Not too long ago, there was a guy working on my house who really wanted to become a Canadian citizen. Rashid was from Afghanistan, had already failed the citizenship test twice, and spent a vast amount of time cramming for his third try. To me, he seemed perfect citizenship material: He spoke several languages, and he had at least one marketable skill, carpentry, which is one more marketable skill than I possess.
He'd call up the stairs to where I worked in my home office: "Fredericton is capital of New Brunswick, yes?" (Me, singing Stompin' Tom's Capitals Song to myself: "That's right.") Rashid: "What is Meech Lake, please?" (Me, rattling door handle: "Gotta go, buddy. See you!")
I felt for him, I really did. I'd been through similar stress when I took the British citizenship test, which did not have nearly enough questions about football and Coronation Street, and far too many about voter turnout in Wales.
Our citizenship test is tough – so tough that it keeps some would-be Canadians away. It occurs to me that we should be imparting actually valuable information to newcomers, such as: Do you pay four times as much for a double-double? If your dinner guests aren't Canadian senators, is it permissible to serve cold Camembert and broken crackers?
Last year saw the passage of Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which is actually the weakening of citizenship act if you happen to be a dual citizen. No matter. As we prepare for Canada Day, the annual festival of loud noises and grilled meats, it's worth looking at some of the useful ways we could prepare new immigrants for a life in this country:
The official period for complaining about weather begins Oct. 20, and ends on Oct. 19. Across the country, there are regional subseasons, including "#@&! blackflies" (Ontario); "I haven't opened the door in six months because of the snow" (Prince Edward Island); and "God, this is perfect, we are so lucky to live here, please don't let anyone else come" (British Columbia). Consult Environment Canada's official guide, "The Weather of Canada: Arrgggh."
To learn about contemporary culture, you can either watch David Cronenberg films or political advertising. If you like a good scare, you'll want to choose the political advertising. In these ads, you will learn that politicians feed off something called "the middle class," an innocent food crop that works in clean offices, drinks coffee in sun-drenched cafés, and is completely oblivious that it is being farmed for its lifeblood. Middle-class voters with babies are particularly appreciated, perhaps because babies are more tender. Apparently there are other socioeconomic classes, but they do not provide much nourishment and so do not merit a cameo.
Bullying is forbidden in the playgrounds and offices of Canada, but is permitted during real-estate bidding wars in Vancouver and Toronto. In these cases, an early offer of an extra $100,000 might buy you that garage with a dirt floor that you've always dreamed of.
In Canada, "I'm good," is actually a way of refusing an offer. If a waiter asks if you would like more wine, and you say, "I'm good," he will immediately know that you mean, "No thank you." Do not try this anywhere else in the world, or the waiter will stare at you blankly till you say, "No thank you."
A canoe is never a suitable getaway vehicle.
Do not ever try to ride a swimming moose; this will get you arrested. Do not ever try to outgun a moose on the highway; this will leave one of you lifeless. As my driving instructor told me years ago about animals that cannot be avoided on the road, "If you can see over it, hit it. If you can see under it, drive around it." In fact, avoid moose altogether. They don't need you; they're perfectly happy in their own company. The safest path is to avoid encounters with all unpredictable wildlife, including bears, mountain lions and Justin Bieber.
Canadians no longer keep data. We used to. There was a thing called a long-form census, and it collected all manner of useful information, but it was cancelled for reasons that no one understands. Now we have no idea where anyone lives or what they do. Regina could be a city of 20 million people for all we know. Ptarmigans might be running restaurants. We have no idea. Your great-great-great-grandfather keeping track of his goats with his abacus had more detailed information than we do at the moment.
There is a place – actually many places – called Tim Hortons, where people congregate to talk, eat and perform a ritual called "roll up the rim to win." Some people will say you should take your business elsewhere. I say, choose the place with the nicest coffee and the best WiFi and, most important, talk to the person next to you. The chances are good that he has been where you are, and taken the test, and now has the mug to prove it. Like most Canadians, he will be happy to talk to you, and complain about the weather.
If in doubt, read Alice Munro. She explains everything.