In my daily phone call to my mother – yes, every day, how often do you call your mother, you thankless child? – I always ask if she’s managed to get outside. These past few months, as an icy hellscape descended across our city, she usually says the same thing: “Well, I looked outside, and then I decided against it.”
I can hardly blame her. Unless you’re Sidney Crosby, you don’t want to attempt Toronto’s streets these days. Or the streets of Montreal, Saint John, Ottawa, Saskatoon or anywhere else that winter has gripped in its cruel and bitter talons these past few months (I’m not a fan of the cold, could you guess?).
When my mother and I go out, we cling to each other and shuffle to the car, while I shriek like a banshee: “Walk like a penguin! Weight over your toes! Slower! BLACK ICE!” It’s not a pretty sight. There are no pretty sights in Canada at this time of year. I don’t care what the tourism board says.
My mother, a trooper and a stoic, does not tell me to be quiet, does not remind me that she grew up partly in the North, where she encountered bears on her miles-long walk to school, saw the mercury hit the bottom of the thermometer, went snow blind on brilliant days. She sprang from the pages of a Farley Mowat novel.
I wonder if she thinks of her childhood on the days when she’s trapped at home. Winter has the odd effect of temporal dislocation: It takes you back to childhood, when you felt no cold, and forward to your old age, which will be spent in forced hibernation for months of the year with only Netflix and People magazine for company.
Bears hibernate, because they’ve not yet figured out how to drive to Florida for the winter. People shouldn’t have to. And the people who are forced inside, to forfeit a full and meaningful life for a good part of the year, are the ones who often get ignored when cities and transportation systems are designed – the disabled and the elderly.
Around 9,000 Canadians will end up in hospital each year after slipping and falling on winter ice. Seniors, knowing how devastating and life-altering a fall can be, may choose to sit out the worst weeks. I say “choose,” but it’s hardly a choice. I’ve talked to seniors who spend most of the winter inside, because the city has failed to make outside hospitable to their needs. The lucky ones might have a child to take them out – even if that child is annoying, and screams about penguin-walking. But what about those who have no children or relatives? They shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. They should be able to rely on the city, performing the basic maintenance that a city is required to do: that is, making sure that sidewalks are not death traps.
Winter is nearly over (I’m saying a small incantation and sacrificing a goat just to be sure). It was worse than last year’s – Victoria got snow, for God’s sake. Sudbury had so much snow that the city didn’t know what to do with it, which seems like a particularly Canadian puzzle. Next year’s snow and ice situation might be worse; it might be better. All we know for sure is that it will arrive, and we will act surprised when it does.
We’re kind of idiots, this way. Even squirrels are smart enough to start nut-hoarding early on, and they don’t even have opposable thumbs or spreadsheets. How is it that when winter arrives, Canadian cities seem stunned that snow has actually fallen, ice has accumulated and they’re expected to clear it, so that their citizens can actually shop, work and live?
I heard a pithy summation of this problem when I was listening to CBC’s Metro Morning (in the miserable month of the dead sun, a.k.a. February). Jeff Adams, a champion Paralympian and law student who uses a wheelchair, was telling host Matt Galloway that Toronto’s streets had become impassable for people such as him. He had complained to the city to no avail, about a problem that happens over and over: “We hear this every year. For people to act surprised that this is happening again, it stretches credulity … I don’t think now is the time to study this.”
Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, has indeed asked for a new study of snow-removal policies. The cynic in me thinks this is not because of people such as Mr. Adams, or the moms and their baby strollers, or the elderly people in their walking frames, who have been forced into the middle of the street because the sidewalks are too treacherous (streets get plowed in the land where car is king). Rather, it seems there’s been an outcry in ROT – that’s the Rest of Toronto – as unusually heavy snow forced able-bodied people to experience what they otherwise never would see, the treachery of the winter outdoors.
This city is seeing the results of years of austerity budgets: potholes, cracks, Matterhorns of impassable snow. The fall of the house of Toronto. As Mr. Adams said on Metro Morning, “You hear that the city can’t afford it, but in typical Toronto fashion, what can’t be afforded by the city is downloaded onto the citizens.”
It’s not just Toronto; governments around the country have legal and ethical obligations around citizens’ rights to mobility. There’s personal responsibility at work, too. You can’t call yourself a good Canadian unless you’re out there in the morning shovelling your sidewalk, cursing all the while.
The problem is that, in winter, it becomes easy to overlook more vulnerable citizens because they are not outside to be seen. They’re inside, waiting for spring. And maybe they’re hoping, against all evidence to the contrary, that we’ll remember this happens every year and do something about it next time. That we’ll be as smart as the squirrels, for once.