The science behind why Canada is the world’s friendliest country

new brunswick
Grand Manan, New Brunswick in Canada - New Brunswick Tourism/ Maxime Coquard

I’d just come through the security arch at Ottawa airport, the sort that pings. It had pinged. I’d forgotten to take off my belt. “No worries,” said the uniformed security chap. “I wouldn’t want my trousers falling down here either.” He smiled. A real smile!

Moments later, his colleague also smiled at the (even) older lady who followed me through, then helped her get her bag off the conveyor belt thingy. So… two charming airport security people in two minutes, which was two more than I’d ever encountered anywhere else. We’d arrived in Canada some time before, with all the “Canadians are so nice” stuff ringing in our ears. Oh yeah. Very likely. Canadians are people and people aren’t all nice.

It seemed that we were wrong. During early days of roaming Eastern Canada, we’d undergone an unrelenting blitz of pleasantness. Clearly, the staff everywhere – bars, restaurants, hotels, shops – had been awaiting our arrival to make their happiness complete.  Maybe they’d been briefed. “Hi! How are you?” they cried. “Fantastic!” we replied, and lunchtime (dinner time, drinks time, breakfast, supermarket time) took off. That airport security people should also be amiable was the clincher. Canada was living up to its billing.

Canada's Parliament Building in Ottawa overlooks the historic Rideau Canal
Canada's Parliament Building in Ottawa overlooks the historic Rideau Canal – in winter, some commuters skate over the frozen canal to get to work - Getty

Granted, the image has taken a smack in recent times. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s honouring of an old Nazi, Yaroslav Hunka, in parliament in Ottawa in September didn’t help. Neither did the unsavoury row over its Covid vaccine mandates and Freedom Convoy. And rumbling on is the issue of Canada’s historic attempts to turn First Nation children into Euro-Canadians by wrenching them from their families and sticking them in government-sponsored Residential Schools.

But every country’s history has dark patches, which, to be blunt, scarcely impact on a visitor experience more concerned with eating (and subsequently avoiding) poutine, seeking traces of Samuel Champlain and General James Wolfe, exploring lakes and rivers, marvelling at just how many things one can do with maple syrup, drinking beer and looking out for moose.

Also being welcomed everywhere as if distant family members, possibly with a fortune to bestow. Arriving direct from Europe – where “terse” is an aspiration, “offhand” often as good as it gets – we spent a lot of time thinking we’d landed in a cinema advert for hospitality, one of those where everyone grins and brings you a cocktail and has only your contentment at heart.

Arriving from Europe – where ‘terse’ is an aspiration – is like landing in a cinema advert for hospitality - Destination Canada

“Hi, I’m Kurt,” said Kurt in a restaurant in Moncton, New Brunswick. “How can I help you guys today?” We guys ordered. There were four of us. Kurt noted we weren’t Canadian. “From France? God, I love the French,” he cried – reeling off a list of French bands he’d appreciated. We talked for quite a while. It went swimmingly. If only I’d thought to take his address, I’d send him a Christmas card.

Frankly, I could be scattering Christmas cards across Eastern Canada. Over three weeks, I liked everybody as much as they liked me. When, at a government liquor store near Ottawa, my card didn’t work, the fellow pretty much dismantled the machine to find a fault, put it back together again and would, almost certainly, have paid the money himself, had I not found another card.

Nor was all this the machine-gun “Have-a-nice-day-rat-a-tat-tat” spat out on the other side of the border. Canadians do seem to mean it. We had conversations. They found us fascinating. Obviously, this was genuine.

There is, anyway, objective evidence for Canadian niceness. Evidence of a sort. A university analysis of 40 million Tweets over a year between 2015-2016 indicated that Canadians disproportionately used polite and positive language: “gorgeous”, “amazing”, “great”, “thanks”. Even pre-Trump, US tweeters were more apt to be negative: “damn”, “hate”, “bored”. This isn’t much, but it is something.

'Any nation with the moose as national animal and poutine as the national dish needs a sense of humour and a sense of humility,' writes Peregrine
'Any nation with the moose as the national animal and poutine as the national dish needs a sense of humour and a sense of humility,' writes Peregrine - Destination Canada

Theories explaining this niceness are legion. Some suggest it is a survival mechanism, in two senses. Firstly, Canada is huge and cold. If people don’t help one another, they get lost and freeze. Secondly, niceness is also “a way to relate to the overbearing superpower south of the border,” an academic has said. Father of Justin, ex-PM Pierre Trudeau, once explained that it was like “sleeping with an elephant”.

Other theories suggest other things – I’ll spare you – for the likeliest is my conclusion: that any nation with the moose as national animal and poutine (chips, cheese curds, gravy) as the national dish needs a sense of humour and a sense of humility – but also the self-confidence to stand tall all the same. After 21 days there, I’m sure this is correct.

Like everyone else, Canadians may get carried away. The new 2023 law banning outdoor smoking within nine metres (30 feet) of a door or window appears excessive when, behind those doors and windows – if they belong to pubs or restaurants – people are consuming burgers, chips, pizzas, fries, poutine as a main dish, fried chicken, sausages, chips, fish ‘n’ chips, poutine as a side-dish, and desserts the size of a big dog’s head.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for all this. I ate like a hog. If I’d stayed a week longer, I’d have had a BMI in triple figures. I would have had anyway, were it not for friends giving me a break by preparing lovely lighter-touch cuisine apparently not commercially available in Quebec, Ontario or New Brunswick. But not everyone has such friends. And the main diet does seem to render being outdoors and within, say, 20 feet of a cigarette a minor health issue.

Byward Market in Ottawa
Ottawa's Byward Market - Getty

But that’s not my affair. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I was a guest in the country and revelling in lean smoked meat from a Montreal take-away owned by Céline Dion (“Will she be serving?” “Probably not”), the extraordinary St Joseph’s Oratory up above on Mont Royal, sky-rises astounding to a bloke living in a French village where there’s not much which is taller than he is – and the appeal of the Canadian rail system.

Revelling, too, in the possibilities of limitless space, not least on Lake Ontario – smallest of the Great Lakes but still more than 1,250 times bigger than Lake Windermere. (Canadians claim not to feel claustrophobic in Europe, but do so, certainly, to spare our feelings.)

I – we – revelled a lot, in short, from the Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence via governmental Ottawa and the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau to small Ontario towns where you just knew the community had cake-and-maple-syrup-based festivities, fine little coffee shops and, in Merickville-Wolford, a book emporium where a highly-charged young fellow introduced me to Canadian author Timothy Findley. I’d never encountered Findley before but, having now read The Wars, I shall be encountering him quite often in the future.

Notable too were the entwined undercurrents of Britishness and Frenchness bursting through the surface. The best examples were in Quebec City where colonial history – French kicked out by the British – had left a citadel, the fullest old fortifications on the continent plus a civilised atmosphere of European and North American parentage: old stones, 18th-century houses, big bars with “Please Wait To Be Seated” on the doors, monumental items (the Château Frontenac Hotel could accommodate the entire population of Quebec, with panache) and a preserved British officers’ mess in the Artillery Park.

This past means the present Quebecois speak French, but it also means they do so as if wrestling a foreign language into submission. They speak English the same way. I found the ambiguity fascinating, though I understand that anglophone Canadians may be less thrilled.

But that’s not my affair either. I liked them all because they all liked me. I especially like the distracted lady who, in Ottawa, bumped into a lamp-post and then turned to apologise. Apologising to lamp-posts is quintessentially Canadian. Canadianness became more precious yet in hindsight, from Charles de Gaulle airport, through which we passed on the way home. A hatchet-faced security woman chucked a perfectly-sized, thus legitimate, little shampoo bottle into the bin, refusing to give an explanation, or even damned well speak.

Have you been to Canada? Do you feel the same way about Canadians as Anthony? Share your experiences in the comments section below