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Jacob Berkowitz
Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

In defence of Canadian winter Add to ...

The other day I asked my neighbour, out walking her dog, how her winter was going. Her reply escaped as a low moan, a seasonal cry: Long, she sighed.

Late winter, any novelty of snow’s arrival long gone, bodies craving vitamin D, garden seed catalogues and spring blossoms coming unbidden to mind. Enough already. Get the clicker and change the season channel.

As with so many things in our techno-urban culture, we want what we want and we want it now. When it comes to winter, most Canadians would settle for a white Christmas (like ordering a specialty coffee – just make it -1, no wind, a sprinkling of snow, but not enough to shovel, thank you) followed by a green New Year’s Day on the golf course, winter hauled to the curb with the Christmas tree.

This is Canada’s psychic Achilles heel when it comes to climate change: We like the change. We want to kill winter. With global warming, we’re quietly snuffing out the season most of us can live without.

One symptom of our morphed attitude to the season is that we now treat winter weather as headline news. The definition of news, journalism students learn, is something out of the ordinary. If dog bites man, no big deal. If man bites dog, now we’ve got something to run with. CBC Radio, for one, now reports a blizzard somewhere north of the 49th parallel as the breathless Canuck equivalent of a terrorist attack. Whoa, where’d that snowstorm come from in the middle of January?

Winter has become out of the ordinary. As if putting on snow tires, shovelling driveways and pulling on the parka isn’t something that we all grew up with, or bargained for in moving to a country that as much as any other in the world is – or at least was – defined by North.

We yearn for the Californication of winter. Teenagers are the natural barometer of this fact, one clearly evidenced by the adolescent shoe test.

My 13-year-old daughter has a selection of shoes by the front door: the insulated winter boots we schlepped her around Ottawa to buy, and a series of flats she bought herself at the mall. Answer the following question in under one second: After a heavy snowstorm, it’s -20. Which type of footwear does my daughter wear for her walk to school? (A) Winter boots, or (B) Cotton flats?

Winter, she’ll tell you, is just so boring. A recent Ottawa fashion week event was angled around the question of whether it’s possible to be fashionable in winter. God pity a country where you can’t be fashion forward year-round.

Our antipathy to the dreaded season is only getting stronger as Canada’s boomer generation settles into retirement and any seasonal fondness melts to thoughts of escaping to warmer climes.

I mourn the slow loss of winter. I take great joy in Ottawa’s Winterlude, and particularly like skating on the Rideau Canal. It’s the only event I experience in which I share the innate joy of winter – of freezing temperatures, ice and crystalline blue skies – with thousands of other Canadians, and in the past 25 years of my doing so, an increasingly multicultural group of skaters.

With building climate change, this kind of winter wonderland is going the way of Frosty the Snowman, running for shelter with nowhere to hide from the sun’s melting rays.

The past few years, winter’s increasingly been squeezed into a condensed version of itself. In the Ottawa Valley, we’ve had Thanksgiving dinner on the patio, and tanned outdoors in March.

We were once a nation of Northerners; we’ve become a people passionate about comfort and ease. Winter no longer fits our style.

We are killing winter. Like paving Paradise, we won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.

Jacob Berkowitz is a science writer and author, most recently of The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars.

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