Why do so many Aussies choose Canada as their dream destination?"Ozzie! Ozzie! Ozzie! Oy! Oy! Oy!"
The chant filled the air at Moose's Down Under, an Australian-themed restaurant in downtown Vancouver. It was day two of the Winter Olympics. The place was packed with expat Aussies. They wore crazy little hats with tiny Australian flags that stuck up like antennas-as if they were beaming the local mojo back to the cattle stations of the outback.
All eyes rested on the big TV screen, where gold-medal favourite Dale Begg-Smith stood atop the moguls run. In case you somehow missed it, Begg-Smith grew up in North Vancouver but now competes for Australia after a tiff with Ski Canada prompted him to defect. "We all know he's Canadian," one Aussie bloke in the crowd admitted a bit sheepishly, "but we've adopted him for the day."
Begg-Smith laid down a great run. The crowd went bananas. Super-slow-mo showed Begg-Smith executing his back layout, a white snowflake against the Cypress pines. "Byoooooooootiful," said an Aussie mum in a green-and-gold track top.
Most of you know what happened next. The guy following laid down an even better run. And Alex Bilodeau passed into history-the first Canadian gold medal on home soil-with a footnote maybe only the Aussies caught: Bilodeau had honed his chops partly in the snowfields of southeastern Australia.
Australia sent only 40 athletes to Vancouver-fewer than Slovenia. Yet the country had a presence here. Amid the mini-United Nations that the city briefly became, the Aussies stood out. Their colours hung from the athlete's village. Advance Australia Fair could be heard on the wind (if not often on the medal podium). Local Australians emerged from the woodwork to support their mates. On the eve of the Games, when the Olympic torch passed through our North Vancouver neighbourhood, there to welcome it were platoons of leather-lunged Aussies, draped in the flag of the Boxing Kangaroo. It was like an extremely benign zombie movie: The Invasion of Sheila and Bruce.
All of this got me thinking about Australians and Canadians. Why do so many Aussies pitch up here, in Western Canada, especially? And what's each side getting from the exchange?
In 2008, an Australian government website issued a travel advisory for Aussies thinking about visiting Canada. The voyagers were asked to "exercise caution." Terrorism? Always a possibility. But more than that, there could be earthquakes, avalanches, bears. Treacherous ice and snow threatened visitors in winter, and in the summer there was always the chance of spontaneous forest fires.
News of the advisory quickly became an Internet joke. (A Canadian blogger helpfully added a local threat the site missed-the moose: "When you hit one of those suckers with your Ford Focus, you know it.") The Australian high commissioner William Fisher jumped in quickly with damage control. Canada still ranks as the top "dream destination" for Australian travellers and work-abroad students, he assured. "If you go to Whistler these days, you're hard-pressed to find a Canadian."
Even if that's not quite true, it can seem that way, admits Joel Chevalier, who heads up seasonal hiring for Whistler/Blackcomb. "Australians make up maybe 15 per cent of our staff. But because they're so friendly we put 'em in the front-and-centre positions. So you go to buy your lift ticket, there's an Australian. Ski onto a lift and there's an Australian bumping your chair. Then afterwards, there's an Australian serving you coffee in the lodge."
Each year, the Australians working in Whistler throw a party on January 26-which is Australia Day, the anniversary of the first settlement Down Under-and the town meets them halfway by opening up the bars at 10 a.m. The celebration rivals Canada Day for pitch and yaw, with Aussies painting their faces and spilling into the streets.
The hire-Australian trend no longer holds in U.S. ski resorts such as Aspen and Mammoth, where laid-off professionals have returned to the ski-bum life and skewed the mix of seasonal workers back in favour of Americans. But in Western Canada-from Banff to Fernie, Big White to Silver Star-Aussies are still highly valued in the mix. Indeed, whole companies exist to pair Aussie labour with Canadian employers. Whistler sends recruiters annually to five major Australian cities, to keep the supply topped up. Young Aussies are the X factor in the Western Canadian resort economy. They're the ones working like Trojans in the low-paying jobs, and infecting everyone, in a good way, with their attitude. Without them the ship doesn't sail.
Just who are they, exactly? The field-guide description might read thus: 22 years old, from Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, fit, genial, open to chance, and hungry to ride down an actual mountain-the equivalent of an endless perfect pipeline wave. Their savings won't stretch far here-some Aussies say "B.C." stands for "bring cash." (I heard of one Aussie whose Whistler lodgings consisted of a bathtub he rented for $600 a month.) But they're optimistic they can make ends meet. They have stamina that would leave a lumberjack in the shade. Because, you know, sleeping all night after working all day would mean no room for partying-which is kind of the point of these "gap-year" excursions.
"Gap year" is a British and Aussie thing, a rite of passage. In Australia, you don't go straight from school into the workplace. Instead, before the ink on your degree is even dry, you catch a cab to the airport. Where to? The farther the better. For Australians, far's not a whole lot more trouble than near, because even near is pretty far.
From Western Australia, there's no place farther than Vancouver-and that was its attraction for Corina Aquino. She's the owner of Moose's Down Under, and was gliding around refreshing people's Coopers ales the night of Dale Begg-Smith's big race. Corina came here from Perth 19 years ago. "For me it was cheaper to come here than to Sydney," she says in an Aussie accent that's hanging tough. Like so many Aussies, she found Western Canada most attractive: water and mountains and winters that won't crack your bones. Aussies, unique among foreigners, can stay in Canada on a "working holiday" for not one year but two. At which point "livin' the dream" usually morphs into "payin' the mortgage," and home they go. But Corina had reason to stay. She'd met her future husband here. He ran a restaurant, where she began helping out. And that's when a switch flipped.
"The moment you know you're not going home, that's when you become homesick," she says. She started craving good old Aussie tucker-which is just different enough from Canadian cuisine that when you serve it to expat Australians you create a beautiful bubble of nostalgic comfort for them. Corina opened her own restaurant, with its logo of a koala clinging to the antler of that bewildered-looking moose. She began serving burgers with beet slices and eggs, and potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chili.
International visa rules make it easy for young Australians to choose Canada as the place to sow their oats and plant their flag. But surely there's more to this relationship than convenience, no?
"Australians are just free-range Canadians," the comic Mike Wilmot observed not long ago after a tour Down Under. And true enough, the ways the cultures are alike go beyond a fondness for beer, and questionable taste in footwear.
Both countries have identity issues. We want to be known for what we aren't. (Aussies are fond of declaring things "un-Australian," as in: "It's un-Australian to drink light beer." And Canadians…well, you know.)
Both countries have feet of clay, a little bit. We do things really well and then can't stick the landing. Take the opening ceremony at the Vancouver Olympics. When the cauldron failed to rise as planned, how many of us were thinking, Oh man-how Canadian. After Australian snowboarder Torah Bright won a gold medal, the folks back home in Oz didn't get to see her honoured for it, because Channel Nine, the national broadcaster, was airing a Woolworth's commercial.
Both countries have hosers/ockers we're not super-proud of but who keep everyone grounded on the earth.
We're laid-back, but strangely fastidious about some stuff-like being on time.
We both become more patriotic the farther we get from home.
But even our nationalism is not terribly serious. "It"s about hockey or swimming, not guns and tanks," observes a friend who has given this some thought.
I once heard an Aussie use a curious phrase. He was talking about an egotistical acquaintance. "Bloke's a bit of a legend in his own lunch box, yeh?" Australians don't like people who are full of themselves. So that too we share. Canadians also steer clear of folks who are legends in their own lunch boxes. (Maybe that's why the Aussies got over Dale Begg-Smith's moguls loss pretty quickly. That guy seems a bit of a legend in his own lunch box.)
I asked my pal Tony, from Sydney, what defines Australians. Here's his list:
—Sense of adventure
—Being far away from the rest of the world
Recognize that? C'est nous. (Okay, the "war" point is debatable.)
The key entries here are the adventure and the land. It all has something to do with the way they, and we, appreciate nature. Maybe it's because Aussies are trained practically from toddlerhood to go play outside. Or maybe it's the strict state-to-state quarantine laws that make them sensitive to ecological zones, I dunno. But Aussies are attuned to their surroundings.
I discovered this back in the 1990s while hiking in Tasmania. A group of 10 of us shuffled through the rain across the mountain-ringed flatlands. The eight Australians, including Tony, and a guide who had brought along her pet pademelon, scanned the terrain. They could all name lots of plants. They knew how much of Tasmania's eucalyptus forest had been clear-cut. The lone Swede, by contrast, kept putting his head down steaming on ahead to the next hut. (Me? I'm afraid I did not quite hold up my end of the "attuned to nature" accord. Mostly I was trying to stay warm, shivering in a loaner sweater, having lost my suitcase earlier in the trip.)
Despite the Australian government's travel advisory, the Aussies who come to Canada seem to like our wilder edges just fine. What's the odd grizzly after crocs and sharks and cane toads so invasive they'll hack into your computer and empty your bank account? Perhaps this is why you never hear of Aussies needing to be rescued from the Canadian backcountry. One of two things must be happening. Either a) They're not getting into trouble in the first place, or b) They're getting out of it themselves, by dint of superior wayfinding, bush skills and courage.
"It could be we listen to authority a bit better than most," said Corina Aquino, when I asked her about that. "From an early age we're bombarded with reminders of what we shouldn't do, and the consequences of doing it. You realize you need to listen to instructions because there are so many things around that can kill you."
But then I spoke with Tim Jones, head of North Vancouver's North Shore Search and Rescue. "Actually, we have rescued a couple," he said. And one man from Oz didn't make it out.
"Australian Gully" is now the name of the place they found him. It's not somewhere you want to stumble into come nightfall. But if you do, best hope you've packed plenty of vegemite.