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Canada: World beyond snow and Mounties

Did you know that Canadians invented basketball and developed an electric light bulb years before Edison?

Did you know that Canada is the world's second-largest country in geographic area?

Did you know that Canada has peacekeeping troops in Kosovo and that it was the first nation to push for an international ban on land mines?

Yes, what we don't know about our neighbor to the north could fill a country the size of, say, Canada. A new survey of young, politically active Americans found that while they were pretty well up on Mexico, they knew almost nothing about Canada except that it has snow, nice people and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The survey, taken in Atlanta and Baltimore, was conducted for the Canadian government, which plans a big communications push in the United States to increase awareness of this part of North America. The survey results suggest that might be tough job: "The American education system is so bad, it is turning out people who know very little about the U.S., let alone Canada," said Paul Attallah, head of the communications school at Ottawa's Carleton University.

Actually, those interviewed blamed their ignorance less on their teachers than they did on us in the news media. Rarely, they said, do they read, see or hear anything about Canada. Which is one reason why I'm here.

Although I've been to the distant corners of the globe in this job, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've set foot on our neighbor's soil only twice before. The first time was for lunch in Windsor, Ontario, 20 years ago when I was working across the river in Detroit. The second was to briefly visit Victoria, British Columbia, which looks even more British than Britain does.

So now that I've finally made it to Canada's capital (Ottawa) and its two biggest cities (Toronto and Montreal), what are some impressions and observations?

For one thing, Canadians worry and complain about many of the same things we do. Are they letting too many immigrants in? Are efforts to save money hurting the quality of health care? Will all the pro sports teams pack up and move somewhere else unless the government helps them out?

Virtually every Canadian I've met has grumbled about taxes. If you think ours are high, consider this: A family of four making $75,000 a year in Toronto pays almost four times as much in federal and local taxes as it would if it lived in Houston.

Of course one reason Canadian taxes are so steep is that the Canadian government provides more services to its citizens. On average, Americans may pay up to 50 percent less in taxes, but they dig far deeper into their pockets for education and health care costs.

"You can't have it both ways _ you can't have a U.S.-style tax regime without also having a U.S.-style social policy," the premier of Newfoundland warned last week as other politicians were calling for big federal tax cuts.

In listening to Canadians talk, it has been interesting, too, to see the similarities and differences between them and us.

I discovered that Canadians really do say, "Eh?" a lot. I took a bus tour of Montreal last week, and the guide didn't let a single sentence escape his lips without tacking an "eh?" on the end.

That's because he and other Canadians are nice, polite people who like to be accommodating, says Jack Chambers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto: "What the person who says "eh?' is trying to do is elicit your support _ include you in the conversation. So it's a politeness marker."

Another person I met noted that while Canadians are a decorous, non-revolutionary bunch _ after all they still have the queen's portrait on their coins _ they avidly follow politics and have developed a remarkable ability to mimic those in authority. That may be one reason why Canada has produced so many outstanding comedians, among them Rich Little, Dan Aykroyd and Martin Short.

Of course, they and a lot of other Canadians have moved to the United States, which is another paradox of the Canadian personality. Canadians like, even admire, Americans. And, thanks to pop culture, they know far more about us than we do about them. Yet they don't want the rest of the world to think we're all basically the same.

In a column headlined "The Maple Leaf Ad Nauseam," Linda Goyette of the Edmonton Journal observed that Canadians almost never fly their flag at home. Yet let them go abroad and they'll attach the maple leaf insignia to their luggage, their hats, their shirts, their jackets _ practically anything they can affix it to.

Why? "So nobody on earth will mistake us for Americans," says Goyette.

In fact, as I've found, Canadians are distinct and distinctly underrated. Did you know, for example, that two Canadians developed the electric light bulb six years before Edison? Or that it was a Canadian-born physical education teacher who invented the American game of basketball?

Pretty interesting, eh?