When someone asks me why I prefer Canada to the US - if they really want to know - I usually list the Big Things: national health insurance, secure abortion rights, same-sex marriage, no death penalty, a more cooperative outlook to the world, greater tolerance of and respect for difference, all relative to the United States.

These Big Things, in my opinion, speak of a different concept of society, one based more on community and less on unfettered greed and selfishness - a society that is more humane, less violent, and more oriented towards caring for its members and trying to solve people's problems. And these Big Things express themselves in daily life in myriad small ways. In my Globe & Mail essay, I mentioned two examples from everyday life: the GO train, paid on the honour system, and excellent recycling facilities.

A few days ago, Allan and I had dinner with A&S*, another ex-pat couple, here for the same reasons as us. Between the four of us, we have lived in four major US cities - New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, DC - as well as several smaller US cities, and spent time in many more. We all live in the GTA; we have all been here almost one year. We all feel that life is better here, and we were able to enumerate several "little things" - examples from everyday life - that reflect that.

First, the usual important disclaimers. These are generalizations. I'm sure we can all think of exceptions to these observations, on both sides of the border. None of us imagine Canada to be a perfect paradise, and all of us know good people doing the right thing in the US. Nevertheless, after a year living in and around Canada's largest metropolitan area, we have noticed several things.

** Toronto is much cleaner and well-maintained than any US city. Please: no need to point out that Montreal is even cleaner, or that Toronto has gotten dirtier since the Harris government. Despite that, Toronto is much cleaner and well-maintained than any US city.

** Parents do not abuse children in public. In the US, it is not at all uncommon to see parents slap, yank, shake, smack, shriek at or berate their children on public transportation, in malls, in parks, and elsewhere. None of us have ever seen that here. (Again, disclaimer: we're not saying there is no child abuse here, that would be absurd.)

** There are no stray dogs in the parks.

** Dogs here are calmer and seem happier. GTA dogs don't bark, snarl and freak out in public. They are clearly more relaxed, well exercised, and less stressed.

** Ontario law forbids landlords to refuse tenants based on pet ownership. Although there are some pet-friendly US cities, no state, to my knowledge, has such a law. Thousands of people in the US are forced to give up beloved animals because they cannot find a place to live that accepts pets.

** When you're in your car, stopped at a red light, the car behind you does not honk as soon as the light turns green. In the US, it's: red-greenhonk, or even redhonk-green. The driver's hand must be on the horn, waiting to honk the instant s/he sees a red light, like sime kind of noisy reflex test. One of us recalled a sign at a busy New York City intersection: $350 fine for unnecessary honking. In the GTA, people use their car horns for warnings of potential danger.

** On the highway, people do not drive behind you flashing their high beams to get you to change lanes. They will tailgate, but they don't flash lights in your mirror.

** Everyone we do business with is friendly: the cable guy, the car dealership, the bank, the lawn-care guy, the heating oil rep, the grocery check-outs. None of them are so friendly that it uses half your day to complete a small transaction, but all of them are more than just civil - they are friendly and kind. It does no good to say they're friendly because they're taking our money. The same people in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington are not friendly. I quickly learned to be more friendly to the people I do business with. It's very pleasant.

** "A" had to see a doctor before her Ontario Health Insurance was established. Knowing she was paying entirely out-of-pocket, the doctor's office devised ways to keep her fees as low as possible. This is unheard of. When "A" told the story, at first I wasn't even sure I was understanding her correctly. The office visit fee was $32. Comparable visit in Washington, DC: $120.

** Allan and I both have supplemental insurance through our jobs. Cost to us: zero. In New York, we had huge, ever-increasing payroll deductions, large co-pays, and ever-decreasing coverage. I know that there is a trend among Canadian employers to cut benefits or to hire workers as independent contractors without any benefits. I'm aware that this is a problem, and I hope it is not allowed to spread. But Allan and I are fortunate to work in an industry that's not following that trend. The legal industry is also considered an excellent employer in New York - so we're comparing like and like, NYC corporate law firms and Toronto corporate law firms.

** The staff where I work makes full use of their vacation, sick and personal days, without negative repercussions. In a similar job in New York, you are officially given sick and personal days, but strongly discouraged from using them. If you do use them, despite the pressure not to, it may count against you when you are up for a promotion or raise. Here, I see no such pressure. And as "S" said, somehow the society continues to function!

* If you know who this is, please respect their wishes and refrain from using their names.

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