October 2017
Text by Saul Carliner

Image: © David Carillet/123rf.com

Saul Carliner immigrated to Canada in 2003. He is a professor of educational communication and technology at Concordia University in Montreal, and a fellow and past international president of the Society for Technical Communication.




Helpful Resources

Communicating with Canada, Europe’s newest trading partner

In the past year, Canada became Europe’s newest trading partner, a relationship sealed with the ratification of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). So who is this partner? And more importantly, how can technical communicators fashion materials for the Canadian market?

As an immigrant who has lived in Canada for almost 15 years, I have learned a few things about Canada. In this article, I introduce you to my findings and describe considerations for professional communicators and translators when developing materials for Canadian users.

Canada is not the 51st U.S. state

On the surface, much of Canada appears like the U.S. We’re geographic neighbors and share the longest unarmed border in the world. We share many of the same brands. Our cities share architectural styles. Many natural features – like the Rocky Mountains – straddle both sides of the border. And the majority of the Canadian population lives within 250 km of the U.S. border.

But Canada is not the 51st U.S. state and most Canadians value the distinction.

Some examples of major differences:

  • Although the country uses the same name (dollar) for its currency as the Americans and most Canadian coins bear a striking similarity to their American counterparts, Canada has its own currency.  
  • Canada has an entirely different healthcare system: no Obamacare exchanges in Canada (and definitely no Obamacare debates). Canada has a single payer system that many consider to be a central part of the Canadian identity.
  • In fact, the social safety net is strong in Canada, as is the public K-12 school system.  
  • Canada is geographically larger than the U.S. Yet Canada only has about one-tenth the population of the U.S.

Canada is part of the British Commonwealth    

Canada, a former British colony, is a constitutional monarchy and recognizes Queen Elizabeth as its leader. For all practical purposes, however, her duties have been delegated to the Governor General of Canada, who acts as head of state.

Canada has a parliamentary government headed by the prime minister. Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister, has made quite the splash on the international scene for his youth, optimism, and good looks. Government might be in Trudeau’s blood; his father was prime minister between the late 1960s and mid-1980s and his maternal grandfather was a Member of Parliament.

Canada also maintains ties to France, the other European power that colonized the country. Canada is a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, whose Secretary-General is Michaela Jean, a former Governor General of Canada.

Canada Goose is a bird… and a brand

With so much space and so few people, Canada has a well-earned reputation for unparalleled natural beauty. With the sea on one side and the mountains on the other, Vancouver is the most beautiful city in North America (an observation I made before moving to Canada and have since affirmed several times).

The Canadian Rockies attract visitors from across the globe to ski the challenging slopes and marvel at their beauty. The stark Canadian north attracts adventure travelers. The forests of Ontario and central Canada inspired some of our most beloved artists, the Group of Seven. Montreal and Quebec City maintain a European charm unique in North America. The Maritime provinces rival the fjords of Scandinavia for their beauty.

With such a vast land area and sparse human population, Canada is home to many plant and animal species. One is the Canada Goose (species branta canadenis). Sharing this land and its resources plays a key role in the diverse Canadian economy.

Image: © LordRunar/istockphoto.com


Canada Goose is a popular brand of winter weather coats, known for both their fashion and ability to keep wearers warm on a cold winter day. This is just one of many well-known Canadian products. Some Canadian brands that might be familiar to Europeans include Aldo Shoes, Blackberry, Bombardier, DSquared, Lightspeed, Lululemon, and Shopify.

Europeans might not be aware that some of their most famous department stores are actually Canadian-owned, including Galeria Kaufhof (which HBC, the oldest North American company, purchased in 2016) and Brown Thomas, Selfridge’s, and de Bijenkorf, which are owned by the Canadian Weston family, who also own Canada’s leading luxury retailer and largest chain of supermarkets.

Canada has a diverse economy

The Canadian economy is as diverse as its regions. We maintain a strong presence in the aerospace, agricultural, biotechnology, computer gaming, financial services, manufacturing, resources, and software industries, among others. This diversity is one of the key reasons that our economy survived a number of recent shocks that hurt other developed countries, like the worldwide economic slowdown of the late 2000s and the drop in oil prices earlier in this decade.

For professional communicators, this means that Canada is a stable, reliable trading partner offering a variety of trading opportunities.

Canada has a diverse population

Except for the aboriginal population, all Canadians either immigrated themselves or descend from immigrants. Immigration continues to shape the country. According to the most recent census, about one in five Canadians was born outside of the country.

In recent decades, the largest groups of immigrants arrived from Asia: the Philippines, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan top the list. Large numbers of immigrants also come from South America and Africa.

For professional communicators, this means that they should not assume that the Canadian whom they are addressing has European ancestry.

Canada uses metric, not imperial measures

Europeans visiting the U.S. might need a few moments to adjust to weather reports because the U.S. uses the Fahrenheit scale. Crossing the border into Canada also means crossing into more familiar measures. Canada went metric in the mid-1970s and the conversion is complete. Food is sold in kilos. Distances are calculated in kilometers. Beverages are sold in liters. Only real estate continues to be sold in square feet, but square meters are also used.

For professional communicators, this means they do not convert metric measures to imperial ones when preparing materials for Canadian users.

Canada has its own strain of English

Americans have a joke: "Who looks and sounds like an American but isn’t an American?" "A Canadian." But to the discerning ear and eye, a few telltale terms give the Canadian away.

Canadian terminology. For the most part, Canadians prefer American terms to British terms. Canadians have elevators like Americans, rather than British lifts. Canadians drive trucks (an Americanism) rather than British lorries. Canadians eat potato chips like Americans, not crisps like the British.  

But Canadians also have a few unique terms. Consider the ones in Table 1:


What Americans call

Canadians call

Bathroom, restroom




The day after Christmas

Boxing Day

Legislative district


School district

School board

Table 1: Comparison of American versus Canadian-isms.

Perhaps to confuse people, however, Canadians sometimes follow British conventions. This is especially true when referring to hospitals and universities.

Americans say "She spent three days in the hospital."

Canadians say "She spent three days in hospital" (no use of "the").

Similarly, Americans tend to use the word "college" to refer to undergraduate studies. Canadians differentiate between colleges (which offer diplomas) and universities (which offer bachelor’s and other degrees), so those in four-year degree programs attend "university".

Canadian punctuation. An additional characteristic to note about Canadian English is the placement of punctuation when using an end quote ("). Americans place the punctuation inside the quotation; Canadians place it outside.


American: "Wow!" Jill exclaimed.

Canadian: "Wow"! Jill exclaimed.

Canadian spellings sometimes differ from American spellings. A Canadian editor once characterized the difference to me as follows:

U in the word neighbor:

  • Not used in American English.
  • Definitely used in British English.
  • Optional in Canadian English.

In practice, government documents and documents solely intended for the Canadian market use British spellings such as including the "u" in words like colo(u)r and neighbo(u)r, and using "re" to end words like theatre and centre.  

Academic documents vary. Locally educated students tend to use British spellings while others tend to use American spellings (which are preferred by most U.S. journals). Commercial documents intended for use throughout the continent use American spellings. Microsoft Office offers a Canadian English dictionary for spellcheck. When in doubt, this serves as a helpful resource. If you have Canadian colleagues available to you, also check with them.  

Furthermore, some organizations use the same documentation in Canada that they use in the United States and do not localize for Canadian English. The primary risk in this approach is that the material will use American-centric examples or terms and this might offend some Canadians. As noted earlier, Canadians are proud of their unique identity. Most companies acknowledge this by localizing their materials.  

The country of Canada is bilingual; the provinces, not so much

Although the discussion has only focused on English until now, Canada is legally a bilingual country, formalized in the Official Languages Act of 1968.

The other official language is French. France established the first permanent European colonies in Canada, and the French language survived the British conquest in the mid-1700s. (By the way, the French civil legal structure also survived the conquest, and forms the basis of the legal system in the province of Quebec).

Because the country is bilingual, all federal government services and information must be offered in both official languages. However, each province establishes its own language requirements for government and services under their jurisdictions. So language requirements differ at the provincial and local levels.

Canada only has one bilingual province: New Brunswick. This province offers all of its services in English and French. Quebec, internationally known for its French culture, uses only French as the official language. The other provinces also have one official language: English. The three territories, each of which has significant indigenous populations, have both English and indigenous languages as official languages.

Speakers of English in Quebec and French in the other provinces and territories have a right to receive essential services – education and healthcare – in their first language. So Anglophones have a right to educational and medical services in English in Quebec, while Francophones have a right to these services in French in other provinces. In addition, as a result of a Truth and Reconciliation process that took place earlier in this decade, most jurisdictions are also making efforts to provide services in aboriginal languages and to support the revival of these languages.

So what does all of this mean to an organization providing product labeling and documentation? The Canadian government places certain requirements on product labeling, which must be provided in both official languages. Companies have discretion with other product information. But to be sold in Quebec, all product information (print- or web-based) must be provided in French.

Canadian French differs from other strains of French

As a unique strain of English evolved in Canada, so have unique strains of French. Quebec French is the dominant strain and is characterized by its informality. For example, Quebec French makes extensive use of slang. Quebec French makes far more use of the familiar tu rather than vous when addressing strangers. (Tu and vous both refer to "you.")

Given the size of the Quebec market (Quebec has a population of eight million, the overwhelming majority of whom speak French) and between a half million and one and a half million Francophones in Ontario and the notable differences in the two versions of French, many organizations choose to localize French language materials for the Canadian market. The French used for these efforts is Quebec French. Many word processors offer Quebec French dictionaries, and the Canadian software application Antidote provides comprehensive grammar and spelling assistance online.

Those organizations that choose not to localize their materials run the same risks as those who choose not to localize their English materials for the Canadian market.  

To sum up

In other words, Canada offers opportunities, challenges, and rewards to those professional communicators who have the opportunity to serve the market. The sidebar, Helpful Resources, provides links to some tips for communicating with the Canadian market