Canada is a very multicultural country, especially in the big cities. A survey showed that about 50% of the population of Toronto (the largest city) was born outside Canada, and about 20% had at least one parent born outside the country. Immigrants came from all parts of the world, and many cities have entire neighbourhoods dominated by one immigrant group, Chinatown, Little Italy, etc. Various authors have argued that Canada, unlike the American “melting pot”, aspires to a “cultural mosaic”.
It is also generally a tolerant society. A few decades ago, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau (later Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister) repealed laws against homosexual acts, famously saying that “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”. There are laws against various kinds of discrimination and hate crimes, same-sex marriage is now legal, and half the cabinet is female. Most Canadians treat overt manifestations of racism, sexism or homophobia with a fair amount of contempt.
However, not all Canadians are as tolerant as they pretend to be. There is a long history of racism, especially against indigenous people and various immigrant groups (Chinese and Irish in the 19th century, later mainly blacks and South Asians, now mainly Muslims). In the 2015 election, the Conservative Party used attacks on Muslim customs as a campaign tactic, apparently with some success. However, they lost that election quite significantly.
It is equally important to avoid making assumptions about positions or cultures based on identifiable characters. For example, some native English speakers do not have a British or Scottish background, or the Chinese woman you may meet does not speak a word of Chinese and may never have been anywhere near China. The first point is especially true in the Prairie Provinces and the second for people from areas of ethnic conflict – do not assume that the people you meet are personally connected to their homeland or share its views.
Although Canada has close cultural ties with the United States, the relationship between the two countries can be controversial. Calling Canadians “Americans” is no better than calling the Irish “English” or New Zealanders “Australians” and can be seen as an insult. Do not treat Canada as part of the United States or make fun of its status as a separate nation. The same applies to references to British, Scottish or (in Quebec) French relations, which are either in decline or subject to potential faux pas.
Be aware of the politics – there is a strong degree of regionalism in Canada, and the learning curve is steep when trying to explore these differences. In particular, Quebec’s somewhat strained relationship with the rest of Canada – the result of a still-active secessionist movement – can be a tricky subject. Also be aware that not all French-speaking Canadians are secessionists, and that most French-speaking communities outside Quebec, like the Acadians in New Brunswick, are proud to be both French-speaking and Canadian.
When you enter a private home in Canada, you are generally expected to remove your shoes unless the host specifically asks you not to.
Canada is generally considered a very polite society where apologies, excuses and thank-yous are very common, even in large cities. Canadians follow a relatively standard “Western” system of politeness and manners that is very similar to that of the United States.
Gay and lesbian traveler’s
Canada is very open to all forms of LGBT travellers. Same-sex marriage is recognised across the country. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are all known for their LGBT communities. Outside of these metropolitan areas, expressions of affection should generally not be a problem despite more conservative attitudes, although some rural areas can be more problematic. As always, be discreet.
Human rights codes protect against discrimination in all areas, including housing, access to health care and employment. If you encounter negative reactions, including violent or threatening episodes, the police are available to help.
The terms “Aboriginal” or “First Nations” are used to refer to all Aboriginal peoples in Canada, although “First Nations” by definition does not include Inuit and Métis. Most Aboriginal communities are rural and not used to tourists. Some reserves may restrict access to residents or guests – look for signage at the entrance to these areas, which can range from official notices to crude handmade “no trespassing” signs. Most of the time, non-local visitors are accepted or welcomed; in many reserves, heavily taxed goods (such as petrol or cigarettes) are offered to the public at reduced prices. Visitors to Canada who are interested in Aboriginal culture should look for an Aboriginal cultural centre in a city. Be aware that there is tension between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in some areas, although open violence is extremely rare.
First Nations traditions, languages, history and way of life vary according to origin and location. Some will be offended by the term “Indian”, even if they use it themselves (note that this is different from the United States, where the term “Indian” seems to be much more widely accepted). The term “indigenous people” may also offend some. The term “First Nations” is the safer and more politically correct term.
The Métis (pronounced MAY-tee) are the descendants of European (mainly French) fur traders and Aboriginal women. They live mainly in the prairies and especially in Manitoba and have a distinct culture and history. In the late 19th century, they rose up in two rebellions under Louis Riel (the closest thing to a full-blown civil war Canada has ever seen), but were defeated and Riel was hanged, an event that led to tensions between French and English Canadians.
The Inuit are the smallest group found mainly in Nunavut, with smaller populations in Quebec, Labrador and the Northwest Territories. Historically, they were known as “Eskimos”, but this term is no longer politically correct in Canada and should not be used. The Inuit are only one group of Eskimos, and using the term Inuit as a general term is offensive to some. The term Eskimo is therefore still accepted in the United States, where it does not cause offence.