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15 weird myths about Canada debunked

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If you travel anywhere in the world, you’ll find one of two things are true: either folks don’t know much about Canada at all, or they’ve got some odd ideas about life in the Great White North. (Case in point: they think “Great White North” is an accurate description of the whole country. More on that below.)

Here are some of the most persistent myths about Canada that we’d like to debunk, once and for all.

1. The only sport we care about is hockey

It’s true—we have a lot of rabid hockey fans in Canada. But it’s not actually as popular as you might think. StatsCan tells us that 22 percent of girls and boys aged five to 14 play hockey regularly (far less than soccer), and for the past 20 years the most popular sport for adults to play has been golf. Watching hockey isn’t even at the top of everyone’s list—Hockey Night in Canada typically gets about two million viewers, which means almost 95 percent of the population isn’t tuning in.

2. We all know each other

This is a common exchange: you’re somewhere that isn’t Canada, and you tell someone where you’re from. “Canada! My cousin moved to Vancouver last year. Do you know her?” Even if you’re from Vancouver, chances are the answer is no. The baffling assumption that all Canadians know each other is probably because a lot of people outside the country don’t realize how big Canada actually is. They may know that we don’t have a big population (we have fewer people in the whole country than live in California, after all), but they don’t quite realize that we’re actually the second-biggest country by area in the world. Plus, a lot of our population lives in big cities, and that density of people makes it even less likely that we know anyone’s cousin. So no, we don’t know your cousin.

3. Our beer is stronger than American beer

Well, not really. For a long time, Americans and Canadians simply measured alcohol content differently, with Canadian bottlers listing alcohol by volume (ABV—the percentage of the liquid that’s alcohol) and Americans listing it by weight on the bottle (ABW—the mass of alcohol as a percentage of the total mass of the mixture). Problem is, alcohol is less dense than water, so it weighs less—resulting in a lower percentage number if you’re measuring by weight, making it look as though there’s less alcohol in American brews. (Confused? This blog post explains it well.) Suffice it to say that beers from both countries hover around five per cent ABV, so there’s actually no real difference.

4. Beavers will bite off their own testicles when faced with a predator

This is a persistent myth that’s been floating around since Egyptian and Roman times: beavers, when faced with hunters, will bite off their own testicles and leave them behind, somehow knowing that hunters would scoop up the abandoned gonads for their valuable oil, rather than keep pursuing the whole beaver. There’s a fair amount wrong with this idea. For one thing, beavers probably don’t engage in this level of strategic thinking. Also, male beavers can’t actually bite their own testicles—those organs are located internally. What male beavers do have are small external glands that produce a vanilla-scented musk that they then use to mark their territory. That musk—highly prized in ancient times and still used today as a flavouring—was called castoreum, which may account for why people associated beavers with castration. In fact, the two words have completely different origins. Regardless of how it came about, it’s a weird myth that definitely isn’t accurate.

5. It’s cold (or snows) all the time

Most people think of Canada as a land of snow and ice, and, at some times of the year, parts of it absolutely are—and about the half the country’s land mass is underlaid with permafrost. But the majority of Canada’s most populated areas have four seasons, with snow a possibility for only part of the year. And, of course, parts of the country don’t get snow very often at all. (We’re looking at you, Vancouver.) Most of our cities aren’t nearly as far north as people think: Montreal and Milan are at the same latitude. Edmonton shares a latitude line with Dublin, while London is further north than Calgary.

6. Mounties only wear red and always ride horses

We probably perpetuated this myth ourselves, to be honest. Mounties dressed in red serge are an enduring image of Canada throughout the world—despite the fact that the iconic red uniform is only worn on formal, ceremonial occasions. For everyday duties, Mounties wear a uniform that’s a lot more practical. Also, despite their name, most Mounties don’t ride horses—although, until 1966, every recruit had to learn to ride. These days, the horse riding tends to be confined to the famous Musical Ride.

7. Bagged milk is a strictly Canadian thing

Well, bagged milk is certainly more popular in Canada than south of the border, but it’s by no means available everywhere across the country. And we’re not the only country to sell milk in bags: eastern Europe, the UK, India, Colombia, Argentina, Israel, South Africa, and several other countries enjoy bagged milk.

8. Toronto is the capital

Sorry, Ottawans—many people outside of Canada think Toronto is our capital city. This makes a certain amount of sense—Toronto is the largest city in Canada, and the country’s financial capital, so folks automatically assume that it’s also the political centre.

9. Everyone speaks French

Much as we’d like this to be true, it simply isn’t. Outside of Quebec, there are significant Francophone communities in New Brunswick (where French is the co-official language with English), Ontario, and Manitoba, with smaller pockets of French speakers in Alberta, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Saskatchewan. Although, at the federal level, French and English are considered equal, in practice about half as many people speak French as English across the country. In 2011, close to 10 million people (30.1 percent of the population) said they were able to have a conversation in French, while 7.3 million people (22 percent of the population) reported French as their mother tongue. Compare that to almost 60 percent of the population reporting English as their mother tongue.

10. We use the metric system

Well, kind of. The metric system has been taught in schools since the early 1970s, but in practice, we use both metric and Imperial measurements in daily life. For example, we tend to measure distance and speed metrically, we think about gas and milk and wine in litres—but we think about weight and height in Imperial units, and tend to cook with cups and teaspoons, rather than metric measurements. We measure the outside temperature in metric units, but use Fahrenheit when cooking. CFL games are played on fields measured in yards. In Quebec, metric is much more consistently used than in the rest of the country, but for the most part, we’re happily hybrid.

11. Our healthcare is free

This is a tough one. It’s true we don’t have to pay to go to the doctor, or (mostly) to get treatment at a hospital—but we pay for universal health care through our taxes, so it’s not exactly free. It’s more like the cost is shared more equally among everyone. Plus, there’s lots that isn’t covered, like prescription drugs, dental and vision care, and alternative medicine like chiropractors, massage therapists, and naturopaths.

12. We don’t like guns

This is another tough one. We definitely have far fewer gun homicides than our neighbours to the south—11,000 in the US in 2011, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to 158 in Canada for the same year. Proportionally, that’s one death for every 28,000 people in the US and one for every 215,000 people in Canada. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have guns. In 2007, one study of civilian gun ownership around the world showed that, while the US has about 89 firearms per 100 residents (ranking number one on the list), Canada’s not that far behind, ranking at 13th with 31 firearms per 100 residents.

13. There’s no “Canadian bacon”

Well, there is, but not in Canada. You see, what many Americans call “Canadian bacon”—that round slice of meat you get on an Egg McMuffin—isn’t quite bacon by Canadian definitions: it’s more like ham. (At least, it tastes like ham to us.) This is confusing, because, south of the border, “Canadian bacon” can also mean what we call peameal bacon—that delicious stuff that’s brined, rolled in cornmeal, then sliced and enjoyed, often on a bun. (Confused? This article might help.)

14. We all say “eh”

Bob and Doug McKenzie notwithstanding, “eh” is by no means a universal Canadian colloquialism, and lots of other places in the world say “eh” as a part of speech. However, the way that Canadians use “eh”—when they do use it, which isn’t as often as people think—tends to be slightly different than the rest of the world: we use it to be polite. When a Canadian says “Nice day, eh?” she’s not just expressing her opinion—she’s looking to establish a common opinion with the listener. When you hear, “I went down to the store, eh, and I picked up a double-double,” the speaker is using the “narrative eh” as a check that the listener understands what’s going on. Ah, Canada—where even our linguistic tics are polite.

15. There’s wildlife everywhere, all the time

Ask people who aren’t from here what they think about when they think about Canada, and eventually you’ll get to wildlife—moose, bears, and beavers. There are seemingly countless stories about car-licking moose, badly-behaved bears, and Canada goose attacks, leading you to assume that Canada is a hotbed of wild animals all day, every day. In reality, not so much. You’re not likely to see a moose in downtown Toronto or Montreal—although you will see plenty of squirrels and pigeons. Maybe non-Canadians just need to change what they think of as “Canadian wildlife.”