The 2010 Winter Olympics are nearly here, and all eyes are on Canada. But skiing and bobsledding aren't the only things brewing up north: the country has a whole host of winning companies. Let's take a look at some of the top picks from the iShares MSCI Index Fund (NYSE:EWC). If you don't like the stocks we highlight here you can always buy the index. At almost 10.5% a year, it's proved to be a solid pick so far.

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Five Popular Index ETFs

ETF 5-Year Annualized Return
iShares MSCI Canada Index Fund (NYSE:EWC) 10.47%
iShares S&P Europe 350 Index Fund (NYSE:IEV) 3.73%
iShares MSCI EAFE Index Fund (NYSE:EFA) 3.45%
iShares Russell 3000 Index Fund (NYSE:IWV) 0.67%
iShares S&P 500 Index Fund (NYSE:IVV) 0.38%

Forget the Banks
Paul Krugman's observations about Canadian banks in a late January New York Times column are for the most part correct. The Big Five: Royal Bank of Canada (NYSE:RY), Toronto-Dominion Bank (NYSE:TD), Bank of Montreal (NYSE:BMO), Bank of Nova Scotia (NYSE:BNS) and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (NYSE:CM) do operate in a far more regulated environment than their south-of-the-border peers. However, Krugman fails to mention that Canadian banks have avoided risk to the point they vaguely resemble lending institutions. Try starting a business in Canada. Bankers here will only loan you money if you've already got plenty. Where's the risk-taking? If you're looking for boring, Krugman's right. However, if you're interested in banks with above-average growth, you should look elsewhere.

Looking Elsewhere
Nine of the top 10 holdings of the iShares MSCI Canada Index Fund are either financial institutions or resource companies. Judging by the list, you would think Canada had no other industries. You'd be wrong. For instance, the seventh-largest holding is Research in Motion (Nasdaq:RIMM), currently embattled with rival Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) for tech consumers' undivided attention. Farther down the list is Rogers Communications (NYSE:RCI), one of Canada's biggest wireless providers and a big marketer of RIMM's Blackberry hand-held device. Thomson Reuters (NYSE:TRI) is one of the world's largest information providers and No.40 on BusinessWeek's 2009 list of top global brands ahead of (Nasdaq:AMZN) and Heinz (NYSE:HNZ). Its CEO, David Thomson, is Canada's richest man, worth $13 billion, ranking him 24th on the Forbes list of global billionaires. Lastly, retail icons Tim Hortons (NYSE:THI) and Canadian Tire (TSE:CTC.TO) make the holdings. Clearly, Canada's more than just banks, gold and oil. Now if only Canadian banks would lend to small business, perhaps this would become the norm rather than the exception.

Cheese Please
My favorite company among the 100 holdings is Montreal-based Saputo (TSE:SAP.TO), Canada's largest dairy processor and third-largest cheese producer in the United States. In 10 years, revenues have grown from C$1.86 billion in 2000 to C$5.79 billion in 2009. In the same decade, free cash flow grew from $110 million to $345 million. For the first nine months of fiscal 2010 ended December 31. 2009, it generated free cash of C$342.1 million, 95.6% better than corresponding previous nine-month period. Much of this success is due to its 2008 acquisition of Nelson Dairy in 2008 for C$465 million. The purchase gave it a stranglehold on the lucrative Ontario milk market. This might have been a small business when the Saputo family started it back in 1954, but today it's a major player, and its best years lay ahead.

Bottom Line
Canada has a lot to offer beyond its boring banks and beautiful vistas. Take some time to get to know it. (For more, see Canada's Commodity Currency: Oil And The Loonie.)

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