Canadians like to fancy ourselves a modest bunch. We’re not flag-waving patriots like our neighbours to the south, but we know there’s plenty to brag about. When the world economy tanked, it was Canada that emerged as the star of fiscal responsibility. It was our banks that survived the crisis, our economy that was going gangbusters and our housing market that held strong.
It turns out all that good news has done a number on our collective psyche, boosting our national ego to rather immodest new heights.
“We have a pretty positive self-image of ourselves, it’s almost bordering on narcissistic,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, who surveys the shifting attitudes of Canadians toward themselves and the world. “The more things we hear about ourselves, the more it reflects on our own sense of self worth.” Canada as a country may have earned those bragging rights, but should the average Canadian really feel so smug about themselves?
At five foot nine and 185 lb. with a salary of around $30,000 a year, the typical Canadian man is hardly Brad Pitt zipping down Park Avenue in a Ferrari. We spend more on alcohol a year than we do on fresh fruit and vegetables. We have sex less than once a week, but spend 45 hours a month on the Internet. We spend more than $2,000 a year to eat at restaurants and save hardly anything for retirement, but are more than $112,000 in debt.
But on other measures, we’re truly exceptional. Most of us have graduated from college or university, don’t smoke, get three weeks vacation a year and consider ourselves to be in good health. Despite the economic struggles outside our borders, most of us are happy with our financial situation and pretty keen on the economy overall.
Better yet, if you live in a house larger than 1,900-sq.-feet, contribute anything at all to your RSP and don’t have a mortgage, you’re doing better than most.
For Canada Day, we’re taking a look at exactly what being average looks like in Canada. If you want to see how you stack up against the typical Canadian, take our fun, though somewhat unscientific, quiz.
When you’re done, don’t forget to see how your answers compare to the average Canadian:
On money, debt and spending
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the average Canadian, given our country’s prosperity, is how modest our financial resources really are. If your family brings in more than $68,000 a year, you’re doing better than average. Spend less than $450 a month on groceries, $250 on utilities, $172 on restaurants and $52 a month on your cellphone and you can count yourself a modest Canadian spender.
Spending and wealth is highest in Alberta, where the average family makes more than $83,000 and spends more than $73,000 of that amount. Albertans spend the most on food, restaurants and gambling. It’s also the only province in Canada where people spend more on jewellery and watches for men ($200) than for women ($152). As a consequence of all that wealth, Albertans also pay the highest income taxes, have the country’s second highest household debt (after B.C.) and the second highest proportion of homeowners with mortgages (after Quebec).
Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, is a perennial underdog when it comes to salaries and lifestyle spending. But that modesty hides an important source of wealth for East Coasters. Fewer than half of homeowners have a mortgage, with the lowest rates in the country (44 per cent) in Newfoundland.
Canadians still report feeling confident about their finances, says Jack Bensimon, head of the advertising agency Bensimon Byrne, which releases a quarterly study of Canadian consumer sentiment. But that resilient consumer confidence masks a troubling reality about our household finances. “There are a lot of reasons to look at it and see the glass as being half full,” Bensimon says. “But when you look closer there’s only one thing that’s making people feel good about themselves, and that’s the value of their homes.”
We’d better feel good about our rising home values, since we’re paying through the nose for them. The average household debt, including mortgages, credit cards and personal loans equates to a monthly payment of about $1,140, according to a recent Bank of Montreal report. At nearly $160,000, household debt is highest in B.C., where skyrocketing real estate prices have left many homeowners in a financial bind. At the other end of the spectrum, Quebecers might want to take a break from protesting increases to the lowest tuition fees in Canada in order to congratulate themselves for having the country’s lowest household debt burden, at just $86,000.
Debt payments are the steepest for those who are buying homes this year. The average new Canadian mortgage works out to more than $1,500 a month, with British Columbians paying the most, at around $2,240, and P.E.I. residents the least at $626.
Still, all that spending and debt has a silver lining when it comes to retiring, since high real estate prices mean Canadians are retiring with more assets and therefore a larger net worth. According to StatsCan, Canada’s per capita household net worth rose 1.8 per cent during the first quarter to $185,800. And though this survey is really about Canada, here’s another reason for relative optimism—the U.S. Federal Reserve just announced the median family net worth in America fell a whopping 39 per cent between 2007 and 2010, to just US$77,300.
There is ample evidence that Canadian retirees spend less and save more than younger Canadians, says Fred Vettese, chief actuary at Morneau Shepell, leaving most seniors better off than their children. If anything, the average working Canadian is becoming better at saving for retirement. For example, in 1968, just two per cent of Canadian tax filers contributed to an RSP. That jumped to 30 per cent in 1997. It has since fallen to around 25 per cent, a reflection that more Canadians are hitting retirement age, a time when they start withdrawing, not contributing, to their retirement savings accounts. “Most people think we have a retirement crisis in Canada,” Vettese says. “But really there’s no evidence that we actually have a crisis.”
Still, retirement security is becoming less assured for future generations, who will probably have to stay in the workforce later in life partly because Canada will need the workers and partly so we can afford to retire. And that mounting pressure on working-age Canadians is taking a toll on our health and mental well-being.
On life, love and happiness
If we are not, as Jack Bensimon says, always completely honest with ourselves about our household finances, the same could also be said about the state of our bodies. For instance, the average Canadian man has a 38-inch waist and weighs 187 lb., but will only admit to weighing 186. The average Canadian woman, who wears size 33 pants, weighs 155 lb., but will swear she’s just 151.
Most of us (60.1 per cent, according to the Canadian Community Health Survey) claim we are in good health, though 56.7 per cent confess we don’t eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Just 53 per cent of us are physically active, as defined by getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity one or more days a week. (British Columbians are the most dedicated to fitness at 58.3 per cent, and Newfoundlanders the least at 47.8 per cent.)
“We’re fooling ourselves,” says Tony Greco, who runs Greco Lean and Fit Centres in Ottawa. “A lot of people never actually see a doctor, a lot of them think they’re working out if they’re doing an elliptical or riding a treadmill or a bike three times a week. That’s not really training—that’s a minimum.”
Newfoundland appears to be the most self-deluded province in Canada when it comes to their health. According to Statistics Canada, 63.1 per cent of Newfoundlanders say they’re in good health, even though their health indicators are routinely among the worst in the country. This paradox is well noted. “One theory is that it has a lot to do with social capital, a sense of community, the kinds of things that support strong mental health,” says Catherine Donovan, a public health professor at Memorial University. “If you’ve got the social support, if you’ve got the sense of community, then you feel more empowered in terms of dealing with whatever health issue you have and you may not in fact perceive yourself in poor health.”
The rest of Canada, however, is stressed out: in 2010, according to Statistics Canada, 27 per cent of working Canadian adults reported a high level of stress on most days. Among those who describe their lives as high-stress, 62 per cent blame their jobs. And you’d imagine many of those people to be best positioned to enjoy their lives: most are highly educated men in white-collar fields whose household incomes weigh in at $100,000 or more.
Family, which is said to be a comfort to the besieged, is happening later and later. Women are becoming mothers at age 29 on average—older in Ontario, at 30, youngest in Saskatchewan at 27—and will have an average of 1.67 children each.
How we bring those children into the world is also somewhat less exciting than we’d probably want it to be. According to Pierre Berton’s definition, a Canadian is someone who knows how to have sex in a canoe, but really our sex lives are fairly humdrum. Numbers published in the K-Y Brand Intimacy Report earlier this year show just over half of Canadians have sex less than once a week, even though 42 per cent went on to say that’s not enough.
Once or twice a week is pretty average in Canada, says University of Guelph sexologist Robin Milhausen. “We all have faulty assumptions about how much sex our neighbours, our friends, our colleagues are having, and the media helps to perpetuate that by showing couples on TV and movies throwing each other up against the wall after a long work day. I think that’s one factor that leads us to be dissatisﬁed with our own sexual frequency.”
The Global Erectile Dysfunction Poll puts the average frequency of sex among Canadian couples at 1.26 times a week, ahead of the Brits, but behind the Americans, Romanians, Mexicans and the apparently amorous Portuguese (2.05 times a week).
We may be having sex less than the rest of the world, but we die later than most. According to the most recent OECD numbers from 2009, we tend to shuffle off at 80.7 years old, a longer life than in U.K. and the Netherlands, and well beyond the U.S. at 77.9. We die youngest in Newfoundland, at 78.9, and live longest in B.C., where we get, on average, an extra three years.
What takes us? Cancer, heart disease and stroke are the three leading causes of death in Canada, responsible for more than half of all deaths in 2008. For Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24, accidents, suicide and homicide were the leading causes of death. For those of us who manage to pass through that gauntlet and find themselves confronted by the Big C, prostate is the leading fatal cancer in Canada, followed by breast cancer, colorectal and lung cancer. All the more reason, perhaps, for the average Canadian to be more honest about the state of our physical health and lifestyle while we still can.
On thinking and learning
The average Canadian is indeed, as our national boosters proclaim, a tolerant person. We support multiculturalism (62 per cent) and gay marriage (59 per cent). We are so peaceful that a majority (54 per cent) now opposes fighting in hockey, Don Cherry’s exhortations notwithstanding.
But according to a series of polls by Angus Reid, the average Canadian diverges from the status quo of our current laws on a number of thorny issues. Two-thirds of us want marijuana legalized or decriminalized, with the greatest support coming from British Columbia (73 per cent) and the lowest from Quebec (61 per cent). “There is a high level of support for marijuana, no pun intended,” says Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid. “We seem to want to treat it like alcohol, regulated and taxed, but there is almost no support for legalizing other drugs.”
We also support the legalization of euthanasia (66 per cent). Here the average Albertan (48 per cent) is at odds with the average Canadian, and most at odds with the average Quebecer (78 per cent).
On the other hand, more than half of us—51 per cent—believe there should be some restrictions on abortion, and 60 per cent believe there should be laws restricting gender-based abortions. Albertans are most in favour of a new abortion law (59 per cent), an idea which finds least favour in Quebec (40 per cent).
One thing has not changed since Pierre Trudeau outlawed capital punishment in 1976: now, as then, the average Canadian thinks it is sometimes appropriate (63 per cent) to kill someone who has committed a serious crime. Seven out of 10 in British Columbia and Alberta (72 per cent) would reinstate the policy, but only half of people living in Manitoba and Saskatchewan would (50 per cent).
These beliefs are the fruit of an average of 17 years of formal education, according to the OECD. If you are over 25, you probably graduated from college or university, but not graduate school. Quebecers have the highest rate of degrees (60.5 per cent), with the lowest in New Brunswick (52.9 per cent).
These educational attainments are perhaps more remarkable still given how much time we treat our brains to glowing screens. We spend marginally more time on the Internet (18 hours per week) than we do staring at a television (16.9 hours), according to Ipsos Reid polling. We still manage to read at least a book a month, with the most rabid readers in British Columbia and the lowest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, according to Angus Reid.
Above all, we seem to be a nation content in our philosophical differences—and we disagree over many things, including our support for the monarchy, the Canadian justice system and bilingualism.
There are at least two things, however, that few dispute when it comes to Canadian pride. Almost all of us, 80 per cent, say we’re proud of hockey, while 88 per cent are proud of the Canadian flag. Support for both icons of Canadiana has only gone up in the past few years.
Maybe the real truth of our national pride is that the average Canadian is pretty happy with his or her rather modest circumstances. We don’t need to be the tallest, the richest and the fittest to be proud of who we are. All we need is cold glass of beer on a warm day and for a Canadian team to finally reclaim the Stanley Cup—so long as the gloves don’t come off.