I just completed an almost seven year stint in Canada working as an Oil Patch guru. Most people I know in my native Texas have never been anywhere, much less lived anywhere else, and always ask me what it is like to live in a foreign country. I’ve always quoted John Travolta from Pulp Fiction in return:
Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Vincent: It's just a little different. I mean, they got the same shit over there as they do over here, just...over there...it's just a little different.
This leads to a hysterical exchange over fast food and theatre fair which ends with this rather low, innocuous point which may have proved the film worthy to European audiences enough to garner it support for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.
Vincent: And do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald’s?
Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: No, they got the metric system over there they don't know what the fuck a quarter pound is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it…uh…Royale with Cheese.
This is how I describe Canada… Cunuckistan I sometimes joke… to my American friends and family. They got the same shit over there as they do over here. It’s just a little different. Example?
I take my kids to school and there is a picture of the Queen on the wall. Despite the similar English accent, I run across Francophones pretty normally. There is, astoundingly, a lack of black people in Canada. So much so that when I shake hands with a descendant of Africa I’m more certain that he or she is from Ghana or Kenya as opposed to New York or Florida. Though my car is in miles, everything around me is in metric, and the double-it-add-thirty doesn’t exactly work. Canadians are known for being astoundingly nice, but I have to outline the great difference here. I’m from the South. We are incessantly nice. We call it Southern Hospitality. But in Canada, it’s not lip service. When my RV broke down, a kids half my age retrieved my driveshaft and lugged it a hundred meters to me. Another one towed me off the road. Everyone I knew by first name in my neighborhood offered me tools for projects, shoveled my walkway, and when I was laid off this kindness went a long way to keeping me sane. This led me to think there was something in their culture or perhaps in their government structure we should take a look at. Maybe that would help us govern ourselves more kindly.
The current Prime Minister has detractors, but no one is calling him a fascist or a communist. He is one among hundreds in the legislature that has the top executive office of the land. As such, he could be dismissed, without notice, by the voters or by a vote of no confidence either by the Parliament in general or by his party in caucus. How’d you like to dismiss your President with no notice? I’d love it. And how about Question Period? Let’s say for six hours every Tuesday afternoon, the President of the United States has to go down to the Senate and answer questions live on TV? I’d eat popcorn and live off of CSPAN that day. We’d have different Presidents, I’m sure. Federal elections in Canada have a 28 day election cycle, not two years like ours. Though elections are scheduled, they can be performed by law on short notice if the PM is dismissed, resigns, or loses an election. This is what I called the Brewster’s Millions Challenge. Our election system just ran through two billion dollars. Try to spend that in 28 days. I’ll bet you can’t. Best yet…all the provinces run this way, too. So there is a Parliament in Edmonton, Regina, St. John’s, etc. that has to abide by the same rules. The result is the voters keep their representatives on their toes. There are many political parties, so compromise is key to keep things moving. In the States, compromise has become a dirty word. In some districts, if you use the word ‘compromise’ in the same sentence as the word ‘liberal’ you would be strung up and drawn. In Canada, it means you have a better chance to live longer, even if you’re paying more taxes.
And if you want something different, let’s look at the tax system. Remember this Royale with Cheese is very small. There are more people in Texas than in all of Canada, about 90% of them live within 200 miles of the US border, and it is the second largest country in the world. So for all intents and purposes it looks like Egypt, where people live along the Nile, and Chile, where they are packed up against the coast because of the Andes Mountain range. Oh, and it’s about five thousand miles across. It is challenging to live in this environment, and almost half of all Canadians live within commuting distance of Toronto. The taxes then are disproportionately settled at the Provincial level. The federal government has a laughable 9% rate for your first 40K of income and then 13% or so for your second 40K…but only on that second 40. You still have the 9% on your first 40K. So you could be paying closer to 11.5% total to the feds. This bracket continues by 40K until you get to the Dragon’s Den and then of course there is a huge jump. As admiring as this is, the Provincial bracket balances out the aspirations with a crushing average of 15% depending on which province you’re in. Alberta’s was 10% while I was there and it was just raised to 12% - a 20% increase. This coupled with a carbon tax and a federal sales tax of 7.5% is not easy to live with. Some Provinces like Newfoundland have an additional 7.5% sales tax so you pay 15% on everything you buy. This, coupled with my American taxes I was obligated to pay, meant I was shelling out close to half my salary every year. It was the price for keeping my citizenship. The cheese on that Royale was hard to taste sometimes.
I remember being in some class thirty years ago saying the US Department of Transportation figured out that any mass concentration of a given distance of 250,000 people or more required at least one Interstate level freeway. Doubling this population to 500,000 meant a second freeway was needed. We all know this can’t be true. New York City is pushing thirteen million and has essentially only FDR Drive semi-circling it. Los Angeles on the other hand seemingly has very close to the same amount and yet only has sixteen freeways. As a radial city, Houston very much sucks to live in. However, over the years, the spokes have fanned out with the business districts. The Medical Center has shifted the working population and ExxonMobil’s surprising move to The Woodlands (yes, I am aware it’s really north Spring) has people wondering if the gentrification of the ghettoes can be balanced out by moving more centers of labor to the outskirts. The XOM move was shocking not just because it was a move out of downtown…but because it was a move outside the beltway. A four hour commute to Dallas was cut by 25%. For Anadarko Corp, this was old news. But XOM is about 58 times larger than Anadarko and you don’t see any Anadarko gas stations around, do you? And when GE decided to double down on their paltry O&G Division where did they go? The Beltway and Richmond.
Canada has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to freeways. I found it astounding and refreshing that I could travel around all of St. John’s (a city of maybe 100,000) on two freeways. Yet if I tried to cross the Island there were innumerable lights to sit through, marking towns sometimes as large at five thousand. I loved that Halifax had an open thoroughfare into New Brunswick and pained to leave this amazing construction project to stop every five minutes on my way to Frederic, their capitol. Calgary likewise has just one freeway plowing through it, the Deerfoot, and everyone is either trying to get onto the Deerfoot or trying to stay away from it. It only serves the East half of the city and does not even touch downtown, forcing everyone trying to get downtown to either fight through the boulevards, the lights on the expressways (the ones on Crowfoot are laughable) or exit and wait fifteen minutes to turn left or right off the Deerfoot onto Memorial so they can fight around the zoo. The city’s only solution to this is to ignore the painful reality of turning all of Crowfoot into a freeway from Banff through Chinook to Regina and instead ask the federal government for more money they don’t have and pour it into horrible ideas involving rail. Calgary Transit is now a shining example of what Houston should have done thirty years ago, but they are about to fuck all that up for pipe dreams that are ten times worse than the bullshit in Houston.
Compared to the travesty that is Houston’s main street line, Calgary’s Red Line is well thought out, cheap to use, and heavily trafficked. The main street line in H-Town started at UHD and went to the Medical Center. Unless you lived and worked in the Medical Center, it was useless. No one goes from work downtown to work in the Medical Center. Patients tend to call an ambulance. Houston’s second line goes from UH to the Galleria, because someone apparently thinks college students like to shop at Sacks. The Brown Line runs through the financial districts, where there are no residences and where the patrons drive Land Rovers and BMWs. Only the Green Line makes any sense, and only because it links a blue collar poor Latino neighborhood, Mag Park, to downtown jobs. The Purple Line hopefully can extend as the Green one. The Calgary LRT is a model of sober planning. Both lines run through poorer parts of town, downtown, and then onto white collar neighborhoods. Unlike Houston, Calgary’s LRT runs out to the ‘suburbs’ where people drive in to park for free and pay for the monthly pass. While Houston’s LRTs are still to this day rather naked and bare after ten years, Calgary’s are packed all the time. They are looking to add a third right down the spine of the city which is going to be brutal, costly, and not perfect. But when it is done and the dust clears, it will provide a purpose to those who use it. By contrast, the South bus lane idea is idiotic, remote, and does not even go downtown. Southern thinking has apparently made it up north. Other extensions are quite possible: to the airport, more access to the blue collar neighborhoods, through the reservations. While this is being decided Houston will be content to wallow on the freeways in a city quickly transforming into the Los Angeles of the late 80’s.
These are governed by local politics and when it comes to even this I must raise my hat to the City of Calgary. My wife and I thought it was strange when we moved there. People were talking about taxes, and bridges, and tunnels and libraries. People wanted more parks and more community swimming pools. It seems Houston was constantly trying to fight inner zoning wars: Condos in West U, warehouse lofts in Chinatown, gentrification in the old Slave Sector that no one wants to document or talk about. Access to Calgary’s east side is critical to the city’s fight against crime. They have built a major police compound there, pour money into refugee relief and social services. This keeps crime low and localized. In over six years in Canada I was never burglarized, never had anything stolen out of my yard, never locked my front door over night or my back door during the day. I rarely locked my car at work or even at the mall if it had anything in it. It was also rare to hear about a crime. Cops weren’t rare but to hear a siren was. To hear an ambulance was a cause of concern. To see one prompted a little more. Within the span of a month in Houston, I witnessed police shoot a suspect dead, had my car stolen at an upscale mall, and ran through a neighborhood searching for a sinister looking man observing my children playing in a cul-de-sac. In Canada, you would call the ‘Police Service.’ Here the man was found by neighbors in their quad cab monster trucks, his license photographed on a smart phone, and told in no uncertain terms what would happen if he were to be found lingering around that neighborhood again.
I was at Home Depot last night looking at a fire arm safe. I have many and need something secure for quick retrieval in case of home invasion. Telling my Canadian friends this elicits a shaking head over Skype. I see security camera kits for 1,500 bucks that give you access on your phone. Later that night I’m at a Mexican food place that I dearly love and sorely miss. The asshat with the weird hairdo is on TV. His name is on bumper stickers out in the parking lot. I’m enjoying an Iced Tea – another missing item up north. I ponder my last six years and my next six years. I’m glad to be among family. I know I made the right decision to come here: for my kids, for our future. But I am going to miss that Royale with Cheese.