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Trapped At Tim Hortons

When I think of places I expect to have my faith in humanity restored, a fast-food restaurant parking lot is low on the list. But a recent trip to Canada proved me wrong.

Canadians have long been known for being nice. In stereotypes, they eternally say “sore-ee” for anything and everything, regardless if it requires an apology. For instance, this YouTube clip, titled “Real Canadian Road Rage,” is about as far from what most Americans think of as “road rage” as you can get. A man in a van apologizes profusely after he almost runs into a speeding motorcyclist, to the point that the near-victim is consoling the man who almost hit him.

As Americans, it can be hard to comprehend such an inviting society. Most of us are very used to being cut off in traffic and yelled at. If you’ve ever worked in retail or food service, a stranger yelling at you is almost a certainty. It is rare to encounter the pure niceties that most Canadians possess south of the border. I was lucky enough, however, to get a glimpse of it in person recently.

I traveled to Nova Scotia with Palisades Hudson President Larry Elkin last month on business. We stayed for nearly a week, and I didn’t meet a mean Canadian my entire trip. On the contrary, most people went out of their way to accommodate us.

This brings me back to the parking lot. Before leaving the area around Mavillette, a small Acadian hamlet on St. Mary’s Bay, to drive three hours to Halifax to catch our flights home, we stopped at the only Tim Hortons around. We had a tight time window, so we chose to order our coffees and croissants inside, rather than waiting in the growing line of cars queued for the drive-thru. Larry parked our Dodge Durango; we ran in, were served promptly and headed back out. But we found on our way out that the cars waiting in the drive-thru line had blocked us in, and there was no other exit. Either we were going to be stuck in our parking spot for the next 15 minutes or we would have to cut into the line, then wait until we reached the window to escape.

Larry backed up as much as he could to signal to the cars in line that we were trying to exit. We fully expected to have to wait, but something amazing happened instead: The car directly behind us backed up as much as it could to give us some space. The car behind also backed up, as did the car in line behind that one. The last car, which had just pulled into the lot, stopped short of the line to give us even more room. Larry was able to maneuver our vehicle using the extra space, and we exited the parking lot without having to wait at all.

This act of kindness should have come as no surprise to me by then. I had remarked to Larry many times in the few days prior that Canadians are so much nicer than Americans – the stereotype is true. But I was still surprised, even so. I have been in this exact situation at restaurant parking lots in the United States. There, I have not been able to back up at all without the car waiting in line inching closer to the car in front of it, cutting me off. It is this contrast that made our Tim Hortons escape seem downright miraculous.

What is it about the Canadian lifestyle that makes them want to help their fellow man? What are we Americans doing wrong?

Are Americans more stressed, and thus quicker to anger than our neighbors to the north? We are certainly more crowded. The population of the United States is over eight times that of Canada’s (328 million vs. 37 million, as of this writing), mostly due to the frigid temperatures found in Canada’s northernmost territories. In fact, almost all of the major cities in Canada are located within 200 miles of the U.S. border. The population density of the U.S. is 93 people per square mile, while the population density of Canada is only 11 per square mile.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) tracks murder rates across the world. It defines intentional homicide as “unlawful death inflicted upon a person with the intent to cause death or serious injury.” The 2016 murder rate in Canada according to UNODC was 1.68 per 100,000 people, or 611 deaths overall, while the murder rate in the U.S. was 5.35, or 17,250 deaths. However, the murder rate in Canada increased in 2017 due to higher incidences of gang violence, while it decreased in the U.S. that same year. Suicide rates, too, are higher in the U.S. than in Canada. The U.S. has the 27th highest rate worldwide, at 15.3 suicides per 100,000 people; Canada ranks 44th, with 12.5 suicides per 100,000.

While Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – the largest cities in Canada – may feel metropolitan, even Toronto’s population doesn’t come close to that of New York City. (It is closer in population to Boston.) Many Canadians live in smaller towns, which often have a closer-knit feel than larger cities. The population of the entire province of Nova Scotia is less than 1 million people. In the Acadian areas between Digby and Yarmouth, Larry and I saw many of the same last names on restaurant and realty signs, suggesting that many of the people living there are members of the same extended families. They afford the same courtesy to visitors as they would their own family members, even though they do note curiously that we “come from away.”

I’m not saying that all Canadians are happier than all Americans. As we have recently discussed in our blog, Canada’s single-payer health care system has left many Canadians without adequate or timely care, so much so that some of them will travel to the U.S. for cancer treatment and vital surgeries. Controversy has swirled around Justin Trudeau because of the SNC-Lavalin scandal. As I mentioned, gang violence has increased in major metropolitan cities like Toronto in the past few years. Perhaps the “Canadian dream,” where everyone knows your name and greets you on the street, is disappearing slowly. But my experience a few weeks ago showed me that Canadian kindness has not gone by the wayside yet.

Is it possible for us brash Americans to adopt the friendly attitudes of our Canadian neighbors? I think we can – after all, it seems to be common courtesy that Canadians embody. Saying hello to strangers on the street, observing traffic etiquette and being kinder in general does not seem too difficult. America has been divided for the past few years, and we have been quick to lash out at our friends and neighbors, especially on social media, where we can hide behind our keyboards. We only have to look to our Canadian brethren to see that it is possible to extend decency to our fellow man. I discovered this decency while trapped in a parking lot, and it helped restore a little of my waning faith in my fellow humans.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Palisades Hudson’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

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