Thursday, November 11, 2010

Canada, Oh, Canada!

Last weekend my husband was the scholar-in-residence for a Jewish Sabbath event in Vancouver, BC, hosted by a large synagogue.  We left Seattle about 6 am in the rainy darkness (sunup was about 8 am).  The only exciting part of our trek to the north was a freeway mishap in which we were snagged by a large, random piece of metal lying in our lane that drilled onto our front bumper, caught in its own hole, and dragged alongside us, etching the side doors, until we could exit the freeway and extricate it (thousands of dollars' bodywork).  The good news is that there was no line at the border crossing; with our passports and a couple of perfunctory questions, we were off.

The couple who invited us were congenial and intelligent, and as soon as we arrived, the husband presented us each with a red Remembrance Day poppy pin, worn the week before November 11, a national holiday honoring the country's war dead and military sacrifices.

Poppy in lapel, I went with the wife on a little tour of Granville Island, while my husband worked.  Toting her 6-month-old in a pouch, we explored the market stalls and quaint shops, and she told me about her life in Canada.  She was born in Vancouver, met her husband while at McGill University, completed law school and a year's practicum--and suffered plenty of frustrations and challenges living in a half-socialistic state.

Later, after services, I was seated next to a different young couple for the traditional Sabbath dinner.  The husband represented the third generation in his family's local business, though his wife had grown up in San Diego.  An upbeat and appealing pair, but they, too lapsed into a litany of difficulties with the system.

And the next day, we were delighted to be invited for lunch to the home of the congregation's assistant rabbi, with the head rabbi and his wife and many friends also in attendance.  On our walk from synagogue to our meal, as the food was assembled, and during our repast, we engaged in wide-ranging discussion--that somehow always returned to the vagaries of the Canadian experience.

We heard variants of these three complaints:  1) The health care system is tough to navigate, insensitive to individual needs, and even dangerous, given long waits for surgeries and selectivity about who's entitled to care.  2) Taxes are astronomical, with taxes on top of taxes, leaving people little left with which to enjoy life.  3) Compared with the United States, Canada offers less variety of all sorts of goods, and an insouciance about customer service that drives our new friends to make frequent trips to the US to shop.

Here are some of their stories.  One woman's brother, 21 years old, has a digestive problem causing constant discomfort and daily vomiting.  It took him three months to get an appointment with a doctor, another three for a specialist, and now he's waiting six more months for his needed surgery.  Another person I spoke with told me that while private, directly paid health care was recently approved, not everyone can afford such care on top of the taxes for basic services--the case for the 21-year-old brother, who suffers constantly. I found an interesting article describing a current court case where a for-profit hospital is claiming the Canadian law forbidding private docs from charging more than they'd charge the national health care system is unconstitutional, impinging on patients' rights to freedom of care.

A new mom told me of the rule that each obstetric patient must bring her own birth companion--because hospitals don't have the staff to watch over women in labor.

View from Granville Island
Taxes upon taxes.  The "Harmonized Sales Tax" went into effect July 1, shifting around sales taxes a bit, but resulting in a pretty-much-the-same 12% tax on Canadian goods.  Touted as a money-saver since certain low income earners can apply to get some of it refunded, and because it simplifies the taxes that previously kicked in at each step of manufacture (and pushed up the cost of goods), it's got a big thumbs up from the government.  But if you go to its website, you'll see a daunting list of what wage-earners must pay--consumer taxes (that Harmonized Sales Tax, Provincial Sales Tax, Hotel Room Tax, Tobacco Tax, Motor Fuel Tax / Carbon Tax, Tobacco Tax), Income taxes, (Personal Income Tax, Insurance Premium Tax, Logging Tax), Property Tax, and Natural Resources Tax (Forest Revenue, Mineral Tax, and Mineral Land Tax).

I saw the effect of taxing each stage of production when I ran into a market to grab some snacks for my toiling hubby.  A little pack of trail mix was $7.  A small box of Kashi crackers was $5.  Two large apples were $4. By the way, the exchange rate is now about 1:1.

Meanwhile, salaries in Canada are not too far from US wages. One of the big grouses I heard is that nearly every type of job is unionized, which means business is stuck paying what unions demand.  (In 2007, a third of all workers were unionized; government workers comprise the largest union in the country).  The new mother I spoke to said the shortage of obstetric nurses was due to the high wages they command, forcing hospitals to minimize staff. 

Housing, according to our host, who kindly drove us through the neighborhoods where he lives and grew up, seems at least as expensive as in our Seattle area.  The average price for a Vancouver residence as of September, 2010 is $679,000.  I consider that steep.

The final complaint, that retail shopping is limited and not that pleasant, links to the unions and governmental entitlement mentality, my dinner companion explained.  "Sales staff don't want to help you; they don't smile, or offer to get you anything," she noted, "because they think everything's taken care of by somebody else; they don't have to make an effort."  So she treks south to shop, her Nexus border pass smoothing her crossings.

She did recount the recent tale of her sister, who frequently visits from Seattle using her own Nexus membership.  The sister had made a Vancouver Costco run, bringing groceries back home to her sis as a favor.  However, she'd inadvertently stuck a pack of toilet tissue in her trunk with her things--it's strictly forbidden to buy anything Canadian and take it across to the US without paying duty on it.  She flashed her Nexus to cross the border, and somehow the patrol found the undeclared toilet paper.  She was detained two hours, while the officers decided whether or not to charge her--ultimately, her sister said, "they let her go with a slap on the wrist, and a stern warning that should she try to pass contraband, she would be jailed!"

Several of our lunch-mates said they make regular visits to Seattle to shop, especially for kosher food, of which there's far less in Canada.  I overheard them discussing the merits of one kosher-specializing Seattle market over another.  Most travel south for supplies at least monthly.  One lady said she prefers shopping in the US because Canadian stores are shabbier--even when they're the same chain.  "For instance, there's a world of difference shopping in WalMart in Canada versus WalMart in the US," she insisted.  "In Canada there's a lot less selection, and the store's dirty and dingy."  She too notices a difference in the way salesclerks treat customers.  A native of Vancouver, she scowled that if it weren't for her family, "I don't think I'd stay."

The reason I write about this is that I was completely surprised to hear so much spontaneous complaining about the Canadian system. The Economist this year ranks Vancouver as the most livable city on the entire globe, while Forbes lists it as the fourth-best city in the world.  The beautiful setting and quaint-plus-new combo gives it an urban rush with a charming British twist.  Certainly the people I met there were top-notch--affable, interested, opinionated, yes, but warm-as-toast.  And sincere. Quite sincere.

A two-day adventure, but after listening to our new friends describe their worlds, I was certainly glad to come home. ...Even though we idled for 45 minutes in line at the border at 10 pm on a Saturday night to do it.  When finally at the front of the slowly snaking queue of cars, two questions, show our passports...and we're on good old American soil, back in what even our new northern friends agree is the greatest nation on God's green earth.


  1. Very interesting and insightful. Thank you.

  2. My wife works at a premium outlet mall north of Seattle, a favorite shopping destination for affluent Canadians. We routinely see Canadians discard their shopping bags and receipts, ditch the shoes, clothes, purses and other items they came with, and replace them with their new purchases - simply to avoid paying duty at the border on the way home.

    These are people driving luxury cars 90 miles or more to shop, buying designer goods that have far more to do with status than function. Clearly these people have disposable income.

    But they go to great lengths to avoid paying duty. I've always thought that if Canadians weren't so heavily taxed, they wouldn't go to such lengths to break the law to save a few dollars. It’s just another indication that tax rates have diminishing returns as they become increasingly oppressive. People are generally creative and determined when it comes to working the system when they think it’s systemically unjust.

  3. It was very exciting to meet you. We are dearly hoping that the Conservative party continues to take Canada in the right direction.

    Davtut, does your wife work in Marysville? We go there annually for the Brooks Brothers sale. When crossing back into Canada, Canadian customs charges a 12% VAT in addition to any VAT paid in Washington State. This includes a lengthy process of waiting in line to pay the 12% VAT. It's absurd in an era of free trade.

    Worse is if you try to have something mailed to you. If Customs opens the box, they will charge VAT and a significant fee for opening the box, as well as delaying the package significantly while they take the time to open it.

  4. The tax story is only partially true. Taxes pay for services. Do an experiment. Travel to any US airport and look at the poor people who do the menial jobs. Then go through a Canadian airport and look at the same category of people. The first look miserable and rarely smile, the second look like me and you in overals. There is a reasons for that. Canada has problems, taxes are not one of them. Yes, even I go down to the US for a deal at JCREW, though I stay for a few days usually which gives me a 400 dollar allowance for goods. As for the healthcare horrors, just look at life expectancy, infant mortality and all other indicators that matter. People always complain about healthcare. The question is, would they want to pay premiums that would bankrupt them and lose them their house for a pre-existing condition or a truly serious sickness. A friend in her thirties from the US working at a shop here under her husband's VISA was given full absolutely free cancer treatments over two years that saved her life. She is swearing by the system. She was a W voter from the south, so no leftie, and yet once she experienced healthcare in Canada for ever changed her already shifting politics. But this is one story just to counter your stories. Look at the statistics.

    As for service. This is totally not true. Service in Vancouver is as good as anywhere I have been. They are as polite, as anywhere else and have a living wage.

    Again, stop listening to personal stories inflected by this or that politics. Look at the stats. The WHO has ranked systems and the US simply does not stand to comparison. The US has an income distribution between rich and poor that resembles that of a latin american banana republic. It was not always like this. In the 1970s 9% of GDP was owned by the top 1% now 24%. Meanwhile incomes for everyone else have actually gone down adjusted for inflation, even as healthcare costs, college costs and debt have all gone up. I am glad you feel comfortable back home, but please do not spread disinformation about other places without proper reflection of the situation at home.

    p.s. The economist BTW is a thoroughly conservative journal (in terms of politics and economics not social issues). So think about what it means that Vancouver is on the top of its rankings.