A short, chilly history of Canadian winters

| January 4, 2013 | 0 Comments
Niagara Falls in the winter.

Niagara Falls in the winter.

How often in winter do we cringe at hearing the dreaded question, “Is it cold enough for ya?!” True, it is a conversation opener, and we Canadians do speak volumes about our weather. In Canada, winter is a part of our community to the extent that it defines us in the global consciousness. It also fills our personal consciousness during those long months of short days when we go to work and return home in the dark.
Richard Adams, in Watership Down, said, “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.” He must have been thinking about Canada. Our national hardiness is proof against our often-harsh winters and we delight in gloating about our ability to withstand our situation, which is invariably colder/wetter/more inclement than anyone else’s.

Like our often-fractious politics, we curse and praise winter with equal vehemence. We might even say that winter is as much a part of the Canadian psyche as hockey and the maple leaf. Each winter seems to bring something noteworthy — extreme cold or record snowfalls and sometimes unusually mild temperatures that we welcome warily, knowing what is sure to follow.

We are, in most parts of the country, regrettably and resignedly accustomed to our inconvenient winter weather and its extremes. Our weather history is full of winter extremes, from rain to snow to sub-zero temperatures. Annual freezing rain averages range from the Prairies’ 20-35 hours to 50-70 hours in the Ottawa Valley and southern Quebec. Even Victoria averages a few hours of freezing rain per year, but the champ is St. John’s, Nfld. with 150 hours. Many of us will recall the 20th Century’s worst ice storm, which hit Ontario and Quebec from Jan. 4 to 10, 1998, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

Though we may get our longjohns in a bunch when others see Canada only as a land of cold and snow, we must concede our frosty reputation. Canada has the world’s lowest average daily temperature, -5.6° C. North America’s coldest recorded temperature, in February 1947 in Snag, Yukon, was a bone-chilling -63°C. It was so cold that an exhaled breath made a hissing sound as it froze. Despite Canada’s nippy statistics, we do not hold world records for all cold extremes. Ottawa is only the world’s second-coldest national capital, after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Winter means snow, as any Canadian knows, and often lots of it. The worst blizzard in Canadian railway history occurred between Jan. 30 and Feb. 8, 1947, when 10 days of blowing snow buried towns and trains from Calgary to Winnipeg. Some Saskatchewan roads and rail lines remained impassable until spring. Children stepped over power lines on their way to school and people dug tunnels to their outhouses.

February, the shortest month measured by the calendar but the longest measured by shivers, claims many winter weather superlatives. They include a deadly snowstorm in St. John’s in 1959; a 1961 ice storm that left parts of Montreal without power for a week; a 1979 blizzard that isolated Iqaluit, Nunavut, for 10 days; a blizzard in 1982 that marooned Prince Edward Island for a week; the Ocean Ranger disaster on Feb. 15, 1982; the warmest Winter Olympics — 1988, in Calgary — when 18.1° C on Feb. 26 was just a tad below Miami’s 19.4° C; and the greatest single-day snowfall of 145 cm at Tahtsa Lake, B.C., on Feb. 11, 1999.

As we endure whatever the latest annual freakish storm brings our way, we remain engaged, even as we are challenged, by our winter weather, with our national identity closely aligned with the natural forces around us.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta-based writer.

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