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Two tourist letters reveal different takes on Canada’s car culture

Who knew that some correspondence from a pair of tourists could knot the collective knickers of politicians and the general citizenry from Toronto to Halifax?

By now you may have heard of "the Danish letter" (don't worry – it only sounds sexy) penned by a couple of visitors from Denmark who were disgusted with Canada's car culture, our love of SUVs, the obesity of our citizens, and the low regard we have for bikes and pedestrians. Their observations were based on a visits to five Eastern Canadian cities over a five-week period.

To quote from the open letter to Canadian citizens and politicians:

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"Before arriving in Canada we had a genuine impression of a clean, healthy and sustainable First World country. Upon arrival in Toronto we were horrified to see great oceans of car parks deserting the landscape and 12-lane highways, rammed packed with huge SUVs, with people going nowhere. A greater shock came when we discovered that this kind of infrastructure is not reserved just for the sprawl surrounding towns and cities but that highways actually run through city centres too. As humans trying to enjoy Canada's major cities (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa and Halifax) we were treated like second-class citizens compared to cars."

Far less has been made of a yet-to-be-authenticated letter from Doug and Doreen White of Miles City, Mont. They too paid a recent visit to Eastern Canada, but were left with a very different impression. They addressed their letter directly to Stephen Harper:

Dear President Harper, Can't tell you how impressed we were with our first ever trip to Canada. Me and Doreen have been meaning to take the kids for some time, and last month we finally got to visit. To tell you the truth, we weren't quite sure what to expect. We've heard stories. But when our plane touched down in Toronto, we knew we were in for a treat. We were delighted when the car rental company upgraded us to an Escalade. The girl there told us it's what the mayor drives. Imagine that! Now we always figured Canada was kind of a backward place, but it didn't take long for us to learn otherwise. We came in from the airport on the most magnificent freeway I have ever laid eyes on. Young Cody and Doug Jr. passed the time counting the lanes of cars, but I don't think they counted them all. I think it was Doug Jr. who said it made the I-90 look like a country road! Getting into downtown Toronto took a while, but when we finally made it I could see that it was all the buses and streetcars holding up traffic. They sure do take up a lot of room.

Tell you though, we were pleased as punch to be able to find a parking spot so close to our hotel. We don't go in much for that valet parking. Looks like you folks are in the middle of a lot of construction here, but holding on to the parking lots – you got that right.

The other thing we heard about Canada is that you all were kind of picky eaters. Wrong again – we found more than two-dozen all-you-can-eat buffets within easy driving distance. Any kind of food you can imagine. Was nice to rub shoulders with people who made us feel at home. We had quite a feed, let me tell you.

And the next day on the way to the Lion Safari we passed through a drive-thru with the best sausage and biscuit sandwiches we ever ate.

What a day.

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We're home now President Harper, but I have to tell you our stories about Canada are leaving our friends and neighbours green with envy.

And not to be disrespectful but I do have a few suggestions on how you can make Canada even better.

1) Raise the speed limits – that ought to clear up the backlog in traffic. People can't drive fast enough to get anywhere. Or make the highways wider where you need to.

2) Parking spaces are too small to get a normal-sized car in there. You should fix that.

3) Lower the price of gas: I stopped counting after $120 but it sure seemed expensive to fill up the SUV, but then I figure it's Canadian money so that must be it.

4) Do something about all the bicycles – one of them whipped right past us and damn near took the door off the Escalade.

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5) Too many people on the sidewalks downtown. Not sure what that's all about but I can't figure out why so many people are walking. Young Cody said it's like people don't even have cars! That gave us a pretty good laugh.

Anyhow, we're definitely coming back. Thinking about heading West next time. Any suggestions for buffets or parking in Vancouver?

Sincerely, Doug White.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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