Canadians pull together under a blanket of snow

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

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