Troy and Sabrina Stoushnow were 14 years old when they boarded the bus for an hour-long ride across Calgary for a winter date at Bowness Park. Now, many years and a wedding later, they are back with their children – four-year-old Sage and six-year-old Hunter, who have just begun to learn how to skate. As they slip across the 350-metre-long frozen lagoon, they are surrounded by parents and children, spinning and sliding and falling in the sunshine of a weekend that, in many parts of Canada, has been consecrated to exactly this: families.
"Family Day is a great time to get everyone together and sort of remember why we have families and why we get married," says Ms. Stoushnow, who is planning even more festivities for the Monday holiday: a campfire in the garage, with some 20 neighbours to roast marshmallows and slap together S'mores.
In much of the country, Family Day remains a recent phenomenon. It was introduced to Saskatchewan in 2007, to Ontario in 2008. Manitoba's Louis Riel Day and PEI's Islander Day are also new February holidays.
The holiday is an Alberta creation, launched by then-premier Don Getty in 1990. He envisioned a day to help heal fractured families, after a drug episode with his own son. Though the idea was met with opposition, it has since spread across the country. Its timing, which coincides with university reading weeks and public-school breaks in many parts of the country, has made it a particularly compelling time to get away. Including Alberta, the day is now celebrated in provinces that make up more than half of the country's population.
Across the country, the addition of the new winter holiday has been greeted by concern among business groups worried about the erosion of productivity.
But the day has, in its relatively short history, rapidly turned into one of Canada's most important holiday weekends – and for those able to profit from it, a strong source of new revenue. Last year, WestJet set a single-day passenger record on Family Day, a remarkable statistic given that some major provinces, including British Columbia, don't yet mark the day. B.C. plans to add it to the calendar in 2013.
"The Friday of the Family Day weekend is quickly becoming one of the busiest travel days of the year for us, rivalling even Christmas and Easter," said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer. This year, WestJet moved 51,778 passengers on Friday, a 10 to 20 per cent lift from normal – "not quite a record but very close," Mr. Palmer said.
At Ontario's Blue Mountain Resort, Family Day Monday has become so busy that staff have taken to extending hours, opening much of the mountain to skiers at 7:30 a.m. – 90 minutes ahead of usual – for the day. It's the only early morning start of the year, meant to accommodate the rush of people who book out local lodging on a weekend where activities include horse-drawn carriage rides, face-painting and evening fire-dancing.
"This is in fact one of our busiest weekends of the year – and Family Day has turned into one of our busiest days of the year," said Collin Matanowitsch, a spokesman for the resort.
The possibility of driving extra revenue has brought out a Canada-wide competition among zoos, museums and ski hills vying for family dollars. The Calgary Zoo timed the launch of a new penguin exhibit to correspond with this weekend, and was rewarded with long lines and nearly 6,000 daily visitors over the weekend. The Manitoba Children's Museum, in Winnipeg, staged a Franco-Fun day, wooing young children with maple-syrup snow taffy, storytelling and a performance by a kazoo-toting francophone musician.
At the string of B.C. and Alberta ski hills owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, Family Day now ranks as the second-most important holiday of the year, trailing only Christmas. To attract families, hills have brought out winter fireworks, kids movie nights and, in the case of the Fernie Resort, a new night-skiing setup.
"It's a super important weekend, and there's obviously a lot of choices for families to figure out what they're going to do for the holiday. So we've really focused on it," said Matt Mosteller, vice-president of marketing with the resort chain.
And for those heading out, flying down the slopes on a Monday dedicated to families has an unexpected kind of allure. Pamela Loupelle spent Friday at Alberta's Nakiska ski hill with her children and nephews; on Monday, they will head to Lake Louise.
"Our day is surrounded by doing things together, and reconnecting," Ms. Loupelle said. "We can do that on Saturday and Sunday, but there's something about Family Day."