Until a week ago, I did not own a pair of shorts, but I did have two plaid flannel shirts and a drawer full of thick woolen socks. I say "to-more-owe," not "to-mah-row," and I went to "university," not "college." I have a full beard in the heat of summer. My passport reads United States of America, but I haven't lived here in four years. Yes, I was living in Canada, who today celebrates the peaceful unification of the Eastern provinces in 1867. Our northerly neighbo(u)rs were always kind to me, providing cheap higher education, affordable healthcare and a government that didn't totally suck balls. I loved living there, and haven't ruled out moving back. Yet beneath its placid exterior, there is a deep, dark secret threatening the life and liberty of its people: It absolutely blows to be a gadget nerd in Canada.
Canada doesn't produce its own electronics. "But Dan," some defensive, annoying nationalist might say, "what about all those semiconductor plants in Southeast Ontario?" Well, Antagonist I Just Created, you're a nitpicker and totally missed my point. Consumer electronics brands are almost exclusively imports from the States and various Asian countries. Update: RIM is obviously the one significant exception. What that means is that Canada imposes duties on pretty much everything, driving the retail prices up. I won't even go into the
15% 12.5% sales tax. (Yes, shut up about taxes, America, you're a bunch of whiners.) But even worse, Canada is currently cursed with a horribly strong dollar, leading to damnable economic benefits across the nation. Yet they have not adjusted to the temporary economic downturn (don't say recession, don't say recession) in the Greatest Country on Earth.
What does that mean to a young, naïve Pennsylvanian just trying to figure out how to make his Benjamins last? When I went looking for a new laptop, I found something fascinating: the same HP model, from Best Buy's online sites, costs $649 in the States, and a whopping $799 in Canada. Going by exchange rate, that computer should actually have cost $654 at Bestbuy.ca—that's $150 less I could spend on still deliriously expensive Canadian beer!
I'm a particular kind of gadget nerd. I don't go crazy over Linux or cell phones or overclocking or whatever. I'm a media nerd, and I have the debt and unhealthy pallor to prove it. Trust me, normal people don't stockpile PMPs or set up a Netflix account at a new apartment before introducing himself to his roommates.
Media is where Canada takes a big ungainly flop on its face. I lived in Montreal, a thriving artistic city with an unparalleled music scene and multiple international film festivals, a city that is very much in the here and now. Yet there is absolutely no legal way to watch Top Chef as it airs, forcing poor deprived Canadian children to wait for months to get their culinary-based reality competition fix. This year the show began June 24th in Canada, after the whole season had already ended in the Land of the Free.
Besides delays, Canada's version of the FCC, the CRTC, has very strict rules about the percentage of "cancon," or Canadian content, that must be played. A whopping 60% of television programming between the hours of 6 AM and midnight has to be homegrown. Now, that's mostly taken up by filler like daytime talk shows and local news, but an awful lot of solid entertainment falls to the wayside to make room. There's a very long and boring debate about consumer freedom vs. preservation of Canadian culture, but the discussion's been going on for decades and Top Chef doesn't wait for parliamentary consensus.
On the same note, any Canadians who have ever tried to stream US television episodes legally over the web will be familiar with that ever-present message of rejection: "This video is not available in your region or location." The CRTC refuses to allow the lovely Padma Lakshmi to appear on my computer, even in a low-res, three-inch popup window. So forget about Hulu or any other legit way to watch those shows; Canadians are forced into less savo(u)ry Internet back alleys like BitTorrent as a matter of course.
This epic struggle doesn't only apply to television, but gadgets as well. Canada has been without the JesusPhone for so long that they've reverted to a culture of hunter-gatherers. Even when it finally arrives later this month, it won't be readily available to all: The cost of the phone and its monthly plan is so high that the Canadians who do opt for it will have to forswear store-bought food and live off the land to save money. Even TiVo only landed in Canada in late 2007, although seriously guys, you don't need to record Corner Gas and all that other cancon. It's really not very good.
Selection of consumer electronics in Canadian brick-and-mortar stores is depressingly limited, with few non-mainstream products and long delays on others. The hilariously-named Best-Buy-equivalent "Future Shop" seems to be staffed with people chosen only for their ability to turn customers purple with rage. So you'd think Canadians would just turn to online shopping for their nerd needs, right? Well, Amazon only exists in Canada as a shadow of its true self, selling nothing but books, DVDs, music, and video games. Newegg? Forget about it. Woot for electronics? Not a chance. If you're lucky enough to find some misguided online retailer willing to ship you some gadgetry, you'll enjoy the lovable quirks of the Canadian postal service. Canadapost does deliver mail occasionally, but most of the time they indulge in their hobby of losing shit, charging more than my monthly rent in duties, and hoarding packages for weeks just for fun.
I like making fun of Canada, like any other red-blooded, God-fearing American citizen. For a gadget nerd, it's frustrating. The cost of our favo(u)rite toys is upsettingly high, the selection far too meager. Shipping is expensive, unreliable, and slow, and there's not even much good TV to watch while you wait for your imported gadget to arrive. On the other hand, if you're a functioning member of society who prefers sensible politics and beneficent social values to slightly more convenient electronics purchasing, Canada's pretty great. Just get ready to pay up for the ridiculous Canadian iPhone plans when you flee northward to avoid the next war. Happy Canada Day—or Bonne Fete du Canada—everybody!
Dan, our summer NYC area intern, just graduated from McGill in early June. Feel free to say hi to him. And in case you were wondering, he HAS already been hazed a bit. As he himself admits, he's the one with the beard.