At what point does a settlement become final? Is it when the parties agree on all of the terms of the settlement and sign a written agreement, such as minutes of settlement? Or at an earlier time?
In the recent decision of Cox v Baker, 2019 ONSC 2859, the court was asked to make a determination as to whether a binding settlement had been reached. The litigation involved an inter vivos trust (the “Trust”) settled by a mother for the benefit of her two daughters and subsequent generations. After the death of Donna (the second to die of the two daughters), the three living beneficiaries were Donna’s sons, Brett and Brent, and her niece, Marnie. Brett was the sole trustee after Donna’s death.
Prior to her death, Donna was living at a house that was owned by the Trust (the “Property”), with her husband, John. About a year after Donna’s death, in March 2018, John brought an application against Brett, as trustee of the Trust, and against all three of the beneficiaries, personally, seeking, among other things, an interest in the Property by way of resulting and/or constructive trust.
In May 2018, John and Brett ran into each other at Donna’s gravesite. They discussed John’s application, John advised Brett that he would call his lawyer and withdraw his application, and the two shook hands. Thereafter, a number of emails were exchanged between counsel for John, and counsel for Brett, Brent, and Marnie. It appeared that the parties had reached an agreement that John would withdraw his application, without costs, provided that all parties sign a mutual release. However, John subsequently took the position that there was never a binding settlement agreement, as the parties had not agreed on the specific terms of the mutual release. Brett, Brent, and Marnie brought an application to enforce the settlement.
Ultimately, the court concluded that a binding settlement had been reached. Some of the key factors were, in the court’s finding, that there had been a mutual intention between the parties to create a legally binding contract, and that all essential/material terms had been agreed upon. The court also noted that the agreement had been reduced to writing by way of the email exchanges between counsel.
The court specifically considered whether the fact that the parties had not yet agreed on the specific wording of the mutual release was necessary to create a binding settlement. After reviewing the case law, the court concluded that, unless there is some indication that the settlement was conditional on the parties also agreeing on the language for a release, it is not required that the parties agree on the specific terms of such a release before there will be said to be a binding settlement agreement.
The court also commented on the importance of the principle of finality, which demands that settlements entered into with the assistance of legal counsel be upheld, as it is a matter of good public policy to encourage settlement. Settlements of this kind should be upheld other than in exceptional cases, which the present case was not.
This decision is an important reminder that, if the parties have reached an agreement on all essential terms, even if the more minor details have not been agreed upon, and the minutes of settlement and/or release have not been finalized and executed, a binding settlement may still exist. Parties should be aware that once a binding settlement has been reached (which could happen prior to signing minutes of settlement), they cannot simply change their minds. It is important to keep this in mind at all stages of a negotiation, and to be alert as to when it could be said that all essential terms have been agreed upon.
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These days, life expectancy is longer than ever. We have previously blogged (for instance, here and here) about some considerations and consequences of having a longer life expectancy. A recent article in The New Yorker considers aging, and in particular, anti-aging now that people are generally living longer. The online version can be found here: Can We Live Longer but Stay Younger?
One of the problems with living longer, as highlighted in the New Yorker article, is that we still must deal with the challenges and realities of aging. What we really want is not eternal life but rather, eternal youth.
The article discusses several efforts to address or counteract the types of issues that we face as we age. For instance, a geneticist at Harvard has successfully extended the life of yeast, and is moving on to human trials. A Harvard molecular biologist, George Church, has had success reprogramming embryonic stem cells to essentially turn an old cell into a young cell. Church’s work has been done so far on mice and dogs, but there are plans to commence human clinical trials within the next five years.
The goal of the work being done by Church is to live better, not necessarily longer: “The goal is youthful wellness rather than an extended long period of age-related decline.” The article discusses the nature of this age-related decline, through the illustration of a “sudden aging” suit that allows the wearer to experience the physical challenges of aging, including boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback, and bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness. The point of the aging suit is to help create empathy and understanding about how difficult each and every task (an example was reaching up to a top shelf and picking up a mug) can be for older adults, both physically and mentally. So the question becomes, if we are living so much longer, but with age, every day and every task becomes much more difficult, what can we do to counteract that?
The work being done related to anti-aging and the creation of products to make older people’s lives easier is interesting and seems to be moving in new directions. For instance, the article mentions the difficulty of marketing certain products aimed at older people, because we do not like the idea of buying something that reminds us that we are old. So instead of selling a personal-emergency-response system to send an alert and seek assistance in the event of a fall, or some other physical emergency, in the form of a pendant worn around the neck, it is suggested that the most effective such device would be an iPhone or Apple Watch app.
Unfortunately, the issue of dementia is still a concern. There still does not appear to be a cure in sight for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The causes remain unclear. The effects, however, are evident. One of the individuals mentioned in the article was Professor Patrick Hof, who studies brains. On the physical effects of dementia on our actual brains, Professor Hof notes that “[y]ou can’t tell any difference, even under extreme magnification, between an aging non-demented brain and a younger human one…But, holding an Alzheimer’s brain in your hand, you can see the atrophy.” It appears that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area, in particular.
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I recently came across an article discussing a court’s decision in respect of what appears to be a claim for dependant’s support in Tasmania. In the decision of Booth v Brooks  TASSC 35, the deceased died with a Will that did not leave anything to his estranged daughter. The deceased was also survived by a long-term partner and two adult sons, who were mentioned in his Will.
The daughter made a claim under a Tasmanian statute, the Testator’s Family Maintenance Act 1912 (the “TFMA”). Section 3(1) of the TFMA states as follows:
3 (1) If a person dies, whether testate or intestate, and in terms of his will or as a result of his intestacy any person by whom or on whose behalf application for provision out of his estate may be made under this Act is left without adequate provision for his proper maintenance and support thereafter, the Court or a judge may, in its or his discretion, on application made by or on behalf of the last-mentioned person, order that such provision as the Court or judge, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, thinks proper shall be made out of the estate of the deceased person for all or any of the persons by whom or on whose behalf such an application may be made, and may make such other order in the matter, including an order as to costs, as the Court or judge thinks fit.
By comparison, section 58(1) of Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act, (the “SLRA”) seems to have quite similar language. Section 58(1) provides:
58 (1) Where a deceased, whether testate or intestate, has not made adequate provision for the proper support of his dependants or any of them, the court, on application, may order that such provision as it considers adequate be made out of the estate of the deceased for the proper support of the dependants or any of them.
Under the SLRA, in order to qualify as a “dependant”, one must be a spouse, parent, child, or brother or sister of the deceased, to whom the deceased was providing support or was under a legal obligation to provide support immediately before his death. The TFMA, on the other hand, provides in section 3A that the persons who may make an application pursuant to section 3(1) are the:
- parents (if the deceased person dies without a spouse or children); and
- person who had a certain relationship with the deceased, and who was entitled to receive maintenance from the deceased at the time of his or her death.
In Booth v Brooks, the court concluded that the daughter had been left without adequate provision. One of the factors that lead to this conclusion was that the deceased had not had a good relationship with the daughter throughout her life and had not provided her with any direct financial support. In particular, the court stated that the deceased’s “abnegation of parental responsibility during childhood increases the moral obligation of the testator to the child”.
It seems that the key difference in the law in Tasmania versus Ontario that came into play in the Booth v Brooks decision, which would likely have resulted in a different outcome had the scenario arisen in Ontario, is that the TFMA does not require that a spouse, child, or parent be receiving or entitled to support or “maintenance” at the time of the deceased’s death. Interestingly, the Tasmanian law seems to lean the other way—if the deceased has not provided adequate support during his or her lifetime, it may increase the ability of a child or spouse to obtain support from the deceased’s estate.
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It is not uncommon for the lawyer who drafted a testator’s will or codicil to subsequently be retained by the Estate Trustees after the testator’s death to assist with the administration of the estate. The rationale behind the drafting lawyer being retained to assist with the administration of the estate appears fairly self-evident, for as the drafting lawyer likely has an intimate knowledge of the testator’s estate plan and assets they may be in a better position than most to assist with the administration of the estate.
While retaining the drafting lawyer to assist with the administration of the estate is fairly uncontroversial in most situations, circumstances could become more complicated if there has been a challenge to the validity of the testamentary document prepared by the drafting lawyer. If a proceeding has been commenced challenging the validity of the testamentary document, there is an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer’s notes and records will be produced as evidence, and that the drafting lawyer will be called as a non-party witness as part of the discovery process. If the matter should proceed all the way to trial, there is also an extremely high likelihood that the drafting lawyer would be called as a witness at trial. As the drafting lawyer would personally have a role to play in any court process challenging the validity of the will, questions emerge regarding whether it would be proper for the drafting lawyer to continue to represent any party in the will challenge, or would doing so place the drafting lawyer in a conflict of interest?
Rule 3.4-1 of the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not act or continue to act where there is a conflict of interest. In the case of a drafting lawyer representing a party in a will challenge for a will that they prepared, an argument could be raised that the drafting lawyer is in an inherent position of conflict, as the drafting lawyer may be unable to look out for the best interests of their client while at the same time looking out for their own interests when being called as a witness or producing their file. There is also the potentially awkward situation of the drafting lawyer having to call themselves as a witness, and the associated logistical quagmire of how the lawyer would put questions to themselves.
The issue of whether a drafting lawyer would be in a conflict of interest in representing a party in a will challenge was dealt with in Dale v. Prentice, 2015 ONSC 1611. In such a decision, the party challenging the validity of the will brought a motion to remove the drafting lawyer as the lawyer of record for the propounder of the will, alleging they were in a conflict of interest. The court ultimately agreed that the drafting lawyer was in a conflict of interest, and ordered that the drafting lawyer be removed as the lawyer of record. In coming to such a conclusion, the court states:
“There is a significant likelihood of a real conflict arising. Counsel for the estate is propounding a Will prepared by his office. The preparation and execution of Wills are legal services, reserved to those who are properly licensed to practise law. Counsel’s ability to objectively and independently assess the evidence will necessarily be affected by his interest in having his firm’s legal services found to have been properly provided.” [emphasis added]
Decisions such as Dale v. Prentice suggest that a lawyer may be unable to represent any party in a will challenge for a will that was prepared by their office as they may be in a conflict of interest. Should the circumstance arise where the drafting lawyer is retained to assist with the administration of the estate, and subsequent to being retained someone challenges the validity of the Will, it may be in the best interest of all parties for the drafting lawyer to indicate that they are no longer able to act in the matter due to the potential conflict, and suggest to their clients that they retain a new lawyer to represent them in the will challenge.
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Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.
The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.
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It is often said that an Attorney for Property can do anything on behalf of the grantor’s behalf except make a will. This is on account of section 7(2) of the Substitute Decisions Act (the “SDA“), which provides:
“The continuing power of attorney may authorize the person named as attorney to do on the grantor’s behalf anything in respect of property that the grantor could do if capable, except make a will.” [emphasis added]
Although at first glance it would appear that the potential tasks that an Attorney for Property could complete on behalf of a grantor are almost absolute, with the Attorney for Property being able to do anything on behalf of the grantor except sign a new will, in reality the tasks that an Attorney for Property may complete relative to the grantor’s estate planning is more restrictive than this would suggest at first glance. This is because the definition of “will” in the SDA is defined as being the same as that contained in the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA“), with the SLRA in turn defining “will” as including not only typical testamentary documents such as a Last Will and Testament or Codicil, but also “any other testamentary disposition“. As a result, the stipulation that an Attorney for Property can do anything on behalf of the grantor “except make a will” would include not only a restriction on the Attorney for Property’s ability to sign a new Last Will and Testament or Codicil on behalf of the grantor, but also a restriction on the Attorney for Property’s ability to make “any other testamentary disposition” on behalf of the grantor.
It is fairly common for individuals such as spouses to own real property as joint-tenants with the right of survivorship. When one joint-owner dies ownership of the property automatically passes to the surviving joint-owner by right of survivorship, with no portion of the property forming part of the deceased joint-owner’s estate. Although such an ownership structure may make sense when the property is originally purchased, it is not uncommon for circumstances to arise after the property was registered (i.e. a divorce or separation) which may make one of the joint-owners no longer want the property to carry the right of survivorship. Should such circumstances arise, one of the joint-owners will often “sever” title to the property so that the property is now held as tenants-in-common without the right of survivorship, making efforts to attempt to ensure that at least 50% of the property would form part of their estate should they predecease the other joint-owner.
Although severing title to a property is fairly straight forward while the owner is still capable, circumstances could become more complicated should the owner become incapable as questions may emerge regarding whether their Attorney for Property has the authority to sever title to the property on behalf of the grantor, or whether such an action is a “testamentary disposition” and therefor barred by section 7(2) of the SDA.
The issue of whether an Attorney for Property severing title to a property is a “testamentary disposition” was in part dealt with by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Champion v. Guibord, 2007 ONCA 161, where the court states:
“The appellants argue that the severing of the joint tenancies here constituted a change in testamentary designation or disposition and is therefore prohibited by s. 31(1) of the Substitute Decisions Act because it is the making of a will.
While we are inclined to the view that the severance of a joint tenancy is not a testamentary disposition, we need not decide that question in this case. Even if it were, we see no error in the disposition made by the application judge, because of s. 35.1(3)(a) of the Substitute Decisions Act.” [emphasis added]
Although the Court of Appeal does not conclusively settle the issue in Champion v. Guibord, the court appears to strongly suggest that they are of the position that an Attorney for Property severing a joint-tenancy is not a “testamentary disposition” within the confines of the SDA.
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Sometimes a Will may include an “option to purchase” clause. Basically, this type of clause will provide that a particular person shall have the option to purchase a particular asset of the estate, for a particular price. Usually the option will end after a certain period of time, to allow the estate to continue being administered, depending on whether the person decides to exercise the option. Typically, options to purchase will play out in a fairly straightforward way—either the option is exercised, or it expires. However, in the recent decision in Crawford v Culbert et al, 2019 ONSC 1048, the chain of events was not quite so simple.
Hannah died in February 2018, and was survived by her four children: a son, Terry, and three daughters, Tammy, Tracey, and Tina.
At the time of Hannah’s death, the four siblings were not specifically aware of the contents of Hannah’s Will. A few days after Hannah died, they located an unexecuted document that appeared to be a Will, which Tina read out loud. The Will contained a provision that Terry would have a first option to purchase a farm property owned by Hannah’s estate, for $200,000.00, and that he had a period of 30 days “from the date that express written notice” of the option is given to him. At that time, it was unclear whether the Will had been executed.
The next day, the three sisters obtained a notarial copy of the executed Will from the law firm that had prepared it, but did not provide or show a copy to Terry. Some text messages were exchanged between Terry and Tammy about a month later, in which Terry commented that he did not intend to purchase the property. A short while after that, all four of the siblings met at the office of the lawyer who drafted the Will. It was at this time that Terry learned that Hannah’s Will was in the same form as the unexecuted document the siblings had located following her death. Twenty days later, Terry advised the lawyer that he intended to exercise the option to purchase. Both Tracey and Tammy took the position that Terry was out of time to exercise the option.
The court considered what constituted “express written notice” as required by Hannah’s Will. It easily concluded that Tina’s reading of the unexecuted Will did not constitute express written notice. The court also found that the earliest date that the 30 day period could have commenced was the day that all four siblings attended at the lawyer’s office, and Terry learned that the Will had been executed. Additionally, the court found that nothing Terry said or did prior to the date of the lawyer’s meeting could be considered an effective waiver of his entitlement to the option.
This decision may serve as a reminder to anyone who encounters an option to purchase that being crafty to try to circumvent the option is unlikely to be successful.
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In Ontario, we are fortunate to have the ability to execute powers of attorney in respect of our property and our health care. I recently learned that Jersey, in the Channel Islands, has only lately gained the ability to execute a “Lasting Power of Attorney” to record their decisions and intentions in respect of their assets and care. On that note, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide a quick reminder of the importance of executing powers of attorney, and the possible consequences of not doing so.
Powers of attorney in Ontario are governed mainly by the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 30 (the “SDA”). The SDA sets out, among other things, the requirements for powers of attorney, the requisite capacity to grant a power of attorney, and the powers and duties of attorneys. There are two types of powers of attorney: powers of attorney for personal care (dealing with your health, medical care, and other matters related to your well-being) and powers of attorney for property (dealing with your property and financial matters). Generally, powers of attorney will come into play if you become incapable of managing your property or personal care, respectively, but it is also possible to grant a power of attorney for property that is effective immediately (that is, not conditional upon later incapacity).
What Happens if I Don’t Execute Powers of Attorney?
If you do not execute powers of attorney, and you never lose capacity, you may never realize how important they are. However, as we have blogged about previously, as our population begins to live longer, there has been an increase in dementia and other aging-related conditions associated with cognitive decline, meaning that the use and activation of powers of attorney is increasing.
Taking the step of executing powers of attorney means that you have the chance to make your own decision regarding who will handle your affairs in the event that you are no longer capable. If you become incapable, and have not named an attorney for property or personal care, it is open (and may become necessary, depending on your circumstances) for an individual to bring an application seeking to be appointed as your guardian for property or personal care, thus allowing them to act as your substitute decision-maker. The application process requires that notice be given to certain people (including certain family members), and if someone disagrees with the appointment of the proposed guardian, they may contest the guardianship—but the key detail to remember is that the ability to make the decision is taken away from you.
A guardianship application can also be brought if a person has executed a power of attorney, but the existence of a power of attorney will be an important factor for the court’s consideration: pursuant to the SDA, if the court is satisfied that there is an alternative course of action that is less restrictive of the person’s decision-making rights, the court shall not appoint a guardian.
Naming someone to act on your behalf with respect to your property and personal care is a big decision. It is almost certain that you are in the best position to make a determination as to who you want acting for you in this regard. We should all take the opportunity to exercise our own decision-making rights, to choose the person that we want to play the important role of attorney, and not leave it up to others to make this decision for us.
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In the past, in estate litigation matters, it was often the case that some or all of the litigating parties’ costs would be paid out of estate assets. However, in more recent years, the courts have been moving away from this general practice, and increasingly making costs awards providing for the payment of costs by one of the parties, personally. In particular, if the court views a party, including an estate trustee, to have behaved improperly or unreasonably, it may decide that such a party must pay the other party’s costs, personally. We have blogged about instances of such an outcome before.
A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has reaffirmed this general trend. The decision in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 542, involved a motion to pass over the named estate trustee, and appoint the two sole beneficiaries of the estate in question, as estate trustees. Although the named estate trustee and the beneficiaries were initially on good terms, within several months of the testator’s passing, the relationships began to break down, with the estate trustee beginning to make accusations towards the beneficiaries, in relation to the testator. The court found that it was “not a case of mere friction—this is a case of outright hostility from [the estate trustee] to the beneficiaries”, also commenting that it was difficult to fathom why the estate trustee acted as she did, and that her accusations were unwarranted. Ultimately, the court made an order passing over the estate trustee.
After the parties were unable to reach an agreement as to costs, the court made an endorsement in this regard in Ford v Mazman, 2019 ONSC 1297. After a discussion of the costs principles applicable to estate litigation, the court stated as follows:
“I am mindful that an estate trustee should be fully compensated for any reasonable costs incurred in the administration of the estate. However, the actions of the [estate trustee] are far from reasonable. I was not provided any rationale as to why her animus became necessary in the administration of her good friend’s estate.”
Ultimately, the court made a costs award in favour of the beneficiaries, payable by the estate trustee, personally.
This costs decision serves as an important reminder that parties entering into estate litigation proceedings should not count on their costs being paid out of the estate. Additionally, even though the estate trustee’s conduct in this case appears to be extreme, litigants should still keep in mind the importance of acting reasonably.
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I think the coverage of George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral tweaked my interest in some of the things that make Canada unique. Once again, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was chosen to give a eulogy for a U.S. President (he spoke at the funerals for both Ronald and Nancy Reagan as well). And what a eulogy it was – personal, humorous at times and eloquent throughout.
The Globe and Mail described Mulroney as “emerging as something of the eulogist-in-chief for American commanders-in-chief.” That speaks very highly for Mr. Mulroney but also very highly for Canada. It’s clear that there was (perhaps still is?) a high level of respect for our country and the role we play in the world.
Aside from having a former Prime Minister who was clearly adept at fostering close international friendships, what else makes us unique? I think it starts with the country itself:
- We have about 20% of the world’s fresh water
- Almost one-third of the country is covered in trees – and we have 10% of the world’s forests
- We have the world’s longest coastline
- Along with the U.S., we share the longest demilitarized border in the world
We may not have the population size to match many other countries, but certainly have the physical size.
The quirky side
We also have character. Maybe that’s what the U.S. political elite love about us. Consider these:
- We love comfort: We eat more mac ‘n cheese than any other country in the world (I have no idea who measures this stuff)
- We’re sweet: One Canadian province (Quebec) makes more than 77% of the world’s maple syrup
- We’re inventive: Hawaiian pizza was invented by an Ontario man, not by the Hawaiians
- We’re procrastinators: We didn’t get our own flag until our country was nearly 100 years old
- We’re talkers: The famous Canadian interjection “eh”is listed in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a valid word. Who knew?
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