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Canadians pull together under a blanket of snow

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

(Page 2 of 2)

Canadians tend to regard snow not as weather, but a lifestyle. Although streets were deserted in whiteout conditions in communities nationwide last weekend, there was plenty of Christmas shopping in the country's underground cities. Montreal has 20 miles of connected areas under its downtown; Toronto holds the top honor in the Guinness Book of World Records for the "Largest Underground Shopping Complex" – a retail maze that stretches for 16 miles.

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Many of Toronto's snowblowers are being hauled out for the first time since January 1999. That was when the city became the punch line of jokes across the country because of then-Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman. A man more at home in front of a tanning lamp – he was noted for his "permanent tan" – than at the business end of a snow shovel, Mr. Lastman called in the nation's military forces when the city was hit with winter storms that would not have earned a second glance in other snowier cities, including, not far to the south in Buffalo, N.Y.

Lastman was not concerned with civil unrest. He was worried about plowing three feet of snow that fell on city streets in the first 10 days of January.

The loudest guffaws came from Sept-Iles, Quebec, where the locals proudly claim status as citizens of the snowiest city in the country, averaging more than 13 feet each winter.

It speaks to the national obsession that climatologists have calculated the number of snowflakes that fall on the country in an average winter: 1 septillion (that is the numeral one followed by 24 zeroes).

You might think Canada and snow go together like California and sun, but this country's west coast is typically drenched in rain in winter, not snow. In fact, the great worry of Vancouverites is whether they'll be able to manufacture enough snow to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Organizers seem reasonably confident that they'll have a decent base on the relatively high-altitude ski slopes of Whistler, but more than a few Canadians find it laughable that the Winter Olympics have gone to a city with what they consider to possess no winter at all.

As one Easterner wrote on the CBC website after the station reported on Vancouver's weather woes this week: "Vancouver wants a Winter Olympics, but it has no experience with actual snow.... It's time to get down and do December the way the rest of us always do."

If this week's prodigious snowfall seems enough to put to rest concerns about global warming, one Canadian municipality is amused by all the weather headlines and storm alerts from less hardy precincts: Snow Lake, Manitoba, a town of 900 hardy, occasionally thawed souls seven hours drive north of Winnipeg (aka Winter-peg).

"It kind of makes me laugh to see how cities like Vancouver are coping," says Gordon Cann, Snow Lake's recreational supervisor. "We've had some pretty nasty storms over the years. I don't think we've ever shut anything down. We carry on. We ice-fish and play hockey. We curl and we snowmobile.

"We've had far worse storms than Toronto and we've never had to bring in the Army."