What the World Thinks About Canadians

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

“I would like to ask you a question,” C almost whispered, pushing her long hair back behind her ear. She sat shyly hunched on the bench, folding her shoulders inward and making her diminutive frame appear even smaller. Her peers, a group of Grade 11 English students gathered with us for an afternoon picnic, were playing a raucous game of volleyball as we sat back and chatted.

“Of course!” I responded, “Ask away!”

“Are Canadians afraid of the dark?”

Despite my best efforts to spare her vulnerable feelings, a snicker escaped. My Aunt, sitting beside me, didn’t fare any better.

After assuring C that as a nation, Canada has no collective fear of darkness (words of truth from my Aunt: “We practically live in complete darkness during the winter months, it would be awful if we were afraid of it.”), I explained to my Aunt that I knew exactly from where this question came. It was not uncommon for us, while living in this small remote Turkish town, to be questioned regarding their only exposure to our home country: a quirky Canadian character named Robin from the popular CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.

Robin Scherbatsky How I Met Your Mother

Robin is teased and tormented by her American friends for several stereotypes: her love of hockey and her obsessive use of the word “eh” when drinking, as well as the unsubstantiated notion that all Canadians fear the dark. Chair throwing aside, Robin typically takes it all in stride and represents us fairly well. (At the very least, even though Robin is fictional, she is better than some other representatives we have as a nation.)

Understandably, popular culture is often the first teacher overseas, as it can transcend the barriers of language and miles (for English students in foreign countries, watching TV is often homework as means to improve their language skills). We don’t have the constant international media attention that our neighbours to the south have. And so, beyond a few well known celebrities, we ourselves as tourists are often the biggest exposure others may have to our home country.

Thankfully, those that have gone before us served our nation well.

Overwhelmingly, people love us.

Once, while checking into a hostel in southern Chile, we overheard some Aussies talking with Brits about who they’ve met on the road. One said: “Have you met any Canadians? They are SO nice! We love Canadians!”

And I have to tell you, that was not the first time we heard that, and certainly not the last.

It is a repeating chorus wherever we go. We are pre-judged as awesome before people have barely spoken a word to us. Although we do get teased for being too nice, too laid-back, and for apologizing too often. (And we’re real sorry about that.)

“Are Canadians afraid of the dark?” C asked.
Banff NP 2012_062

Both Pete and I wear a Canadian flag on our backpacks, proudly. Some people do it in order to be automatically distinguished from our southern neighbours, but we do it for the instant rock-star status it brings. It can be like flashing a gold card at an expensive night club, sometimes you just get treated better for it.

As long as people know what our flag looks like.

Like C, some people don’t know a lot about us aside from a few popular celebrities.

We have met people that couldn’t point Canada out on a map. And some of our dear friends from around the globe repeatedly pronounce it Cah-Nay-Dee-Ya no matter how many times we say it correctly to them.

When we retell these stories back home, our friends and family often get their backs up, and I will admit to doing so at first as well. We live in the second biggest country in the world! How could people not know about us?

And then I found peace with it and shelved my Canuck ego. I realized that this can actually be a good thing. Or at least, better than the dark alternative of being hated because we’ve made the international news for something undesirable.

I see it as an opportunity – a perfectly clean slate. If we are their first exposure to anything truly Canadian, we try to represent our nation well. We like to show pictures of home, be helpful and generous, and of course, automatically apologize even if we’re in the wrong.

(We can’t help that last part. It’s just a part of us, like the maple syrup that runs through our veins.)

We want the next tourists to pass through to get the same star treatment we sometimes do, and to be known for far more than Bieber and that Robin lady who is scared of the dark.

And we want to be known as more than “that cold country next to America”.

If we are their first exposure to anything truly Canadian, we try to represent our nation well.
Canada America's Hat

image via thegreenhead.com

Without fail, every new acquaintance made overseas pegs us as American at the start. It’s a natural assumption, given our similar accents and the chances of meeting a Canadian versus an American (the USA has ten times more people, of course more of them will be on the road). We politely correct them, but sometimes our reference to the almost 9,000km border doesn’t even matter.

We are made out to be an extension of America, and sometimes get pulled into a discussion on our neighbour’s politics whether we choose to engage in it or not. A tour guide once noted that we were essentially the same because we had elected a “crazy conservative President, like Bush”. Firstly, while Harper is no gem, the ideals of his Conservative party are more closely aligned with America’s Democrats than the Republicans.

Secondly, we have a Prime Minister, not a President. (But we can understand how he could have made that mistake, and we did apologize for the confusion.)

We take no offense to being initially labeled as Americans, as more often than not, Americans are very loved too. Although it may be counterintuitive to the democratic process, the actions of government do not always reflect the values of the common people (heh), and many citizens of the world rightly recognize this.

We ourselves have made many close American friends on the road and have enjoyed both of our extended house-sits there immensely.

We just want to be clear that we’re not one of them. Let there be no confusion here that we are one and the same – our hockey players are way better.

We take no offense to being initially labeled as Americans, as more of than not, Americans are very loved too.
Ljubljana_P2_001

In conclusion: we have a lot to be proud of!

We have our share of issues, without doubt, but Canada has largely been a positive force on the world stage – both politically and at the micro level with meager backpackers like us – and Pete and I are joyfully reaping the benefits. For the most part we are welcomed with open arms, often hear proclamations of love, and are even granted the odd discount thanks to the maple leaf on our passports.

And for those who know little of Canada, we are happy to teach them what we can (with the exception of when people believe Bieber is American, we usually let that one slide).

The truth is that we never fully appreciated our own country until we left it. Clint Borgen, an American philanthropist, once said: “When overseas you learn more about your own country, than you do the place you’re visiting.” And that is the truth.

It is one of the greatest lessons learned in our four years of travels – one of immense pride for our home. Because we really do come from one of the best countries in the world.

(Shit, was that too much boasting? Sorry about that.)

It is one of the greatest lessons learned in our four years of travels – one of immense pride for our home.
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  • May 20 2013

    Happy Victoria Day! Yes, it’s great to be recognized as a Canadian when travelling as we do get better treatment and more welcoming smiles. It annoys me when people abroad think that we Canadians are just an extension of the US. Respectfully, Canada is very different from the US, and although I have many Americans friends, I like to think we have some major differences — the biggest being that Canadians seem to enjoy differences in culture when travelling, whereas, I have often seen Americans comparing differences to “the way it is at home” and considering them to be deficiencies rather than differences. Enjoy your travels!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..five reasons to visit Gimli

    • May 21 2013

      There are definitely major differences, but they are not always recognizable to people I think unless they spend time in each country. And to be fair, I’ve seen Canadians act that way too. 🙂

  • Yay Canada! We Canadians are usually quick to correct people who mistake us for Americans, and many people unfortunately interpret this has anti-Americanism. I often make the comparison that we’re like siblings. My sister and I have a strong physical resemblance and people often mistake me her for. I love my sister, but I want people to know me for me. I am a distinct person, not just Sheryl’s sister. Same deal with Canadians and Americans.
    Steph | A Nerd At Large recently posted..Foto Friday: Royal Botanical Gardens

    • May 21 2013

      Very good analogy – the sibling relationship!

  • May 20 2013

    Heck yeah! I’m proud to be Canadian and I’ve always been pleased with the reaction I get from people abroad. Happy Victoria Day!

  • May 21 2013

    Hah, I love telling people that I’m from Indonesia. I usually get a blank look. In a way that’s a burden because now I’m their only data point of what Indonesians are like. Lots of pressure 🙂

    Anyway, we’ll be spending a lot of time in Canada this year and really looking forward to get to know the country a little bit more.

    • May 21 2013

      Haha, yes, there is more pressure when you are the SOLE representative. The benefit we have, as Canadians, is that if we do something wrong, we can just let them keep believing we are American. (Sorry USA!) 🙂

  • A Montrealer Abroad (@amontrealer)
    May 20 2013

    I read this post and feel immensely proud, even as a Québécoise. All I have to say is FUCK YEAH CANADA. 🙂

    • May 21 2013

      It’s funny…the first question we get asked is if we are from America, the second is if we speak French (after we tell them we are Canadian). And I don’t know the stats on this – but do you know if you Québécoise typically travel more than the rest of our country?

  • Haha, such an awesome post! Not too much bragging at all! I think the “Canada, America’s Hat” might be the sister to “America, Canada’s Shorts” :http://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/reasons-everything-is-way-better-in-canada
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Could you live off a dive instructor’s wage on Roatan?

    • May 21 2013

      OMIGOD Rika, thanks so much for sharing that Buzzfeed post. I wish I had found that before hand – it’s awesome!

  • May 21 2013

    Canada and the Canadians are soooo far away from Europe… most of the times we hear only good things about Canada and the lovely Canadians.

    • May 21 2013

      That’s good! We gotta keep the great reputation spreading! 🙂

  • May 21 2013

    Too funny! The rock star and stereotypes are fun. Friends from California are always asked if they live in Beverly Hills and if they’ve been in a movie. Now that I’ve been based in Texas a while they always want to see my boots (which I don’t own) or photos of my horse and of course, there’s always a reference to the TV show “Dallas” and the lead character JR.

    I give your young friend many kudos for having asked. Through questioning we all learn.
    Maria recently posted..Return of Garage Imp

  • May 21 2013

    Interesting post! I, of course, only have experience traveling as an American and all that entails. Though, I do have to say that I have never been judged poorly for coming the the US. Most people around the world can separate the public from the politics – something we Americans should work on!

    It is often funny though that people all over the world – from New Zealand to Europe – recognize Ohio as being a “swing state” in US politics. I guess there are worse things a state could be known for, though!
    Amanda recently posted..5 MORE Things to Love About Ottawa

    • May 23 2013

      Ha – that is funny! I know of another Ohio family traveling and they said the same thing – they watched the election from somewhere in South America, and people were so interested in their opinion because they were from the “swing state”. 🙂

  • May 21 2013

    Love this post and I’m also proud to be Canadian although I think that because people know so little about us other than the typical stereotypes we get cut a lot of slack, especially for mining and environmental issues which we are horrible with due to the current government.

    Let’s just hope we can change that before anyone finds out!
    Ayngelina recently posted..The power of community

    • May 23 2013

      Those are our ugly truths, and they are getting uglier lately. Let’s hope that change is in the air tho…

  • I love Canada. I love Canadians. I love how much pride you have in your country. I love this post 🙂
    Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted..8 cool places to go in Columbus

  • May 22 2013

    I pronounce it Canadia but mainly to razz our Canadian counterparts. <3

    • May 23 2013

      I do the same thing sometimes too. 🙂

  • May 22 2013

    I don’t mind Canadia. I don’t mind that we may be closer aligned with Terrance and Phillip, and that we should just all relax and have a beer. I don’t mind we have poutine, Nanaimo bars, and sugar pie. I don’t mind that my country touches three oceans: the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Arctic. I don’t mind the fact that when you drive across the country, you’ll see signs announcing the crossing of the watersheds from Pacific to Arctic to Atlantic. I don’t mind being mistaken for Americans, so Iong as I don’t misbehave which would make my neighbours look bad. I don’t mind spelling neighbour, colour, favour, honour, etc. with or without the ‘u’. I don’t mind speaking to friends in German, and having them wonder how this Asian dude from Canada got to have this conversation. I don’t mind when I get a little bit of beer into my system, and the vowels in “out and about” become more elongated, followed by frequent sprinkling of the “eh!” bomb. I don’t mind the bears, moose, and beavers; all those trees and free running fresh water. I don’t mind the maple leaf; our humble flag so distinct and immediately recognizable around the world. I don’t mind that this very flag of ours is only 48 years old. I don’t mind understanding my country a little bit better by having been away for so long.

    I don’t mind at all, because I am Canadian.
    fotoeins | Henry recently posted..Sydney’s April full-moon: fall and rise in a single day

    • May 23 2013

      Very diplomatic. So Canadian of you!! The next Molson commercial, perhaps? 🙂

      • May 23 2013

        Perhaps it’s time for a new Molson advertisement, although it’s unclear whether I have to pay residuals to Molson, or if I get them in reverse. No matter, I’d love to do a Molson ad if I can appear side-by-side with Cobie Smulders. 🙂
        fotoeins | Henry recently posted..Berlin Festival of Lights: 2012 Highlights

  • Yea Canada!
    We find that the greatest gift travel has given us is an appreciation and admiration of our homeland. The more we explore our world, the more we love where we live. I don’t know that we’ll ever call another country home
    Cam @ Traveling Canucks recently posted..Photo of the Week: The Jewel of Varna, Bulgaria

    • May 23 2013

      That was an unexpected benefit of all the travel – I never thought it would have such an impact on how I view our home!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    May 22 2013

    I haven’t watched HIMYM in ages, but even I got a kick out of all the Canadian stereotypes and ephemera that the writers managed to include! I think as Canadians, we’re always happy when we get a little attention thrown our way! 😀

    It’s really easy to take it for granted that people from other countries will know as much about your own country and its dynamic as you do, but even going just one country away into the States, you can see how much that makes Canada special is completely unknown to them. I am always making references to restaurants, television shows, bands, etc., that Tony just doesn’t understand at all!

    And yes, traveling overseas, I have had to tell people on several occasions that no, Canada & the U.S. are not pretty much the same country and there is a reason why we have different passports! That said, when people actually know who our PM is, I am wildly impressed!

    • May 23 2013

      I just found on, when researching for this article, that the actress who plays Robin is actually a Canadian! So I’m sure she helps shape that part of the show, and they do a pretty good job overall. Good thing we (as a nation) have a pretty easy sense of humor about that stuff. 🙂

  • I giggled at this! I really enjoy watching How I Met Your Mother so it’s funny to see the stereotypes it has spread around the world. 😉

  • May 23 2013

    I love this post. As an American (and New Yorker at that, so a true Canadian-border sharer!) I am often somewhat miffed when I hear Canadians sounding so offended at being mistaken for Americans. However, this post and the comments have helped me see a different side. I’ll just try to remind myself how patriotic Canadians must be 🙂
    Alex recently posted..Photo of the Week 101

  • May 24 2013

    I recently visited Canada (my first country in North America, yay!) and it made me realize how little I knew about it before arriving there. I blame media on that as all we hear here is about the US. All I could think about when picturing Canada was hokey, maple syrup, Ann of Green Gables and Robin from HIMYM. I felt really bad about that but then I’ve realized it’s good in a way as I had no expectations about Canada, I just took it how it was and I loved it big time, much more than I’ve expected!! And people were so incredible there!!! 🙂
    kami recently posted..amazing street art in Montreal

  • May 25 2013

    Generally speaking I tend to think that Canadians are really proud of their country and don’t want to be mistaken for being from the US, hence the stickers on backpacks. Frankly though, I don’t really need to know where travelers are from…as long as their cool all is good 🙂

  • May 25 2013

    Should have written they’re 😉

  • May 25 2013

    Lol I just got back from traveling with all Canadians (again), so this was fun to read. We were reminiscing about how the first time we were all together, the Canadians even had gum with the maple leaf on it. Hadn’t heard the fear of the dark “rumor”!

    • May 28 2013

      I hadn’t heard of that rumor either until I started watching that show a bit. I think they made that one up just for fun, to see how far it would spread. It’s doing well. 🙂

  • Emily in Chile
    May 25 2013

    A friend and I were just talking about how we become representatives of our country when traveling and often get sucked into discussions about politics and what the rest of the world thinks we do wrong. It must be nice to be Canadian considering the good reputation you guys enjoy in most of the world! Meanwhile I shall keep repeating that no, I don’t know why we elected George W. not once but twice…

    • May 28 2013

      I really think that would suck – when people consider you a representative for anything bad that has happened in your country. Like THAT is fair. Hopefully it doesn’t happen to often…

  • May 27 2013

    I also met a Canadian friend from my second backpacking trip (Malaysia) and she gave me a small Canadian flag. 😉
    Juno recently posted..Runaway Photo: Penang, Malaysia

    • May 28 2013

      Ooh, that’s cool! I never thought of taking little flags along to give away. Nice keepsake! 🙂

  • Ann
    May 30 2013

    As an American whose maiden name is Bush, I know how annoying it is to be thought of as something you aren’t when you travel.

    • June 2 2013

      Oh goodness – I can imagine that would be quite the challenge to deal with!

  • June 4 2013

    Love it! I am also a proud Canadian and love to meet my fellow travellers from north of the border! You made me giggle when you wrote about how we apologize too much – it is so true! People keep telling me to apologize less but I can’t help myself – it is part of who I am! I think I will have to get myself a new Canadian Flag for my suitcase, my backpack has gone into semi-retirement!

  • June 6 2013

    As a liberal, hockey-mad American, I love Canada and actually think I would fit in much better north of the border! Sadly, I’ve only been once. Gotta admit though, the whole “let’s wear our flag on our backpack thing” is a bit annoying and sadly has skewed my opinion of a small slice of Canadian travelers. First off, have you ever noticed that Canadians seem to be the only folks doing this? I’ve thought of actually putting an American flag patch on my bag just to mock the whole operation, but it just seems so arrogant or “look at me!”, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m Surprised so many Canadians do it so easily. I am glad you say you wear them to be treated like rockstars only, but for those that wear them solely to distinguish themselves from the bad side of Americans, why don’t they just do that with their actions and opinions instead of a patch? Oh, and last time I checked it took Canada overtime in the gold medal game to beat the U.S. on Canadian soil, so our players aren’t too far behind, you guys.

    • June 8 2013

      Hey Scott, we’d gladly welcome you and make you an honorary Canadian anytime! We’d even give you a token flag for your backpack, haha, just kidding. I get why that would totally be annoying to Americans, but to be fair, everyyyyytimmmeeee anyone wants to ask where we are from, they always say: “So, you’re American?” We are proud to be Canadian! It’s not that we totally dislike you guys, we just want to be recognized as being who we are! A flag does help that matter, plus, we become rockstars! Win, win! 🙂

  • James
    August 2 2013

    I am a born and bred, true red and white, Irish decent, Canadian. I have done a lot of thinking over the years about why the world thinks we are so “nice”, and I have to say that I have agreed with this statement less and less. Though it’s a great reputation to have, I feel Canadians ride the wave of a “good name” throughout the world, and we don’t really earn it back home. I’ll tell you what I mean.I had the unfortunate experience of hitting a deer, just outside of Ottawa a few months ago. Car parts everywhere, hood up, and me standing on the side of the road. I counted over 70 cars that drove by before someone stopped and asked if I was alright and needed a ride or a phone call. You want to know who it was? A dark skinned taxi driver who could barely speak enough English to get his point across. Everyone else slowed down to get a better look and sped off to wherever it was that was more important than a fellow Canuck.
    Now, in all fairness, some of the nicest people I have ever met have been from my home country, however in general I have found that people in other countries are much, much nicer (with the exception of Newfoundlanders, who are truly, very nice). I should mention I have done a great deal of world travelling, and even in the streets of Afghanistan the general public smiled and talked to me every chance they could about anything they knew how to say in English.
    I am simply saying that I would love to see Canadians live up to their reputation of being “so nice, eh?”

    P.S. Great post. Interesting to read

  • Rob
    October 17 2013

    Gotta love Canadians eh? Amazing in my years of traveling how people warm up to us Canadians as such nice friendly people!
    I guess we’re doing something right! 🙂
    Rob recently posted..Beaches Of Majorca

  • As a Kiwi, I think my experience when travelling is quite similar to yours. I always get mistaken for Australian as our accent is similar and people don’t seem to know a lot about New Zealand. Except for Lord of the Rings of course. We do have a great rep for being some of the friendliest people in the world so I do get a lot of love when I mention I am a Kiwi. I love Canada, it is one of my favourite countries (along with my beloved NZ of course) and I find Canadians and New Zealanders very similar types of people. Bit more unassuming and relaxed than our larger neighbours. You have a lot to be proud of in that beautiful country of yours 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..My second award nomination for Blogging: The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

  • Mary Mack
    July 3 2014

    IHappy Canada Day! It’s always hard to be away from home where ever home is on a National holiday. I’m not Candian but live close by:) My sister in law who is Canadian sent me this today and I think that it applies to Darlene as well.

    “Sweet girls come from the South. Barbie’s come from California. But Canadian girls have fire and ice in their blood. They can drive in the snow handle the cold, beat the heat, be a princess, throw a right hook and drink with the boys. They can cook a wicked good meal and if they have an opinion…you bet your sweet xxx you’re going to hear it!”
    Happy Canada Day!

  • July 1 2015

    I had no idea about Canada and How I Met Your Mother. Funny! I have also met people that think Canadians are weirdly smug because we think everyone loves us.
    Wandering Carol recently posted..Rocky Mountaineer routes quiz: and what mountain animal are you?

    • Pete
      July 2 2015

      Aw, that’s really too bad that that perception exists. 🙁

  • July 2 2015

    Nice hats! Love all your Canada photos.

    Hope you had a great Canada Day.
    Leigh recently posted..Adventures in Dinosaur Provincial Park

  • Thanks for the perspective. As a bi-cultural family, we often find ourselves choosing between “personas”. Do we want to present ourselves as Brazilian, or as American? We’re proud of both our nations, but we’re aware that sometimes it helps us to be one or the other in different circumstances. Plus, there are some real economic benefits, no-visas-required-for-Brazlians-in-most-of-South-America, for example.
    Gretchen Richter de Medeiros recently posted..Three types of not-so-touristy teen travel

  • Paul
    July 17 2015

    Yes, English-speaking Canadians are very kind and polite . . . until you mention any of the following words to them: “Québec,” “French” or “francophone” – at which point you are quite likely to receive a stream of disgustingly nasty, ignorant and downright racist comments. It’s sad. And I say this as a native English-speaker.

    • July 18 2015

      You know what Paul, I hate to say that I agree with you. Not everyone is like that of course, but far too much prejudice against Quebec exists in other parts of Canada. It is terribly sad.

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