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People walk out on a pier over a steamy Lake Ontario in sub-freezing temperatures in in Oshawa, Ont., on Jan. 21, 2014. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
People walk out on a pier over a steamy Lake Ontario in sub-freezing temperatures in in Oshawa, Ont., on Jan. 21, 2014. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The cool factor: How cold weather stats hit a patriotic nerve for Canadians Add to ...

It was supposed to be good news.

Canada, long rightly ranked the coldest country on Earth, had been bumped to second place. The official demotion came roughly a dozen years ago, when an Environment Canada climatologist realized that with the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia had quietly earned the top spot.

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To David Phillips’ surprise, his feel-good wintertime revelation about Canada shedding its reputation as “nothing but a cold, snowy forest” was met with disappointment. “The reaction was, ‘What have you done to us? We’re in second place? What can we do to get into first place?” Canada’s best-known weatherman said of the public’s response.

And that’s when Mr. Phillips realized just how deeply winter cuts to Canada’s core: “We curse it, but we use it to our advantage when we want to feel like there aren’t any wimps or sissies in this country – that the pioneer spirit still burns. We scoff at blizzards and sneer at frostbite. It’s the feeling that nature can’t beat us up.”

This country was built on inhospitable, unforgiving grounds, its landscape host to severe weather that claims lives, grinds cities to a halt, brings teeth to a chatter and spurs invention too. Our anthem boasts of a “True North strong and free.” Hockey, a winter game, is our passion. Canadians who head south for the winter are dubbed “snowbirds.” Even the latest Canadian Olympic Committee campaign boasts “We Are Winter.”

But with the return this week of an Arctic chill in Ontario and Quebec, and with blizzard warnings in the Maritimes, the cold and snow also reminds us that winter is fodder for judgment, pride and comparison. “Weather is yet another arena in which you can size up your competition and see how well you can do – how well you stack up,” said Alan Stewart, a weather and climate psychologist at the University of Georgia.

As the narratives go, “Winterpeggers” in “Manisnowba” grin and bear temperatures that, say, Lower Mainland British Columbians may never know. Yukoners have defined themselves by the cold. Toronto famously called in the army over too much snow; Newfoundland soldiers on. Americans blame Canada for cold that descends from the north, and Canadians retort with a good ribbing. “United Airlines has cancelled flights to Winnipeg, saying it’s too cold for their planes to safely fly. Wusses,” retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted on New Year’s Day, when 2014’s first polar-vortex induced Arctic chill descended on Canada and the U.S.

Toronto is a target, too. Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, said Montrealers “think Torontonians can be a bit wussy about these things,” and amid a snowstorm early last year in Toronto, federal minister Jason Kenney, who was raised in Saskatchewan, tweeted he was “crawling through Toronto traffic in what counts as a major blizzard here” and was waiting for the army to be summoned.

“I think some people see [the cold and snow] as affirming, whereas others see it as a threat to their existence and will do everything possible to avoid it,” said Frank Furedi, a U.K.-based sociologist who emigrated from Hungary to Montreal in 1957.

Mr. Furedi recalls being struck back then by the nonchalance Canadians exhibited about weather his family considered unbelievably cold. “I remember it being something people almost flaunted in your face,” he said. “Some people came alive when it was really cold.”

Indeed, as now, some were “wimpish” about the bone-chilling temperatures, while others expressed their “heroism and exploratory inclinations,” he said. In the years since, though, he believes there’s been an increased tendency toward recasting the cold and snow in “crisis-like” terms – as if low temperatures and blizzards weren’t normal, or at least precedented.

Even the language around the weather has changed. Today, -30 isn’t just “-30,” it’s actually “-40-something” when the windchill is considered. And that, Mr. Phillips said, plays well into Canadians’ inclination toward sensationalizing the weather, as though enduring the cold is a personal achievement of pluck and perseverance.

“Canadians are in love with the windchill,” he said, adding that since he joined Environment Canada about 45 years ago, the number of different weather warnings has jumped from a handful to more than 20. “They want to go for the bigger [number] because it makes them feel hearty.”

In Winnipeg, a windchill warning is issued when the value dips below -40. In the North, that number is -55. In Southern Ontario, it’s -30. But that’s not because people in Winnipeg are necessarily tougher, though they might brag to that effect. It’s because having one uniform number would mean some areas would be under an almost constant warning during the winter, Mr. Phillips explained.

Professor William Straw, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said winter is the stuff of Canadian lore. He, for one, enjoys recounting the time he went tobogganing on his birthday in Norway House, Man. – in August.

“We love our stories about winter,” he said. “Winter allows us to imagine that we’re living out the Canadian theme of confronting nature, when really, for most, it’s about getting from one café to another.”

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