As my sister who lived in Canada for many years used to say to me:
Despite what many people from the United States believe, Canada is a foreign country.
I had the chance to observe this statement in action on a recent visit to Victoria, B.C. I had a job at St. Michaels University School on Monday, May 25, so my husband and I decided to join the hordes and travel on the Victoria Clipper for Memorial Day weekend. The first thing to realize was that I would be working on a holiday, because of course, our Memorial Day is not Canada’s Memorial Day (that happened a week prior and is called Victoria Day, for those of you not in the know). From our first moments docking on Canadian shores to our last moments before we took off, we were delighted by many things that differentiate Canada from the U.S.
First of all, the money. Yes, we did need to change money and get used to an exchange rate. It used to be that the Canadian dollar was very close to the U.S. dollar; that is no longer the case, so we needed to convert in our heads whenever we saw prices listed. Fortunately for us, but not so much for the restaurants and coffee shops we frequented, the difference is in our favor. It was fun to see the beautiful bills (why is every other currency more attractive than ours?) and familiarize ourselves with the coins, including “loonies” and “toonies.” Another interesting thing about payment was that when we did use our credit card, everyone had small, hand-held “registers” we used to make our purchases. My auditor husband was particularly impressed with this progressive method which removes the most common way for merchants to commit fraud.
Our next wonderful surprise was a long walk along the waterfront, across the Johnson Street Bridge, and way out the north side of the Bay to Esquimalt. The walking trail, though quite urban and bordered by apartment buildings, also passed through Garry Oak forests and was dotted by small beaches (including one where we watched three otters cavort for some time), preserving a feeling of being close to nature. Interestingly, wheeled traffic — bikes, skateboards, roller blades — is prohibited, which lent a calmer, gentler feel to the experience than many of our city paths where we dodge the “wheelies.”
Another thing we noticed as we walked along: Canadians like plaques. They were everywhere, in parks, on benches, on buildings, on statues and artwork and along the path. Everything commemorates something or someone, or seeks to teach the wanderer something. We were properly edified through facts about explorers, First Nations people, environmentalists, artists, trees, beach erosion, and B.C. history.
Then there is the food. I know that pubs are catching on here — places where the family is welcome, food is hearty and delicious, and beer is house-made or at least local. But we ate at several and passed so many more, most with live music emanating from them, that it was definitely part of the culture there in a way that I loved and do not feel here: no pretense. Although we walked through the Empress Hotel and gawked at the ($65 per person!) high tea, we chose instead to visit Murchie’s for tea, also famous and fabulous and much more reasonable. In fact, we liked it so much the first day we made our way back for a second current scone and Murchie’s Medley tea before the boat left on Monday evening.
On Monday I spent the day at St. Michaels University School, one of 26 in B.C. and only 90 in Canada (in stark contrast to 700 in Washington State and 1500 in the US). The nomenclature is different: Junior School is what we call Elementary School, Middle School is the same, and Senior School is what we call High School or Upper School. Other than that, the school felt much like any of the independent schools I have visited and/or worked in here in the U.S. Beautiful buildings, open space for students to roam and play in, a rigorous academic curriculum, smaller classes, a strong sports program, and a focus on character-building and emotional intelligence. In Canada, unlike the U.S., however, independent schools do receive some government funding and therefore need to adhere to the same standards as public schools. They are also connected to national and international programs through the Commonwealth such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award in which students can earn awards for excellence in service leadership. St. Michaels has a strong focus on service and a robust international program; I enjoyed meeting faculty, administrators and students who value experiential education in and out of the classroom, and who want to see it become an even more integral part of their school to reach even more students.
All in all, we had a thoroughly lovely time in Victoria, B.C., Canada. We returned home refreshed and stimulated by both the differences and similarities we experienced visiting our neighbors to the north. Let us continue to visit, learn from, and inspire each other.