Toronto’s deputy mayor, Norm Kelly, was musing last week about calling in the army to help with the ice-storm cleanup. Please no. This city is still living down mayor Mel Lastman’s decision to summon the armed forces after a big snowstorm in 1999. Crying for their help again would cement our reputation as Canada’s winter wimps.
A typical winter in Toronto is neither fish nor fowl. We don’t enjoy (or suffer) a real, hearty Canadian winter like Ottawa’s or Montreal’s. But we don’t escape its lash like Vancouver or Victoria either.
When the snow falls, it often turns swiftly to slush. The streets become a dirty grey mess. Walking through it is like wading through oatmeal. Then the weather turns and (oh, great) the slush freezes.
The skies are grey, too. Instead of enjoying the piercing blue and slanting sun of a prairie winter, we live for week upon week under a sky of lead, without clean white on the ground to set it off. A Toronto winter is frankly depressing.
This winter has been different. For all the damage it did, the ice storm turned the city briefly gorgeous, a frozen Narnia of glistening branches. It was a nuisance, and worse, for many thousands, but it also brought people together.
Many fled their cold, dark houses and took refuge with friends, neighbours or family. People helped each other move fallen branches, clear ice or fetch groceries. My plucky aunt, aged 80, had no power for three days. She turned on her gas kitchen stove, piled more logs on the fire and did just fine, thanks.
In my narrow Victorian house, the crowd for Christmas dinner grew to a record 32, its numbers swollen by ice-storm refugees. The extended dinner table started at the front window and ended at the kitchen doorway. One set of neighbours lent us their oven for a second turkey. Another, away for the holidays, let us borrow their place to lodge relatives whose power was out.
It was a memorable Christmas all around, and often a cheerful one, too. People exchanged stories about the storm and how they survived it. (How long was your power out? How did you cope? Did you see that huge tree that fell across the road?)
The dramatic cold snap that came after the ice storm only heightened the sense that, for once, Toronto was living through a true-blue, all-Canadian winter. Wind chill values hovered briefly around minus 30. There were reports of “frost quakes,” a weird cracking and shaking from the petrified ground.
People came in out of the weather and exclaimed: Wow (or something like that), it’s cold! But, often as not, they had smiles on their faces. Just as there is nothing so exhilarating as dodging a bullet, there is little so invigorating as going out in minus 30 and then coming back inside, alive.
Families bundled up their kids in scarves and snow suits and went tobogganing. Fortunate owners of that classic winter armour, the Canada Goose parka, proudly pulled their hoods up and ventured unafraid into the icy blast. As they walked, the snow underfoot made a satisfying crunch.
It wasn’t turning to grey soup this time. It was staying, and for once Toronto felt like a proper Canadian city in January.
This weekend, the snow fell again. On Sunday, after a brief warmish spell, forecasters were saying that more serious weather was coming – first rain, snow and perhaps freezing rain again, then another bitter cold snap. An alert from Environment Canada spoke of “widespread dangerous wind chills” from “some of the coldest air in years.”
Bring it on. Toronto showed this Christmas it can cope with the worst that winter can dish out. What chills you makes you stronger. So, no, let’s not call in the army. Let’s act like Canadians. Rather than cowering from the winter, let’s accept its freezing embrace and learn to love it instead.