Canadians blunt recession with cultural reserve

Their legendary caution and thriftiness has helped the country avoid bank failures and a housing crash. Take that, America.

By , Correspondent

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    Toronto residents Audrey and Ken Davies, who are proudly frugal, create their own furniture and artwork to cut costs.
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Audrey Davies sweeps her hand through the air, showing off her classically appointed living room while describing how the family penny-pinched its way to one of Toronto's most affluent addresses.

"No smoking, no drinking, no partying, no going places, no nothing," says Audrey, rattling off her top tips for living frugally while her husband, Ken, a retired urban planner, sits on the couch. "You see, we're cheap."

While Ken balks at the cheapskate label, he admits he, too, finds special glory in squeezing every Canadian dollar until the Queen's eyes water.

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The border between the US and Canada is the world's longest shared by two nations. It also demarcates the line between a financial aggression that has, arguably, lapsed into recklessness and a fiscal prudence that is, in some eyes, now the envy of the world.

In a country where no major banks have failed, where citizens enjoy universal healthcare, and where the recession has yet to bite as deeply, Canadians' legendary cultural reserve may be the perfect temperament to manage both households and businesses.

For the moment, Canadians are lauding themselves for fending off the worst of the global economic crisis, while starting to shrug off the sense of inferiority that comes with the living in the shadow of an omni-powerful neighbor.

"Many Canadians view themselves as failed Americans," says Peter C. Newman, a chronicler of Canada's business establishment. "We're envious, wishing we were more like them. Maybe it now seems like being clumsy and overly careful isn't so bad after all."

Canada is often derided for being less entrepreneurial than the US. It has no free-market evangelists like Donald Trump, no flashy CEOs. The Canadian power elite prefer to hide their mansions down long driveways, behind a thicket of trees.

Even early visitors to North America noted the striking cultural differences between the two countries. During a stopover in 1888, the Marxist Frederick Engels uncharacteristically noted how "necessary the feverish speculative spirit of the Americans is for the rapid development of a new country." Yet Canada, he wrote, seemed too much like Europe – in need of an "infusion of Yankee blood."

Now it seems Americans and the rest of the world are looking to Canada for lessons in how to repair their economies. When the Group of 20 nations met in London earlier this month, Canada's associate deputy of finance, Tiff Macklem, co-chaired a group examining the regulation of global financial services.

According to the World Economic Forum, Canada's banking system ranks as the healthiest in the world, while the US took 40th in the 2008 survey. Stronger federal regulations and lower leverage ratios have allowed Canadian banks to avoid much of the global balance-sheet collapse.

Yet Canadian parsimony has played a part, too. True, the tightwad is making a comeback all across North America. The recessionista, who scours the bargain bins and thrift shops for clothes and accessories, has replaced the fashionista.

But for Ken Davies, like millions of other Canadians, it has always been a way of life. The clothes he's wearing? Several years old. The watercolors that adorn his living room walls? He painted them – in fact, many have images on both sides. The stools, the plant stands? He built them.

The way he sees it, the cold climate has always made Canadians more cautious, more likely to hunker down. But their financial prudence can also be explained by Canada's dependence on, and vulnerability to, its largest trading partner. When the US suffers, so do people north of the border, he says.

Sitting here on a late winter afternoon, it is clear the Davies don't feel their frugal ways have crimped their lifestyle. Last year, they traveled to Vienna. A few years before that, they took a painting tour of France. But those are indulgences, planned and saved for over years. In fact, it seems the Davies even see scrimping as a form of entertainment. "We have fun finding ways to save money," Audrey says.

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