Denver Bar Association
October 2003
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Oh, Canada! Marshall Snider takes a second look at Canada's road signs

by Marshall Snider

Oh, Canada! Our neighbors to the Great White North. We think they are pretty much like us, just with colder winters. Most of them speak the same language that most of us do; they are a modern, westernized society; and they call their money the dollar. Don’t let any of that fool you.

Canada is a different country. They don’t have states, they have "provinces." They make their laws in "Parliament," not in a Congress or General Assembly. A picture of the Queen of England still adorns their currency, for crying out loud, though I could swear they gained independence from Britain somewhere in the past 250 years.

Canada is different from the United States in even more substantial ways. It didn’t go to war with Iraq (in this way, Canadians are more like the rest of the world than we are.) They think George W. Bush is a reckless cowboy (OK, they aren’t that different.)

But what really sets Canadians apart from those of us south of the border is this: they are an unfailingly polite, pleasant and cautious people. You don’t even have to meet actual Canadians to discover how polite, pleasant and cautious they are; all you need do is read their road signs.

Highway signs in the United States demand your obedience (under penalty of explicit sanctions for failure to comply). Canadian road signs, in contrast, request your assistance in keeping their country safe and orderly. Large trucks are asked to "Please" not use their air brakes in urban areas. Slower vehicles ascending hills are not ordered to pull over to let other traffic pass. Rather, signs ask you to "Please" do so. After seeing many of these requests to pull over, you are surprised at the absence of "Thank You" signs at the end of the pullout lane.

The Canadians’ penchant for politeness is exceeded only by their caution and quest for order. Again, signs point the way. Trying to find the road to Nanaimo? You couldn’t possibly get lost. As soon as you leave a driveway in a residential neighborhood there is a sign right across the street to set you on the proper course. Every intersection provides directions, and at times, there are signs between intersections telling you to watch for the informative directional placard at the next intersection.

Commercial establishments benefit mightily from the Canadian sign fetish. The first sign you see is a government tourism poster announcing "Winnishihatchee Lodge," with an arrow pointing in the direction of that accommodation. It is so thoughtful of the government to promote the businesses of its citizens. Of course, immediately behind the government announcement (and I mean immediately—within 40 feet, no more) is a huge sign put up by the Winnishihatchee Lodge itself, announcing its entrance. And you can see the lodge, right there, by the side of the road, just next to the government sign. In other words, the Canadian government has a sign announcing the imminence of a sign for a destination that is painfully obvious in the same field of view. All this just to be sure you don’t miss something that you might enjoy or need (it would, without question, ruin your entire holiday were you to miss a night at the Winnishihatchee Lodge).

But the Canadian proclivity for order and politeness reaches its pinnacle in speed limit signs. You know how in the states you have driven two or three hours and suddenly realize you haven’t seen a speed limit sign in 142 miles? Is it still 70? Or should I slow to 60 because this highway has deteriorated into a one-lane gravel road? You don’t have these questions in Canada.

In Canada, speed limit signs are posted every 10 or 11 feet. And to ensure that there is never any confusion about the legal limit, other signs announce the imminent arrival of a change in the speed limit.

So, in a typical journey you will see a sign posting the speed limit at 70 kilometers per hour, followed by these announcements.

"Still 70."

"Still 70."

"Oh, be careful, the speed limit is about to change to 60."

"Get Ready . . . Here . . . It . . . Comes."


"Good. You are now . . . at . . . 60."

"Please stay at 60 for awhile."

"Oh, and thank you so much for slowing down."

Oh, yes, Canada is a different country. Polite, politically conservative and cautious.

And really good beer, eh?

Editor’s note: Marshall Snider recently returned from a vacation in British Columbia, where he found the people to be really nice.

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