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Drivers skirt around a pothole while turning onto Hoskin Ave. from Queens Park Crescent earlier this winter. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Drivers skirt around a pothole while turning onto Hoskin Ave. from Queens Park Crescent earlier this winter.

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Road Sage

It's March: Peak pothole season in Canada Add to ...

It’s March and that means it’s peak pothole season. It’s an exciting time when Canadian travellers have a chance to experience potholes firsthand. All across the country, eager enthusiasts are out hoping to catch a glimpse of a “Nid-de-Poule Anglais” or a “French Crater.”

That’s why the Canadian Federal Government is introducing the Pothole Conservation Program (PCP) under the direction of Potholes Canada. We are determined to invest in direct, on-the-ground action to conserve the pothole’s important natural habitat in communities across Canada. Potholes Canada has been invited to lead this program with the participation of environmental agencies and land trusts across the country. But what do we really know about potholes and why should we be invested in ensuring that potholes remain an integral part of Canadian culture?

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Potholes: Origins of the Species

There’s an old joke: “Canada can be divided into two seasons: Winter Pothole Season and Summer Pothole Season.” It’s funny and it’s true. Canada’s first potholes were caused by the last Ice Age – today we call them the Great Lakes.

Winter potholes are created when water, which has seeped into porous roads, freezes and expands. Potholes take root. The asphalt puckers up and the weight from automobiles breaks apart the surface. In spring, potholes appear fully-grown – glorious cavities pocking our nation’s roads. Summer potholes are just winter potholes no one has gotten around to fixing.

Potholes played a vital role in Canada’s history. First Nations people referred to potholes as “Settler’s holes.” French colonists called them “English holes” while British settlers dubbed them “French holes.” During the War of 1812, they were called “Yankee grottoes.” Few people know it, but potholes decided the fate of New France. In 1759, British General James Wolfe ordered his troops to scale the cliffs beside the Plains of Abraham – not because he wanted to surprise the French defenders – but because he wished to avoid marching around the thousands of potholes that were said to dot the roads leading into Quebec City.

In 2006, the town of Leader, Sask., commemorated the potholes on Highway 32 by creating a calendar celebrating the pothole population that had grown so vast that, according to its website, “we were unable to send the Leader Ambulance via Highway 32 to the Regional Hospital in Swift Current.” Eleven men and one woman posed nude beside the potholes.

Potholes: Economic Boon

Potholes are Canada’s No. 1 source of naturally occurring, self-renewing metaphors. Many in our nation’s journalistic and political classes support themselves by cultivating pothole metaphors. Without the word “pothole,” Canada’s elected officials would have no way of deflecting serious problems that need attention. Dismissing them as “potholes” merely causes temporary inconvenience on an otherwise smooth trip. Journalists would not be able to call potential political disasters “potholes” – they’d have to call them “potential political disasters.” That doesn’t sound as good. Potholes Canada is determined to preserve our supply of pothole metaphors.

Potholes create jobs. Every year they appear. Every year we fill some in. The following year they reappear, often in the same place. That costs money. Each year, federal, provincial and municipal governments spend untold millions paying to have asphalt mixtures poured into our street indentations. This acts as a kind of fertilizer that allows the pothole to return the following season bigger, deeper and more resplendent. So far, 2014 has been a great year for the pothole population. By January’s end, in Toronto, there were already 4,000 reported potholes, up from 1,500 the previous year.

Potholes: Do Your Part

The natural response when encountering a pothole is avoidance. After all, who wants to damage their car’s suspension? What cyclist wishes to have his front tire turned into a misshaped square? While understandable, this behaviour deprives potholes of an important part of their food chain: damage. Potholes – which governments refer to as “minor speed bumps” – need damage the way human beings need oxygen and water. Until it causes damage, a pothole is just a huge, gaping chasm capable of causing significant harm. It’s only when that huge, gaping chasm actually causes damage that it becomes a Canadian “pothole.”

Next time you see a pothole, don’t be shy. Drive right in. Feel your wheel bend, hear your steering column snap, and marvel as your alignment splinters. Then get out to take a picture, write down the place and road you encountered the pothole along with its size and disposition. Then mail these to your local government and it might even pay for the repairs. Remember, once you’ve felt your automobile quake from the damage caused by a pothole, you can take comfort in knowing that that pothole will be there for generations to come. The only thing more Canadian than driving into a pothole is not fixing one.

At Potholes Canada we say: This season make friends with a pothole.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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