A Canadian's View of Canada

This short essay was written after I returned from a research trip to Canada in 2004.

I could never understand why anyone would specialize in Canadian studies. Canada always seemed so boring to me. Everything is just so plain and simple there. Canadians think of themselves as being boring. We think that we have no accent and no particular culture. We think that British people have better accents than we do and Americans have worse. Ours is “basic”. I bet if you asked a Canadian to describe Canadian culture, you wouldn’t get a satisfying answer.
After living in Japan for almost a decade, however, I have come to see my own country more clearly. I have started to see Canada with foreign eyes. I notice things about my country that my fellow Canadians may take for granted.

Obviously, the Size

First of all, I noticed the size of the country. My trip included 5 stops (Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Victoria, Vancouver). One of my Japanese friends asked me whether I took a bus or a train to get to all those places. Naturally, I took airplanes. I would have spent the entire time on a bus or train if I had chosen to go that way. Trains are so convenient and efficient in Japan, but that kind of efficiency is just not possible in a country the size of Canada. I also noticed the fact that we have huge streets and huge areas of land that we do nothing with. And even the cities are not crowded. It is occasionally a bit squishy on the subway, but if you don’t travel on the trains, you might be surprised at how empty our cities are.

Libraries are More Modern, More Inviting, but the Librarians…

I noticed that libraries in Canada are bright, open, inviting – and busy. They are generally housed in splendid buildings and act as a focal point for the town’s scenery. They have modern collections and high-tech equipment. They often belong to regional or county systems, which allows them to spend more time on serving the patrons and less time on cataloging. (I did notice, however, that Canadian librarians can be a bit scowly.)

Your Mileage May Vary

When I first came to Japan, I was working in a junior high school in Tajima-machi, a small town in Fukushima prefecture. I attended the graduation ceremonies in April, and much to my surprise the ceremony at my school was taped for the NHK news that night. Or so I thought. Actually, the school that was on the news was somewhere in Kyushu (an island at the other end of Japan), but it looked so similar to what had happened in my school that day that I could have sworn it was my school. The gymnasium was the same, the layout of the chairs and dias were the same, and the red and white banner encircling the gym was the same.

In Canada, that would never happen. We seem to like re-inventing the wheel over and over again. Whereas you can trust things to be the same or similar in Japan, you can almost count on them to be different in Canada. For example, the political systems in each province are different. In Ontario, the provincial politicians are called “Members of Provincial Parliament” or MPPs. In Alberta, they are called “Members of Legislative Assembly” or MLAs. The Ministry of Culture looks after libraries in Ontario, but the Ministry of Community Development (known as just Community Development) looks after libraries in Alberta. Subsidization of libraries varies widely by province as does the success of advocacy efforts in each province (library advocacy was the topic of my master’s thesis, and the reason for this trip). Public transportation systems are even different. In Japan you can be fairly sure that all trains you ride will be on a destination-based fare. In Canada, some are based on distances, some on direction of travel, and others on the time of use.

West is Best?

There are a number of rivalries in Canada that are age-old and not likely to change. French vs. English, and therefore Ontario vs. Quebec, is an important one and the West vs. the rest of Canada is another. Things are very different in the east and the west. Standardized tests are common in the western provinces, and students generally graduate after grade 12. Ontario doesn’t have any standardized tests, and students until recently graduated after grade 13. This creates a rivalry in the education system. Furthermore, attitudes in the west can be somewhat rebellious. For example, Alberta libraries charge a fee for “membership” despite the fact that one of the basic tenets of librarianship (or so I thought) is that it be free for all. Alberta libraries vehemently defend their right to charge their patrons despite the opposition they face in the rest of the country. (One or two libraries have decided to drop the membership fee, but they are considered to be the black sheep of the Albertan library community.)

What Do You Think?

Canadian local government tries its best to be interactive. When the new Vancouver Public Library was being built, the city’s citizens were given the right to vote on the design. Every time a citizen checked books out of the library, her or she was given one vote. In this way, the public had input into the way their city would look.
When a new library was built in the Toronto Public Library system in 1995, the public was asked to contribute names. Around 170 names were received and the final decision was made by a citizen’s advisory committee.

Creative Solutions

Time spent sorting returned books is time not spent serving the public. Many libraries in Canada try to streamline the sorting system by getting the public to sort their own books. The Victoria Public Library has separate return boxes for books and audio/visual materials, while the Ottawa Public Library has three boxes: adult books, children’s books, and audio/visual.

“Fast reads” are books that are bestsellers, and often new. They are placed in a separate part of the library and are only lent for 7 days. In some libraries, patrons can buy extra days at $1 per day. These books have an incredibly fast turnaround so more patrons get a chance to read them.
Some public libraries in Canada have special collections. They have to make special rules for the patrons because despite the value and rarity of their collections, they have to make them open to the public – not just researchers.

My impression was that Canadians are not afraid to try new things. If they make a mistake or fail, they try something else. They don’t seem to be afraid of failure, but think of it more as a natural step in the process.

Casual vs Formal

Even very formal institutions are quite casual in Canada. I was given a great deal of freedom to collect data at the National Library and the Canadian Library Association. The rules are not very strict, or at least they can be re-interpreted as situations require.
Many libraries include cafes, often actually in the same area as the books. Libraries put up signs that say “don’t mess up the books” and that is it.

Who’s in Charge?

Libraries in both Canada and Japan receive most of their funding from the local government. However, the libraries in Canada have a much more distant relationship with the government. Libraries in Canada do not necessarily consider themselves to be a part of the local government, even though that is where most of their money comes from. Public libraries in Japan are often run by people who just happen to work for the local government (i.e. they don’t necessarily have the qualifications of a librarian).

Connections are the Key

When I tried to organize this trip it was difficult to make any definite plans because I didn’t know who would agree to meet me. At first it was a bit difficult to get people to commit to meeting with me. Then I met a woman at the OLA Superconference who changed all that. With her support, I was able to get meetings with some of the most powerful people in Canadian librarianship.

In Memory of…

Canadians are able to spend extra money on making beautiful buildings – probably because of private donations. The idea of donating money has not caught on in Japan – and that is probably one of the reasons that Japanese librarianship lags behind Canadian.

What I Can’t Figure Out…

Japan has WAY more money than Canada, but Canada’s libraries look better, have more professional staff, and may even be larger in size (per capita). Why is that?