Thursday, January 3, 2013


Winter in Canada; there’s nothing like it. Although it does come around each year with some regularity, it always amazes me that it seems to be an annual surprise to so many. The first snowfall inevitably leads to careening cars and multiple crashes on our roads, as if people are experiencing these conditions for the first time.

Canadians have a history of helping each other out in times of bad weather. We push stranger’s cars out of snowbanks, shovel neighbour’s walkways and offer shelter when the electricity inevitably fails.

I grew up in a small town near Montreal and well remember the Storm Of The Century in March 1971, when we got pounded with 43 cm (17 in) of snow in one day. It was the largest single-day snowfall on record in the Montreal area up to that point; conditions were so bad that for the first time in history the Montreal Canadiens actually cancelled a hockey game!

That winter we went on to receive 380 cm (152 in) of snow and I recall walking along the streets in my hometown, unable to see the houses for the snowbanks. It made for a terrific winter of sledding, and we even spent some time jumping off the roof of our house – which to be fair wasn’t much higher than the snow.

I happened to be back home this past December when we broke that single-day record. Between 45-50 cm fell on December 27th, which made me very happy that I had traveled there on the 25th. Of course as I was leaving the province a few days later I still saw cars driving into ditches and sliding into poles, as if totally oblivious to the poor road conditions.

Coincidentally (and now I’m beginning to suspect I may somehow be to blame) I was also in Quebec for the holidays just before the Great Ice Storm of 1998 walloped that province, Eastern Ontario and New Brunswick. Thankfully I had the great good fortune of leaving town on that fateful morning of January 4th, and missed being stranded there by a mere few hours. That storm eventually required calling in the army, making it the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War.

Yes, that’s right. Toronto is not the only place in Canada, or even the first, that ever called in the army to help out in cases of extreme weather, although one wouldn’t know that by the mockery it has had to endure ever since the storm of 2000.

I must confess that I have lived in Toronto for many years, so I got to enjoy first-hand our very own “Snow-mageddon” when this city was pummeled by 80 cm. Yes, 80 cm of snow...almost twice the amount of Montreal’s largest single-day snowfall in history. Traditionally not a city that has had much experience with such large storms, Toronto had less snow clearing equipment, and budgets a good deal smaller, than some other Canadian locations.

The city came to a standstill. The limited equipment (which had been loaned to Quebec two years earlier when that province needed help) just wasn’t up to the task. Closing down the economic engine of our country for any length of time could have been a financial disaster, so the mayor made a difficult decision.

Granted, that particular mayor was a bit of a buffoon (hmmm – I’m sensing a pattern with Toronto mayors) but as someone who lived through the experience I still believe it was the right thing to do. A paramedic friend of mine told me at the time that if it had not been for the army vehicles helping ambulances move through the clogged streets, several of his patients would have died before reaching a hospital. I imagine those folks, and their relatives, never regretted the mayor’s decision.

Coming from Quebec I understand that many Canadians need to dislike Toronto. In fact before I moved here I had assumed Montreal and Toronto had some sort of bitter, long-standing rivalry. Or so The Montreal Gazette always led me to believe.

Imagine my surprise to find that this rivalry is entirely one-sided. In my 30 years here I have yet to meet one Toronto native who doesn’t speak excitedly about taking a weekend trip to Montreal, visiting Vancouver or traveling our eastern coast.

So to the Quebec driver who, as I was pushing his car from the snowbank into which he had inexplicably driven, asked where I was from. I responded, “Toronto,” and he laughed, “Have you called in the army lately?”

I trust he’s still in that snowbank.