The best place on earth

We’re wealthier than the Americans, live longer than the Swedes and even have more lovers than the Italians

The best place on earthLet’s not sugarcoat it—it’s been a bad, bad year. Plunging markets have siphoned an estimated $300 billion out of the pensions and retirement savings of Canadians. A huge wave of job losses—400,000 and counting—has pushed the unemployment rate to an 11-year high. Add in the billions spent on corporate bailouts, and the $100 billion-plus in projected federal and provincial deficits predicted for the coming years, and the economic gloom can seem overwhelming.

But Canadians might want to stop and take a deep breath before googling up the local chapter of the Hemlock Society. As we gather at the cottage, beach or in the backyard to celebrate our nation’s 142nd birthday, there is much to be thankful for. Things beyond the usual July 1 paeans to our scenic wonders, abundant natural resources, diversity, and stable politics.

Canada vs. the world

For our Canada Day special issue, Maclean’s scoured international opinion surveys, census statistics, think tank reports, policy papers and consumer databases to uncover the truth about this country’s place in the global order. The results may surprise you: we’re wealthier than the Americans, we live longer than the Swedes, we’re more industrious than the Germans, we have more lovers than the Italians, we eat better than the French and we have more TVs than the Japanese.

In so many areas—the economy, health, education, public safety, and living standards—the numbers, it seems, back up what we’ve always quietly believed deep in our patriotic hearts. Sorry to brag, but it looks like Canada is the best place on earth.

The best place on earthMeasuring prosperity can be a tricky business. By the International Monetary Fund’s reckoning, the oil-rich emirate of Qatar is actually the world’s richest nation, with a per-capita gross domestic product of US$85,200. The World Bank, using a different formula, puts Luxembourg at the top of the heap, with a per-capita gross national income of US$61,860. And neither number tells you much about how all that wealth is divided.

Since 1990, the United Nations has followed a different tack, publishing an annual human development index that crunches data about life expectancy, purchasing power, literacy and education levels to rank countries by their citizens’ broader “well-being.” In the latest list, released last December, Canada placed third, ahead of Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Switzerland and, well, the rest of the world. The United States was 15th. Only Norway and Iceland scored higher, although it’s a safe assumption that the collapse of Iceland’s banking system has since ended the island nation’s reign (despite what you might think, the UN gives no extra points for Björk).

Even by the narrower measurements of wealth alone, Canada is looking surprisingly robust these days. If you go by household net worth, the typical Canadian family is actually doing better than the typical family in America. After adjusting for currency and purchasing power, the median Canadian household has a net worth of US$122,260, versus US$93,100 in the States. Americans also carry almost twice the per-capita personal debt—US$40,250 versus US$23,460. And we spend just 19 per cent of our annual household budgets on shelter, a category that accounts for 34 per cent of theirs.

Even if you crunch the numbers differently—and look at all the bank deposits, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other financial assets in the country divided by the number of households—Canada still does surprisingly well on the global scale. According to Haver Analytics, as of late 2008, Canada ranks No. 2 among the top industrialized countries in the world, with a financial net worth per household of US$154,100, trailing only the U.S., which clocks in at US$245,700. We’re substantially ahead of Britain, France and Germany. And the good news in all the current bad news is that the global economic downturn is narrowing the gap between us and our southern neighbours. Since late 2007, their financial net worth has dropped by a staggering 24 per cent, while ours has dropped by 17 per cent.

Canadians also boast higher median household incomes than the Aussies and the Brits, and a higher level of home ownership than the Americans, Japanese, Swedes, Danes, French and Germans. And we live in spacious comfort—77 per cent of our homes have five or more rooms, compared to 74 per cent in the U.S., 72 per cent in Britain, and 70 per cent in Australia. (Not that we’re hung up on that stuff: when National Geographic asked whether owning a big house was an important goal in a global 2009 survey, just seven per cent of Canadian consumers agreed, compared to 14 per cent of Germans, and 22 per cent of the French.)

The Great Recession has undeniably made us poorer as a nation, but with the indicators suggesting we may have finally sounded bottom, Canada does seem better positioned than most for a recovery. As our politicians never tire of pointing out, our financial sector has come through the banking crisis relatively unscathed, and property markets, while down, aren’t in free-fall like they are south of the border, where house prices have dropped by 32 per cent from their 2006 peak, or Britain, where prices have dropped by 20 per cent from their 2007 high. In fact, a recent Goldman Sachs report predicts that Canada, along with Australia and Britain, will be among the first advanced economies to emerge from the recession, returning to trend rates of growth by early 2011, and raising outputs back up to capacity by sometime between 2013 and 2015. The U.S., on the other hand, isn’t expected to get its output back up to capacity until 2017. “I think we still have this inferiority complex,” says Benjamin Tal, senior economist at CIBC World Markets. “But we ought to start feeling better about ourselves. This crisis has really exposed the vulnerabilities of the U.S. economy.”

It doesn’t take Joseph Boyden long to pinpoint what he misses most about Canada—not being scared. The winner of last year’s Giller Prize for his novel Through Black Spruce spends much of the year in Louisiana, where he and his wife are writers-in-residence at the University of New Orleans. “When I go out at night—even just to throw out the garbage—I’m always careful. I stop to look around. Living there almost breeds a paranoia.” And not without reason. New Orleans is the most violent city in the U.S., with a murder rate more than 10 times the national average. Some years ago, the author and his wife even witnessed one.

Canada has its fair share of guns—31 for every 100 people, the 13th-highest level of civilian firearm ownership in the world. That’s marginally more weapons than Austria, Iceland and Germany, and fewer than Sweden, Norway and France. The heartening news is that, for some reason, we aren’t inclined to point them at other people. Canada’s murder rate is in the middle of the pack, and has fallen by more than 40 per cent since 1975. Firearms are used in about one-third of Canadian homicides. By contrast, guns are used in about two-thirds of killings in the U.S., where both the murder rate and the level of gun ownership (about 90 firearms per every 100 people) are three times higher.

Corruption, endemic in other parts of the world, is almost non-existent here (notwithstanding the innuendo of a certain German-Canadian businessman). At home and abroad, Canadians are recognized for their honesty and rectitude. The 2008 Bribe Payer’s Index, prepared by the global civil society organization Transparency
International, ranks Canada at No. 1, tied with Belgium—meaning our firms are the least likely in the world to engage in payoffs. Only four per cent of Canadian business people have ever bribed high-ranking politicians or political parties, according to the survey, well below the international average of 13 per cent.

It’s not that we are incapable of greasing palms, but even the recipients seem to recognize how out of character it is. Lisa LaFlamme, CTV’s globe-trotting correspondent, recalls a shakedown when she was in Baghdad in 2005, covering the Iraqi elections. The network’s car—festooned with all the necessary permits and permissions—had barely left the Green Zone when it was pulled over by a policeman. He placed a gun at LaFlamme’s temple and demanded $50. But once the transaction was complete, he followed the car to a local polling station where he spent the next three hours begging for assistance in securing a Canadian visa. “He kept saying, ‘I helped you, now you help me,’ ” LaFlamme laughs. “I think there was even a marriage proposal.”

The fact that so many people want to make Canada their home—sometimes even by unorthodox means—shouldn’t be overlooked. Our rate of immigration is among the highest in the world. We opened our doors to 247,243 people in 2008, according to government figures, and we grant more new citizenships per capita than any other nation. And it’s not just Canada’s wealth that attracts them. Our level of education sets the global standard—a full 47 per cent of the population proceeds on to post-secondary studies, versus 39 per cent in the U.S., and 30 per cent in Britain. When it comes to reading and science, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds that our 15-year-olds place fourth in the world. And Canada is among the planet’s most diverse and tolerant societies. In 2005, we became the fourth country to legalize gay marriage, ahead of traditional bastions of social liberty like Sweden and Norway.

There’s another area where Canadians now have the advantage over the Scandinavians: good health. Forget those old ParticipAction commercials suggesting the average 60-year-old Swede is in better shape than a 30-year-old Canadian (the stat was later revealed to be a fabricated bit of government propaganda anyway). According to 2009 estimates from the CIA’s World Factbook, life expectancy at birth in Canada is now estimated to be 81.23 years, eighth in the world, which is actually slightly better than the Swedes (80.86) and years ahead of the Norwegians (79.95) and Finns (78.97). And when it comes to quality of life—the number of years lived free from disease—Canada is tied with France, Norway and Singapore for fourth place at 73 years, according to the latest World Health Organization figures. Japan topped the list at 76 years; Americans are way down at 70 years.

Part of that may be due to the way we treat ourselves. In 2007, Men’s Health magazine declared Canada the second-fittest, and second-most-relaxed country in the world (behind the Netherlands and Spain, respectively). We were ranked as buffer than the Americans, and more laid-back than the Aussies. And despite having the third-highest number of McDonald’s franchises per capita in the world, we are relatively careful about what we put in our bodies. Our rate of daily fruit and vegetable consumption is the third-highest in the world, behind only the Chinese and the Australians. We drink more fruit juice—52.6 litres a year—than the citizens of any other country (the Americans rank second at a paltry 42.8 litres). We have fewer daily smokers than every country in the OECD but three. And shockingly, we eat processed food less frequently than the French. Kim Brand, a lawyer for a Canadian bank who has lived and worked in Paris, remembers being astounded at the number of French people who now eschew France’s traditional markets in favour of vast, American-style hypermarchés. And despite a deeply ingrained national attitude that they know everything worth knowing about food (a worker in a Paris deli once flatly told Brand that capicolla “didn’t exist”), the French actually aren’t much for variety. “They do what they do really well,” she says. “But when it comes to ethnic food—or fusion—it’s a lot better in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.”

Canadians are no pikers when it comes to the more sensual pleasures either. We claim to spend an average of 37 minutes from beginning to end in the bedroom, longer than the Spanish, French and Americans. Canadian men and women both boast of having more sexual partners than the supposedly hot-blooded French and Italians. (Strangely, it is the Austrians who seem to be the most licentious. Could Tafelspitz be an aphrodisiac?) All of which may, or may not, be somehow related to the fact that, according to the global 2009 National Geographic survey, a higher percentage of us own, rent or lease TVs, than even the people that manufacture them, the Japanese.

Lord knows that none of this makes Canada anywhere near perfect. We fancy ourselves to be environmentally friendly, but we emphatically are not, using more energy per person than any other country. The United Nations reports that our greenhouse gas emissions are climbing faster than any other member of the G8. Our infant mortality rate is lower than that of the U.S., but not nearly as low as it is in the Nordic nations and Japan. Poverty and addiction remain significant problems in our Aboriginal communities. And our health care system continues to struggle with costs, wait times, and in some areas, outcomes.

But coming out of the year we’ve just lived through, let’s put all the negatives aside for at least one day. We are a uniquely privileged nation—wealthier, healthier, and happier than practically any other place in the world. Those who have reason to leave often come to recognize such truths. “Every time I come back across the border, I’m overcome with a sense of calm and happiness,” says Boyden. “I shed all those worries about my or my wife’s personal safety, or what happens if we get sick. In Canada we don’t live nearly as close to the bone.”

And should, by some miracle, we actually start believing what the stats tells us—that we are the best country on earth—don’t worry, the sky won’t fall. Rick Mercer has become a national icon by revealing what others think about Canadians, and poking fun at how we view ourselves. And he says that if this country has one bedrock saving grace, it’s a great self-deprecating sense of humour. “It’s true for every single region of the country,” he says. “You will find it in boardrooms on Bay Street, or the oil patch in Calgary; you see it talking to fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador, or farmers in Saskatchewan. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we are more likely to laugh at ourselves than others. It’s about as admirable a trait as you can ask for in an individual or a country.”

With Patricia Treble