The Canadian side of Vancouver

I heard about the city of Vancouver long before I came here. Vancouver, “the warmest part of Canada,” we used to say scornfully, in my childhood home of Edmonton, Alberta. Vancouver seemed somewhat less than Canadian with it being so far off behind the Rocky Mountains. Vancouverites didn’t slide to school on snow-packed roads the way we did. They didn’t scrape their fingernails through frost patterns, or touch their tongues to frozen monkey bars. In Vancouver, it rained.

But I came to Vancouver after having lived in other Canadian provinces and countries, and things do look different now. It is true that there are some definite regional differences between Vancouver and the rest of Canada. In Canada, the style of buildings shifts dramatically from province to province, with the Maritimes’ triangle-roofed two-storeys replaced by square squat houses in the prairies and, in Vancouver, tall glassed towers. But there are things about Vancouver that make it distinctly Canadian:

1. The people look different. When I first left Edmonton for the somewhat warmer climes of Great Britain, I was struck by how alike British people all looked. The English looked English – fine-boned and very white, with the occasional freckle. The Scots were Scots – redheaded and ruddy. That’s not the case in Canada, and by extension in Vancouver, where mixed marriages have resulted in a new kind of multiculturalism. Sure, there are many people of different nations in this city, Chinese people cheek-by-jowl with Czechs, Singaporeans sitting with Spanish, etc., etc. But there are also many people who announce through their faces that they aren’t one thing or the other; they’re 10 per cent this, 15 per cent that. You just have to sit on the bus in Vancouver to see half the United Nations, sometimes in the one person sitting next to you. It marks a longer term multiculturalism that doesn’t exist in many places. Nice…and very Canadian.

A friendly Canadian waiter.| Photo by Steve Parker

2. Nature is a part of the city. After Great Britain, longer trips around the rest of Europe finally resulted in a three-year stay in Prague, in the Czech Republic. There, I learned, the Czechs have a special word to indicate that you are going to “a nature,” a park or wilderness usually on the outskirts of, or outside, the city. They need this word because Prague, as is the case with most European cities I’ve visited, is a temple to the gods of cement. There’s nary a “square,” and where there is it is smooth and grey, lined with cafes, the only living thing a flock of pigeons flying above it. In Canada, by contrast, nature is a part of the cities, from streets overhung with trees to the various parks that adorn every second street corner, and Vancouver, with its seawall, is definitely in this mold.

3. Quiet friendliness is the order of the day. My job in Prague led me to another job in North Africa, home to tons of cockroaches and the friendliest people ever. There I was often startled by random invitations to “come home! Meet the wife!” This was a stark contrast to the Czech Republic, where a muttered “good day” was the only interaction. Canadians and Vancouverites are somewhere in between, warm but not overly so. Case in point in the cafés. In Tunis, waiters delivering my cappuccino would stay to chat…and chat. In the Czech Republic, they would drop off my drink without a word. In Canada, and in Vancouver, I receive a smile and a few short, friendly comments about the weather. Perfect…and perfectly Canadian.

And perfectly Canadian is my ultimate verdict on Vancouver. It may not look or feel it, especially at this time of year when winter stretches its arms around the rest of Canada and lets us stand apart, but Vancouver certainly is Canadian.