Cansplaining: How Students Get Schooled in Canada

How is school different between Canada and the United States? In a lot of ways, starting from Grade 1 (that’s Canadian for “first grade”)


Editor’s note: Canada and the United States share a number of superficial similarities – but few know the differences better than Kevin Bracken, who moved to Toronto from Long Island, New York, in 2003 to attend university and never looked back. Based on excerpts from Bracken’s free-to-download book What’s Different in Canada?, our Cansplaining series helps Canadians know themselves better, and may be of interest to Americans who feel motivated to learn more about a new country.

When you visit or move to a new country, you soon discover you’re missing a lot of the basic cultural material that everyone else learned during childhood.

While Americans and Canadians grew up watching roughly the same media, there are some notable exceptions. Where Americans had Mr. Rogers, Canadians had Mr. Dressup with his tickle trunk. Where Americans had Nickelodeon, Canadians had Teletoon. But for the most part, the pop cultural input was similar.

It’s at school where you start to see the real differences between childhoods in each country.  While American children were busy trying to get good grades in school by taking tests, Canadians were trying to get good marks by writing exams.

From the classroom, where the supplies have funny names, to recess, where the sports have funny names, Canadian schooling sounds a little different – and these differences explain why a visitor from the U.S. or elsewhere might have trouble following a Canadian conversation at times.

School Supplies

Firstly, school supplies are not to be confused with supply teachers. In American schools, when your teacher calls in sick, you get a “substitute teacher” and watch movies with the lights off. In Canada, they’re called “supply teachers.” The first few times I heard this, I honestly believed there were teachers whose job solely concerned rulers and pencils.

But speaking of supplies, it’s often the words you use every day are that are the most different between countries, and school supplies readily illustrate this point.

For example: Canadians sometimes call erasers “rubbers.” Or: What do you call a thin cardstock poster that you might use to make a presentation about photosynthesis? If you answered “poster board,” congratulations, that makes plenty of sense. If you said, “oaktag,” you’re almost certainly from the Northeastern United States. If you said, “Bristol board,” you must be Canadian. Bristol board is an example of a proprietary eponym like band-aids or Kleenex, where the name of the brand (Bristol) has come to mean the entire category of poster board.

Now imagine you got some photocopied handouts from your teacher with three hole punches. Do you reach for a paper folder that comes with metal clips inside? If so, what do you call the folder? If you are Canadian, the answer seems obvious: a Duo-Tang, of course!

For anyone who isn’t Canadian, Duo-Tang is another great example of a proprietary eponym, where the name of a (now-defunct) brand comes to represent a generic product.


Whom do you trust to stay studiously organized? Canadians, that’s whom.

Now imagine the photocopied handout was a black-and-white dinosaur that needs be coloured in, what utensil do you use? In America we’d use a coloured pencil, but in Canada they call those “pencil crayons.” That’s just ridiculous, Canada. But not as ridiculous as what you call kickball, i.e. “soccer baseball.” Come on, stop being so literal Canada.

Higher learning  

In the United States, the words college and university are essentially synonymous; not so in Canada. “College” refers to a two-year post-secondary program where one may earn a certificate or diploma, usually vocational in nature, while “university” refers to a three- or four-year program where one may earn a degree. It’s always used without an article; for example, “I’m postponing university for a year to like, find myself, man.”

This is not to be confused with the fact some universities on either side of the border have colleges within them, including the ridiculously named University College within the University of Toronto (a school whose population is roughly 80% keeners).

University College, University of Toronto: Almost as dumb a name as, say, “Avenue Road”

What’s a keener? That’s a mostly pejorative Canadian term for a person who is always “keen” to answer the teacher’s questions. Synonyms include brownnoser, teacher’s pet or suck-up. These are the people whose hands are always raised. In university, keeners always fight for the front seats, hold up classes by asking questions right before lecture is over, and exploit every minute of office hours to make sure the professor absolutely knows their name. Other synonyms for keener are “eager beaver” or “keen bean.”

Ici on parle français

FSL (French as a second language) classes are compulsory for all English-speaking Canadian students – and vice versa – although in most provinces you’re only required to stick with French through Grade 9 (that’s “ninth grade” for the Yankees.)

Anybody who went to school in Canada will remember with fondness (or fright) the words, “cahiers, s’il vous plaît!” A cahier is an exercise book, often a soft-bound workbook used by Canadian students and manufactured by Hilroy (in Toronto until relatively recently). Its distinct bright colours are punctuated by a silhouette of Canada, and every decent student will forever associate a particular exercise book colour with a certain subject.

Beyond FSL classes, students in Canada may also enroll in French Immersion. These are public elementary school programs in which some (or all) courses taught entirely in French to English-speaking students – so, for example, an English-speaking kid in English-speaking Toronto learns Grade 6 science entirely in French. The aim is to accelerate learning and promote bilingualism in Canada (and possibly help get your kid ahead in business or the bureaucracy one day).

The popularity (and effectiveness) of French immersion ranges greatly by province; it’s especially popular in the handful of truly bilingual places in Canada, namely the province of New Brunswick and the Ottawa and Montreal areas.

This situation probably beats the American habit of learning Spanish from Dora the Explorer. Then again, the most hilarious thing I’ve been told about by now-adult Canadians is a series of TV shorts they watched in French class – behold Téléfrançais.

Just think: Most millennial and Gen X anglo Canadians learned how to speak French from a talking pineapple who shouted: “Je suis un ananas!”

Cansplaining: How Students Get Schooled in Canada
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