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Canadians pull together under a blanket of snow

Rare coast-to-coast white Christmas refreshes sense of unity.

By Susan BouretteCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2008

Vancouver: A rare white Christmas will be celebrated in this typically rain-sodden city.

Andy Clark/reuters



After a contentious fall election, Canada's age-old divisions seemed even more obvious: western provinces resenting the east, those in the Maritimes feeling orphaned, and many from Quebec longing to break away entirely from the national tethers.

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This week, though, our polarization has gone from political to literal as all of us have been snowed in.

For the first time in four decades – from Atlantic to Pacific, from Windsor just south of Detroit to Ellesmere Island, just south of the polar icecap – all of Canada is experiencing a white Christmas.

The coast-to-coast snow has brought with it a renewed sense of national unity. Canadians might be inconvenienced and even annoyed, but we have, if nothing else, a frozen bond, a sense of collective misery. "The snow brings us together," Toronto resident George Lang explains, while standing next to a snowbank outside his home. "Maybe you could say it even makes us better people."

Mr. Lang was having the knee-deep snow cleared from his driveway by a younger neighbor. "It's like a beautiful Christmas gift," Lang says. "When you're living in a big city, you rarely even talk to the people on your street, but someone always comes to help when my driveway needs to be shoveled."

Although many outsiders think our pastime is hockey, in actuality, it's talking about the weather. And this week we've had a lot to talk about. Victoria, B.C., for instance – the country's mildest winter-weather city, with only five white Christmases on record since 1965 – is experiencing its snowiest holiday on record. At the other end of the country, meanwhile, thousands of homes in Nova Scotia lost power after severe winter storms this week.

"Canadians are winter people. They are weather people,'' says David Phillips, a climatologist with Environment Canada who received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada, for his forecasting work. "We are not just passionate about it, we're obsessed with it. We can talk about it forever and never grow bored."

That may explain why weather stories often are front-page news. And why 93 percent of us won't leave home without first checking the forecast, according to studies conducted by Mr. Phillips and his colleagues. It's little wonder, he adds, since we're not only the second-largest country in the world, we're also the second-coldest – just one degree warmer, on average, than Russia, and a bit colder than Mongolia.

Whereas sun and sand figures large in the literature of sub-Saharan Africa, snow plays a major role in Canadian literature. In fact, whole works by literary luminaries have been devoted to understanding how the inhospitable Canadian climate has shaped the national psyche. Perhaps the defining take on the nation's literature was provided in Margaret Atwood's dead-accurately titled book, "Survival." In terms of painters, the closest Canada has come to producing an Old Master was 19th-century artist Cornelius Krieghoff. He didn't do much portraiture – snowy landscapes were his thing.