Skip to main content

Two women, Amina Ali and Nusrat Chanda (top) sign up for a class on winter preparedness at a library in Montreal, Friday.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Pauline Perrotte stood before her class and asked her pupils, all newcomers to Canada, what kinds of rumours they'd heard about Canadian winters.

A woman from Iran raised her hand. "You need to wear glasses," she said, "because your eyes can freeze."

Ricardo Roldan, from Venezuela, had heard about the temperature. "It's as cold as a refrigerator."

Patrick Dumont, a native of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, had already been through a few Montreal winters. "I thought it would be as cold as a refrigerator," he said. "It's colder."

Each year, Canada throws out a welcome mat to thousands of immigrants. And for many months of the year, that welcome mat is encrusted in snow. So some new Canadians turn to courses like Ms. Perrotte's: a survival guide to winter.

For 90 minutes, Ms. Perrotte tries to dispel some myths and inspire some enthusiasm about Canada's most emblematic season, running through a cold-weather curriculum which includes windchill and weather-stripping, tobogganing and the Bonhomme Carnaval.

The session in winter preparedness is part practical. It's also, fundamentally, about learning to become a Canadian.

"Adapting to winter is the first test of integration," said Ms. Perrotte, herself a native of southern France who arrived in Montreal last year, just in time for one of the harshest winters in years.

Ms. Perrotte works for a community group called the Assistance Crossroads for Newcomers and offered winter preparedness classes in two multicultural Montreal neighbourhoods in recent weeks. Immigrants from countries as varied as Morocco, India, the Dominican Republic and Syria sat in rows, some with notepads on their laps, a few bundled in tuques and parkas even though they were in a heated room indoors.

The sessions help calm the nerves of newcomers who have never seen a snowflake, much less a polar vortex.

"People hear about blizzards and ice storms, and they start worrying about their families and children," Ms. Perrotte said. "We try to reassure them, tell them winter is a magnificent season and that adjusting to it is part of their integration."

Winter looms large in the Canadian immigration experience, especially as the country's source of immigrants changes. The largest group of newcomers to Canada is now from Asia and the Middle East. In the last census, the share of immigration from warm-weather regions like Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America increased.

Winter is rarely the reason newcomers say they love their adopted country. In a 2007 survey, Statistics Canada asked new immigrants what they disliked the most about living in Canada; 27 per cent said the climate, ahead of lack of job opportunities and high taxes. Asked the greatest challenge they faced, 16 per cent said it was Canada's weather.

Ms. Perrotte's course holds up a mirror to a society where taking precautions before stepping outdoors is built into the national character. As author Robertson Davies said, "Cold breeds caution." The theme returns in Ms. Perrotte's lesson over and over.

"Always check the weather before heading out for the day," she tells her class. Take the wind chill into account. Always have a hat, scarf and gloves. A picture of a pair of mittens connected by a string pops up on the screen. This will save your children from losing mittens, she explains. A woman in the front row raises her eyebrows and nods approvingly at the sight of the ingenious invention.

A photo appears showing a pair of hands with swollen fingers. "I'm sorry for this picture," Ms. Perrotte says. "When your hands are too exposed to the cold, you won't feel your fingers any more." A look of alarm passes over some faces.

For newcomers, adapting can mean abandoning meteorological cues from home. Mr. Dumont, from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, recalls how, during his first winter in Montreal, he looked out his window and saw a bright sun against a luminous blue sky. "In our country, when it looks like that, we go to the beach," he said. Mr. Dumont headed outdoors in a pair of shorts and sandals to take out the garbage.

He quickly learned that some of the coldest days in Canada come when the sun is out.

Despite their apprehensions, the students said they felt reassured by the know-how of a country that invented the snowmobile and snowblower. Ioanna-Livia Preda, from Romania, said she noticed that Montreal placed bus stops right outside Métro stations, so you don't have to wait in the cold outside. "You're very well organized in Canada," she said at Ms. Perrotte's winter session in Montreal's Ahuntsic district.

Mohammed Barakat, a 28-year-old X-ray technician from Cairo, watched YouTube videos to see what a snowstorm looks like. He was awestruck by the military-like deployment of graders and snowplows through the streets of Montreal after a storm.

"We don't have snow in Egypt. I was wondering, after 30 centimetres of snow falls, what does the government do?" Mr. Barakat said after Ms. Perrotte's class in Parc Extension. "I'm eager to see this for myself. How will cars get through the streets? How will people walk on the sidewalks?"

The lesson continued. Just when the psychic toll from talk of snow shovelling, drippy noses and icy sidewalks seemed too heavy, Ms. Perrotte turned to the joys of the season: the Santa Claus parade and Montreal's Igloofest, ice skating, cross-country skiing and the Quebec Winter Carnival.

"Don't stay closed off indoors," she urged her class. "I wish you an excellent winter. Take advantage of it and make new discoveries, and after your first winter, you will be seduced."

At the very least, they will know what windchill is, and it won't be theoretical.