling are much more severe than in Canada, with prison sentences being 20 years to life for trafficking.
Canadians take drunk driving very seriously, and it is a social taboo in most circles to drink and drive. Driving while under the influence of alcohol is also punishable under the Criminal Code of Canada and can involve jail time, particularly for repeat offenses. If you "blow over" the legal limit of blood alcohol content (BAC) on a roadside Breathalyzer machine test, you will be arrested and spend at least a few hours in jail. Being convicted for driving under the influence (DUI) will almost certainly mean the end of your trip to Canada, a criminal record and you being barred from re-entering Canada for at least 5 years. 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.08%) is the legal limit for a criminal conviction. Many jurisdictions call for fines, license suspension and vehicle impoundment at 40mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.04%), or if the officer reasonably believes you are too intoxicated to drive. Note this difference; while having a BAC of 0.03% when tested at a police checkpoint ('Checkstop' or 'ride-stop', which is designed to catch drunk drivers) will not result in arrest, having the same BAC after being pulled over for driving erratically, or after getting involved in an accident may result in being charged with DUI.
Those crossing the land border into Canada from the USA while driving under the influence will get arrested by the Border Services Officers.
Refusing a Breathalyzer test is also a Criminal Code offense, and will result in the same penalties as had you blown over. If a police officer demands that you supply a breath sample, your best option is to take your chances with the machine.
Canada is a very multicultural society, and the vast majority of Canadians are open minded and accepting. Thus, it is very unlikely to meet ridicule in major urban centres on the basis of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, as most Canadians (from major urban centres) have encountered every type of person imaginable.
Hate speech - communication that may incite violence toward an identifiable group - is illegal in Canada and can lead to prosecution, jail time and deportation.
You are unlikely to face health problems here that you wouldn't face in any other western industrialized country (despite claims of long waiting lists and inferior care, which often varies by hospital and is usually exaggerated). Furthermore, the health care system is one of the best on the planet, and is very effective and widely accessible. In the past two summers, Canadians in some provinces (Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) have faced a few cases of West Nile virus, an occasionally fatal infection transmitted by mosquitoes. Also several diseases like whooping cough are common in rural and inner city Canada. Visitors should note that, while Canada has universal health care for residents, health care is not free for visitors, therefore it is important to make sure you are covered by your insurance while traveling in Canada. It should also be noted that, while large hospitals in major cities can be very good, hospitals in mid-sized cities without a large medical school tend to be chronically underfunded and understaffed; hospitals in working class neighbourhoods of large cities tend to suffer from the same problems.
Be aware that most Canadian provinces have banned all indoor smoking in public places and near entrances. Some bans include areas such as bus shelters and outdoor patios. See Smoking.
Canada has quite high standards for restaurant and grocer cleanliness and such if there is a problem with the food you have bought then talk with the manager to report it. You will usually be compensated for the meal, and many managers appreciate patrons who are willing to come forth as opposed to staying silent about it (as long as you aren't rude). Getting sick from contaminated food is unlikely.
Compared to the United States, medical care in Canada is available at about 30 to 60 percent savings, according to the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper.  Medical tourism firms help visitors to obtain medical care such as cosmetic surgery and joint replacement in major cities including Vancouver and Montreal. After their treatments, patients can enjoy a vacation and relax in a cabin in the Canadian Rockies, explore colourful Montreal, or other activities.
As emphasized in many places Canada is a multicultural country - as such the paramount point of respect to embrace this attitude as much as possible. Outward displays of racism, sexism, or homophobia will be met with extreme hostility. Even slight preferences may be noticed and noted.
Of equal importance is to avoid assuming positions or cultures based on identifiable signs. For example the Chinese girl you might meet may not speak a word of Chinese and may never have been anywhere near China. This point is especially true for individuals from areas with ethnic strife - don't assume that anyone you meet is either personally connected to or shares the viewpoints of their ethnic-origin Nation.
Beyond that be aware of the complicated Canadian-American relationship. Canadians can wax and wane about the U.S. for hours but rarely invite opinions, or comparisons to the U.S. Mentions of "The 51st State" and "America's Hat" will be considered grave insults, as well as any derision of Canada's status as a distinct nation. Equal to that is references to British or (In Quebec) French relationships as those are either in decline or rife with potential faux pas.
Be aware of politics—there is a large degree of regionalism in Canada, and the learning curve is steep when you attempt to explore these differences. In particular, Quebec's somewhat strained relationship with the rest of Canada—the result of a still-active secession movement—may be a sensitive topic.
When entering a private home in Canada it is expected that you take off your shoes.
The terms "Aboriginal" ("Autochtones" in French) or "First Nations" are used as catch all terms for all indigenous people of Canada. Most Aboriginal communities are rural and not used to tourists (note that some so-called reserves may restrict access to residents or invited guests - watch for signage at the entrances to these areas, which can range from official advisories to crude handmade signs saying "Stay out". Visitors to Canada with an interest in Aboriginal culture should seek out an Aboriginal cultural centre in a city. Be aware that tension exists between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations in some areas, though outright violence is extremely rare.
The largest aboriginal group are the Indians, found throughout Canada and divided into various ethnic groups ("tribes"); traditions, language, history and way of life will vary based on background and location. Some will be offended by the term "Indian", though they may use it themselves (note this differs from the U.S. where "Indian" appears to be much more widely accepted). The term "Native" may also cause offense among some. "First Nations" is the safer politically-correct term.
The Metis (pronounced MAY-tee) are descendants of European (mostly French) fur traders and Aboriginal women. Found mostly in the Prairies and especially Manitoba, they have their own distinct culture and history. Back in the late 19th century, they rose in rebellion under Louis Riel (the closest thing to a true civil war Canada has yet experienced) but they were defeated and Riel hanged.
The Inuit are the smallest group, found mostly in Nunavut, with smaller populations in Quebec, Labrador and the Northwest Territories. Historically they were known as "Eskimos", but the term is no longer politically correct in Canada ( but it still is in much of America) and should not be used. The Inuit are only one group of Eskimos, and using Inuit as a blanket term is offensive. As a result, Eskimo is still the accepted term in all of the U.S. bar Alaska, where the native Inuit-derived tribes (such as the Inupiaq and Yupik) find the term offensive as well. The term "Alaska Native" is generally the safe term there.
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