Canada: The Less Than Perfect Utopia

1

I thought I’d piss off an entire country today.

My wife and I just returned from a month-long trip to the Canadian Rockies. Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, and the mountains in general were spectacular. The Canadian people, with the exception of a surly African-American-Canadian woman at Tim Horton’s, lived up to their stereotype of being very polite and friendly. And the Canadians actually stay out of the highway passing lane unless they are passing someone (idiot drivers from Florida please take note).

But the Great White North falls short of the utopia that American progressives depict it to be.

If you listen to Bernie, Rachel Maddow, Al Gore, Lena Dunham, or “insert name of favorite progressive shyster here” then you probably think Canada is a wonderful country where everyone happily contributes to the general welfare and thus healthcare is free, everyone lives well, nobody ever worries about being poor, and liberty abounds. Unfortunately, that is not the truth.

My introduction to Canada came at customs in the Calgary airport. The very first thing they did was take my picture so they could put it into the facial recognition database. I was only a few steps into the country and already big brother was watching me.

When I tipped the rental-car shuttle driver I didn’t have any Canadian money, so I offered him a US $5 bill. He was delighted because, as he said, “it’s worth more than Canadian money.” And it is. The Canadian dollar (C$) has fallen 24% compared to the US dollar (US$) since 2011. Obamanomics may have produced the weakest economic recovery since WW2 but apparently we’re kicking Canada’s butt.

On the way to our hotel we stopped at a beer store to ensure we’d have cheap refreshment. Then we discovered that there is NO such thing as cheap refreshment in Canada. To give you a reference point – I live in North Carolina, which has the 5th highest beer tax in the country at $0.62 per gallon. Today my wife bought a case of Miller High Life (stop giggling – it’s the Champagne of beer!) in our hometown for $12.99. Of that price, $2.79 is excise tax. If you divvy up the total price it comes to $0.54 per can of frothy goodness.

You wanna know how much beer costs in America’s Hat? Ahelluvalot!

The least expensive option I could find in the Canmore beer store was a 15-pack of PBR. Yes, I had to settle for PBR. Sit down before you read the next part … 15 cans of PBR cost C$29. That’s equal to $23.20 in real money. That’s $1.55 per can! That’s over $1 more than it costs in the US. Why is Canadian beer so expensive when it costs the same to brew it there? It’s because the Canadian federal and provincial governments are slapping a 200% excise tax on it. And to make it worse, you have to pay the GST, or sales tax, on top of the excise tax. In other words, you have to pay a sales tax on the outrageous excise tax (to be fair, this also happens in the US but to a much smaller degree)!

Had I opted for a “premium” beer like Molson Golden I would have been dishing out C$45 for a 12-pack. A microbrew, if you could find one – the provinces make it hard to distribute them outside their home territory, started in the C$40 range for a 6-pack. Prices like that are enough to drive you to drink … except you probably won’t be able to afford it.

(For those of you who think I just went to an expensive store in a tourist town, you’re wrong. Prices were like this in every beer store we tried in several different towns including the smells-like-baby-puke industrial town of Hinton, Alberta.)

Once we got to our hotel I flipped on the TV. It didn’t take long before the single-payer-health-insurance-is-wonderful myth was shot down. In just half an hour there were several commercials for private health insurance. Huh?

Why are companies selling private health insurance policies if Canadians are paying taxes that cover single-payer health insurance?

Because the single-payer health insurance doesn’t cover everything. In fact, it doesn’t cover most prescription drugs, ambulance service, or physical therapy. And if you move from one province to another or you are a new resident in Canada then you may have to wait several months for the new provincial plan to kick-in. During that time you will be uninsured unless you buy a private plan.

And because the single-payer scheme doesn’t cover all your medical needs, medical problems are the third leading cause of bankruptcy in this socialist Eden. Despite what Bernie says, you can go broke when you have single-payer health insurance.

You might also have to wait a long time to get treated. According to the Fraser Institute, the average Canadian had to wait 10 weeks to get a medically necessary procedure. The wait for less dire procedures could exceed a year. In 2014 52,000 Canadians left the country in search of care with most going to the US. Apparently Ontario had such a bad backlog that hospitals in Windsor were actually sending patients to Detroit in order to get timely treatment. If Canadian healthcare is so fantastic then why are Canadian doctors sending their patients to the US?

The next morning we went out to breakfast and my wife ordered pancakes. Since Canuckistan is the Saudi Arabia of maple sugar my wife expected to get maple syrup. Nope, it was corn syrup … sad. The next morning at a different restaurant she asked for maple syrup before ordering. Nope, they didn’t have it. This scenario repeated in every breakfast place we tried in the country with a maple leaf on its flag. Then we took a side trip to Washington and Idaho. The first time we stopped for breakfast in the US she asked for maple syrup and … of course they had it.

You can go to a Cracker Barrel in Florida, thousands of miles from the nearest sugar maple tree, and they will give you a small bottle of maple syrup. If you ask them they will give you two. Why is it no problem to get maple syrup at a restaurant in the fetid swamps of Florida but it’s apparently impossible in the country that makes the majority of the world’s supply?

I’ll tell you why. It’s another tale of socialist stupidity. The province of Quebec produces 70% of the world’s maple syrup. The government and maple syrup producers got together (some involuntarily) and formed a cartel to control the price of maple syrup. All the farmers in Quebec are required to sell their syrup to the cartel and the collected syrup is stored in the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. Then the cartel controls how much syrup is sold into the market each year, keeping the price high.

This is great if you are a maple syrup farmer but it sucks for anyone who wants to buy maple syrup. The price of syrup in Canada is 30%-50% higher than it is in the US, despite the US producing far less syrup. Thus Canadian restaurants don’t stock it because it costs too much. In fact, the sticky stuff is so expensive that it attracted the attention of organized crime. In 2011 a group of thieves stole 720,000 gallons, valued at $18-$30 million, from the reserve. They were eventually caught but smaller syrup heists have followed.

After several days spent enjoying the staggering beauty of the mountains, I eventually had to put some gas into the rental car. Now, Canada is the world’s 7th largest producer of oil and the 4th largest exporter. Alberta is practically floating on the stuff, so you would expect gasoline to be cheap, right? Once again team Canada fumbles the ball and fails to deliver.

Gasoline in Golden, British Columbia – which can loosely be described as a tourist town although it’s pretty run down – was C$1.17/liter. If you’re an American reading this that price is gibberish, so I’ll convert it to US$/gallon. It comes to $3.54/gallon. If you live in New York City or San Francisco you’re probably thinking, “that sounds about right.” But the rest of us are horrified. The day before I left North Carolina I filled up my tank for $2.09/gallon. The most expensive gas I saw while I was in Washington was $2.79/gallon. Compare that to the cheapest price I saw in Calgary of $2.88/gallon. Why does gas cost so much in a country that exports the stuff by the trainload?

Because they tax the hell out of it. In Alberta, there is an excise tax of C$0.2749/liter. Then they throw a 5% GST tax on top of that. If gas costs C$1.00/liter then 32.49% of the price is taxes. That works out to US$0.98/gallon. The tax is a higher in British Columbia because the province imposes an additional carbon tax of US$0.20/gallon. This is on top of the other excise taxes. In total, you pay US$1.29/gallon in taxes in B.C. And if you make the mistake of buying gas in Vancouver you’ll be paying US$1.62/gallon in taxes. That’s US$24.30 in taxes every time you fill a 15-gallon gas tank. If you fill it once a week to commute to work then you’re paying the B.C. and Canadian governments over US$1,200 a year for the privilege of going to work and earning an income so they can tax that too.

But at least these taxes pay for some awesome roads, right? Uhhh …. no.

If you have a car with a gargantuan gas tank, a bunch of caffeine pills, and wear a pair of NASA’s astronaut diapers then you can theoretically drive from Portland, Maine to San Diego, California without ever having to stop or go any slower than 55 mph. Thanks to the US interstate system, you could do the same from Seattle to Miami, or Chicago to New Orleans, or any other points that are separated by thousands of miles. You can’t do this in Canada.

The closest Canadia comes to an interstate is the Trans-Canada Highway which is nothing more then a bunch of local roads and highways connected on the map. In major population areas like Calgary it looks like the US interstate system with multi-lane controlled access roads that allow you to go from point A to point B at high speed without having to stop for traffic lights. But once you get away from these areas the Trans-Canada becomes 2-lanes with traffic lights and slow speed limits every time you pass through a town. The Canadian road system has yet to catch up to where the US was in 1960. Thus, it is impossible to drive a long way in the world’s second largest country in a reasonable amount of time.

And then there is the restriction on cheese imports (thanks Quebec dairy farmers), the bear spray scam (you have to register your red pepper bear spray with the government), the outdated credit card billing machines (Canadians think it’s high-tech), the fact that there isn’t any decent Mexican food (because there aren’t any Mexicans), the outrageous real estate prices, and many other minor annoyances that start to drive you crazy.

I’ll close with a last bit of Canadian government silliness that left me scratching my head. They have some unusual traffic signs. The photo at the top of this article shows two of them. As you can see, the sign on the left is new. It even proclaims it in a very happy and friendly Canadian manner. But that is all it tells you. WTF? The sign on the right is a little more informative. Apparently the intersection ahead is important. What makes it any more important than the other 30 intersections in Jasper, BC I couldn’t tell you, but this was the only intersection I saw there with this sign. I saw another one of these signs in the middle of nowhere on the way to Calgary. The government actually stole tax money from its citizens to erect these signs that are completely worthless.

It may be called the 51st state, but Canada has enough differences that it is definitely a whole ‘nother country. It’s sort of like the really nice nerdy kid that eventually gets on your nerves. And it’s certainly not the paradise power seeking politicians would have you believe.

Canada – It’s a great place to visit, and I highly recommend that you do, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of Five Ways to Beat the Market and The Golden Age of Distance Running.

About Author

Wayne Middlesteadt

Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.

  • No one said it was cheap to live in Canada. By the way, the “NEW” sign is added to an area where the signs have recently been changed–not as dumb as you make it seem.
    Also you can bring 4 bottles of wine across the border legally–not sure about beer.