Interesting vacation stuff

Here are a few things I found interesting from our cross-Canada trip this summer.

Before our trip we heard some mixed messages about how Quebecers treat outsiders. Mostly we were warned about their unpleasant attitude. Given these warnings we were on the lookout for said attitude. I’d like to say we didn’t see even a hint of it, but on a very few occasions we did, in fact, catch a slight hint of attitude. However, for the most part, Quebecers were gracious with our lack of knowledge of French, and ready (even eager, on occasion) to speak to us in English. We were usually met with smiles and pleasantries whenever we asked, “Anglais?”

In fact, on more than one occasion when they saw us forcing our kids to order their meals in French they would happily support us in our educational efforts. One lady at Tim Horton’s wouldn’t give Sydney what she wanted unless she could ask for it in French. All in a very friendly and positive spirit of broadening our minds.

Like I said, overall we had an extremely positive experience with Quebecers.

But, man alive, do they budge. On numerous occasions the fact that there was a line extending from somebody on the other side of the counter was completely ignored. And on the road this tendency to budge bordered on the downright dangerous. I haven’t had another vehicle so deliberately close to me since we lived in the Dominican Republic. Yikes!

And it’s not just me. A colleague of mine moved to Alberta from Quebec and he shares a very similar assessment of the comparative driving etiquette of our respective provinces.

Speaking of language, Ottawa and Gatineau are essentially the same city on two sides of the river. One in Ontario and the other in Quebec. Everything in Ottawa was bilingual; signs, tour guides, and what have you. This also holds true for the maritime provinces and Manitoba at least. Less so further across the Prairies.

But the moment you step into Quebec almost everything is mono-lingual. Even in a Tim Horton’s on a main drag it was hard to find one of the staff who could help us in English, and the English was quite broken. At a national park – did I mention “national,” as in our bilingual nation – the majority of the signs were exclusively in French.

One more linguistic observation; the prevalence of Gaelic on Cape Breton. While one can expect English and French on street signs in most of Canada, on Cape Breton Island it’s English and Gaelic. In fact, we drove past a Gaelic College.

I had no idea!

A cousin of mine is a traffic engineer for the city of Winnipeg so I learned about a most fascinating feature of the roadway system in Winnipeg.

There are no freeways.

I already knew this, but the background behind this unusual feature of the city was clarified for me. The city of Winnipeg has essentially outlawed freeways. I don’t know if this has been formalized by legislation, or is just a firmly established unwritten policy. Either way, the city has avoided building any freeways, and is not planning on building any into the future.

The rationale behind this decision was simple; freeways divide cities into rich and poor communities. Such division was seen as a bad thing, so freeways have been avoided. As a result, well, everybody suffers. When the subject came up, all the Winnipeg residents in earshot started griping about the lousy traffic system in the city.

But that’s a small price to pay in order to avoid dividing rich and poor communities right? I asked how well that worked out for Winnipeg; does the city have rich and poor communities?

Yes, it does (she assured me; I don’t know this personally). So the “noble” goal of this policy was never realized, but the implementation of the policy has led to city-wide traffic struggles.

Epic fail.

Speaking of epic fails, I read the story behind this bridge that we saw in Quebec City.

Really cool, really big, really old bridge.

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According to Wikipedia this project pretty much exemplified government projects at their worst. It took them three tries to get the bridge built, and it cost dozens of lives due to extremely shoddy “professionalism.” The chief engineer initially selected for this federal government project, “had never worked on a cantilever bridge structure longer than 300 ft.” This bridge, I might add, is over 3,000 feet long. This individual was eventually replaced, but how did he get put in charge in the first place?

It gets worse.

[P]reliminary calculations made early in the planning stages were never properly checked when the design was finalized, and the actual weight of the bridge was far in excess of its carrying capacity.

Huh? They got well into construction without ever properly checking the preliminary calculations? And dare I ask if anybody ever followed up the preliminary calculations with finalized calculations? I can’t speak for all engineering firms, but this is pretty standard at our office!

The first bridge collapsed during construction. The second bridge suffered a similar fate during construction. The whole thing brings to mind a certain scene from a Monty Python movie. And if your government project bears any resemblance at all to a Monty Python movie then you are in serious trouble.

More government stuff. I was shocked to find out how prevalent bizarre government waste is right across out country. Some time ago the PC government in Alberta sold some old airplanes well below market value. Folks weren’t impressed.

Other provinces have had similar problems. We learned about the Skydome fiasco. Cost of construction: almost $600M. Sold for roughly $150M. Ouch. That was a losing deal, but it was eventually sold again for “roughly 4% of the cost of construction.” Double ouch.

According to the Ontario locals we talked to, the 407 highway has a similar past. The government spent billions, then sold it for a fraction of the cost.

[Who knew you could buy a highway?]

I read a small news article in New Brunswick about the Algonquin Resort in Saint Andrews, close to where we stayed. It was apparently sold by the government to a private company for $1 – no, not $1M, just one, solitary, dollar – and the government simultaneous put up a loan for $21M to the buyer to cover the costs of renovating it. At least they included profit sharing in the agreement so there is some upside for the government.

Still, what a deal. I wish we could have bought out house for pocket change and received a loan from the previous owners to cover renovations.

This isn’t from the trip, but elsewhere I heard about a rather touchy subject in Newfoundland regarding the government’s sale of natural resources to outsiders. I assume this Newfoundlander was referring to the Churchill Falls power station, profits of which disproportionately favour Quebec over Newfoundland; as in, to the tune of $1.7 Billion to Quebec and $63 Million to Newfoundland. Ouch.

Overall message; government doesn’t seem to be well suited to money management. Yet they are in charge of collecting and spending our taxes? Shudder.

Speaking of money, I was surprised by some of the ups and downs of money on our trip. A visit to Hopewell rocks would have cost us roughly $40 just to walk to the rocks and look at them. Seems a bit steep, just to look at a natural wonder considering so many other Canadian natural wonders can be accessed free of charge.

But if you think that’s a bit unexpected, Magnetic Hill was even worse. Just to literally drive up and back a short road with an optical illusion would have cost us $6. According to the video at the link it’s free of cost much of the time, so I guess we picked the wrong time to show up.

Fuel prices were fairly steady across the country; just under $1/litre for the cheap stuff that we buy. It was a little higher in some rural areas of Ontario and Quebec; up to about $1.15 at most.

And then there was Newfoundland. Almost a buck and a quarter per litre. Yikes!

Generally there were far more toll roads and toll bridges than we were accustomed to – even within city limits – though they seemed far more prevalent east of the Manitoba / Ontario border. Right through to the Atlantic Ocean, in fact. Thanks to Google Maps we were able to avoid tolls with the click of a button.

Except when I forgot to set “avoid tolls.” Grrr.

Speaking of Google Maps: man alive that app works almost flawlessly! I was stunningly impressed with having this map app on my Android. All I ever had to do was enter the address, click “start navigating” and I never had to question the directions or figure out the city.

Sometimes toward the end of the trip it made some strange suggestions, but by then it was obvious that we had arrived at our destination, and I could easily complete the trip.

I would never travel without it.

Let’s talk about form and function for a minute. Although society leans strongly on form these days (often, though not always, to the exclusion of function) this really hit home for me during our time in Quebec. First, our vacation home. As soon as we walked in we were immediately hit with the beauty of the place. Some of the walls are plausibly original (as in, hundreds of years old), but the place looks reasonably renovated. It has character, charm, and strikes a balance between old and new styles.

But that changed, quickly, as we settled in. The toilet runs continuously and loudly in the dead of night. The lights in the master bedroom didn’t work properly. The drain for the sink and tub were both relatively backed up so it didn’t drain properly. The hot water tank was not nearly large enough, so I got to enjoy a cold shower one morning.

And speaking of the shower, this was almost comical. It had two sets of controls (one for the tap and the other for the shower) but their operation was extremely atypical. It was only on the very last day, as we were getting ready to leave, that we finally figured it out. Until then we had more than one experience involving scalding or freezing water.

Even as I type this my mother-in-law verbally groaned – in a chuckling manner – about how uncomfortable these couches are. I’m sitting on another one; I concur. But they sure look good!

Form? Check! Function? Not so much.

Two other examples. One of the features of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960’s in Quebec was a significant de-emphasis of religion, particularly Catholicism. Many people will still consider themselves “religious” in some vague, duty-free sense, but good luck finding them in a church on Sunday mornings. Yet there are plenty of churches around. In fact, there are extremely elaborate and magnificent church buildings sprinkled across the province. The buildings are still there, from a couple of centuries ago, but apparently a good many of them are empty and unused. We even saw one for sale. The form remains, but the function is gone.

The changing of the guard at the citadel was a very fascinating experience. The narrator informed us that the new guard was now set up to guard the citadel for the next 24 hour period.

Really? 24 hours? Does that mean those same two guys have to stand in one place for 24 hours? No sleep, food, drink, etc?

Or do they take shifts? Maybe “the guard” is not only those two people, but the entire troop that was involved. Perhaps they spread the duties of that 24 hour period among them.

I had to ask one of the soldiers who was present to interact with tourists. He confessed, the guards are only on duty from 9 to 5 each day. And the particular guards standing at any one time are only there for two hours.

And I highly doubt the guns they hold could actually fire a round. They are probably replicas.

So what, exactly, are they guarding with toy guns, and only for eight hours a day?

Again, the form remains, but the function has been completely eliminated.

Our country is a pretty fascinating place. These are just some of the little observations I made.