What It’s Like To Live in the Best Place on Earth
They changed the license plates
In Canada, like in the US, every province or state has its own slogan embossed on the license plates of cars. Québec remembers. Saskatchewan poetically calls itself the Land of Living Skies. Manitoba is merely Friendly.
When I arrived in BC, young and dumb, license plates proclaimed the more or less inarguable Beautiful British Columbia. But in 2007, as the Olympics approached, the slogan changed. Now BC was the self-proclaimed Best Place On Earth. So boastful. So arrogant. So unCanadian.
In the vast continent-spanning countries of the New World, identity is a precious commodity. Our countries are huge and new, without the long and complex national stories of more mature nations. In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed Canada was the world’s first post-national state, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
And just recently, the annual Best Countries report proclaimed Canada as the best country in the world.
Suck it, Japan
The nation that gave us video games, tentacle porn, and Asian fascism only managed to rank second in the report. Germany was third. The United States actually gained a position since last year, finishing sixth.
What makes one place better than any other? It’s complicated. Countries are ranked by six categories. Most Powerful, Most Agile, For Social Purpose, For Women, Most Forward Looking, and For Racial Equality. Winners were judged by a panel of 17,000 business leaders, college-educated people from the middle class or better, and citizens considered ‘representative of their country’. Essentially, they canvassed rich people and crude stereotypes.
Canada certainly didn’t win by being the most powerful. As the signs at the entrance to the city of Vancouver used to proclaim, we don’t even have nuclear weapons. The great powers of the world don’t lose a lot of sleep wondering what Canada thinks about anything. However, Canada was considered the third most agile country. Must be all the ice skating.
Anyone who thinks about it for half a second will realize there is no best country on earth. It’s like searching for the best food on earth. What one person loves, another person will hate. If you love pristine wilderness and cold weather and bilingual government, Canada is hard to beat. If you’re hung up on sunny beaches and ancient ruins and cultural leadership, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.
I’m the furthest thing from a patriot it’s possible to be. I don’t understand how anyone can be proud of something they didn’t achieve themselves. But it’s nice to be liked. And given that I’m a deeply unlikable person, I’ll take my one out of 35 millionth share of Canada’s reflected glory. I’m not sure I would call it the Best Place on Earth. But it’s not bad.
The Canada I know is Western Canada
From the thin air of the Alberta prairies where dinosaur bones rise out of the ground next to oil derricks, all the way to the Pacific Coast. British Columbia alone is bigger than any country in Europe (so long as you don’t include Russia).
Out here, the New World feels new. The human touch is light. Between the cities of Calgary and Vancouver — a distance of over 1000 kilometers — no other town has more than 100,000 people. The rest is just villages and forests.
I first saw Vancouver in a book. There are few more photogenic cities on earth. The ocean laps at the feet of the city while snow-crowned mountains rise behind it, land and sea competing to outdo each other in heart-stopping beauty while the city clings on to the margin between them.
That, I thought to myself the moment I saw the photo, with the strange twist you feel in your heart at the recognition of something you’re seeing for the first time. That’s what I want.
Almost as soon as I was old enough, I scraped together what little money I could make, filled a backpack with worthless possessions, and bought a plane ticket to the West Coast of Canada. To Vancouver.
I landed on Halloween. The day was perfect. The plane came in over the sea, dropping through a cloudless sky while the surrounding mountains rose up to meet it. The lights of the city twinkled, glowing brighter by the second against the gathering dusk. I stepped off the plane and breathed the cleanest, purest air I had ever tasted, and felt more dizzyingly free than anyone who ever lived.
The city was beautiful. But I didn’t think I would stay. I saw it as the first step on a journey around the world, to seek out everything life had to offer.
I was wrong about that. I ended up staying in Vancouver for 10 years, then left, then came back. Canada is hard to quit.
Love isn’t always blind
Vancouver is beautiful, provided you don’t look too close. I arrived in the roiling hell of the Downtown Eastside, a police-supported ghetto with a HIV rate higher than Botswana and a life expectancy around that of North Korea. In the hotel where I lived, staff would knock on every door at noon each day to see who had died overnight. It’s worse now than it was then. When I lived in the worst neighborhood in Canada, no one was doing fentanyl. Now, it’s killing Canadians at half the speed of World War II.
There are only so many times you can walk past a shit-reeking tent city in a public park or watch nodding junkies pass out of the world leaning against a streetlight or see women offer their bodies for a pack of cigarettes before you start to question if this is really the Best Place on Earth.
But this isn’t the story. Not the whole story, anyway. This is the dark vein of malice that runs through Canada’s most beautiful city, the glittering shadow that makes the light brighter.
Six years after moving into the worst part of Canada, I was buying a house in one of the world’s hottest real estate markets. I grew up in a wealthy Western country. But the social mobility Canada offers is beyond anything you’ll find in the worn kingdoms of Europe. The old immigrant dream, that hard work and self-reliance will get you everything you need, has proved true in my experience. Canada has been good to me. In a country so desperately underpopulated, it seems just about anyone can build a decent life.
There are no utopias
That doesn’t mean some places aren’t better than others. When I arrived in Vancouver, it wasn’t love at first sight. As impressed as I was by the city’s natural beauty, I sensed right away that I wouldn’t die here. Of course, I still don’t know whether I was right about that.
Canada is a great country. A place where women are recognized as equal to men, with stiff legal penalties handed out to those who behave otherwise. A place where people are free to love whoever they want. A place where violent crime is rare, even in the worst parts of the darkest cities. A place where world-class healthcare is so cheap you don’t even notice you’re paying for it.
I wouldn’t choose to have spent my young adulthood anywhere else. I can’t imagine anywhere better to be young and trying to make your way in the world. The shit weather and outrageously overpriced cheese pale in comparison to the possibility of building a life here through nothing more than hard work.
But paradise doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. The poor are still poor, and the rich are still rich. In Vancouver, ten kilometers separates a neighborhood where the median income is $23,359 from one where it’s $84,951. Along the forlorn highways that lead into the gloomy North, women are still vanishing. The money marches on, the old flophouses turning daily into gastropubs and fashion boutiques, but the sirens still wail between buildings as they rush another forgotten junkie to the hospital.
Still, sometimes, the faultlines glow like gold. Sometimes there’s a summer evening as clear as gin, as joyful as champagne. The bright floodlights glow on the brow of Grouse Mountain, a constellation with a curled tail pointing down the forested slopes to the ocean below. The container ships float at anchor, lit up like sky lanterns as they hover motionless above the reflected stars. The sun sends out a dying flare, sharply outlining the blue shoulders of countless mountains as the sky blends from sunburnt red at its edge to deep ultramarine above.
Everything gets quiet and still. Lights come on in the multimillion-dollar houses. Junkies burn foil beneath fragrant hedges, sucking back curls of smoke while empty cans rattle and crunch in torn garbage bags. They play strange music in paradise.
And if this isn’t the Best Place on Earth, you don’t need a dubious survey to tell you it’s better than most. All we really need is a place that lets us be free, that nurtures our better impulses while dampening our darker ones.
The Best Place on Earth is the one inside your head, where everything you love lives forever. Where the sun always shines but the forests never burn. Where the drugs always work and the ambulance always arrives in time. Until we meet there, we’ll all keep on looking over that red horizon at the setting sun in hope of something better.
© Ryan Frawley 2021.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.