There is undoubtedly a perception — or more accurately, a stereotype — throughout much of the world that Canada is a frigid, barren wasteland, wholly uninviting and nearly inhospitable during the long winter months. This, I suppose, is kind of true. Measuring on a basis of average nationwide temperatures, Canada is indeed the coldest country on Earth, but this fact is misleading, as it suggests that the entire nation is akin to the frozen tundra and that all Canadian citizens are subject to the same brutally cold winters.
The imprecision of these notions was never more evident than during my recent trip to Edmonton, Alberta. While visiting the City of Champions on behalf of the Manitoban, I, along with the rest of the Manitoban contingent, met and mingled with nearly 320 other young writers from across the country at the National Conference for Student Journalism. Over the course of five busy days and through conversations that often stretched well into the early morning hours, we learned that we all had plenty in common. Twitter’s pretty cool, beer is basically the best thing ever and, for the vast majority of us, we absolutely love the sound of our own voice.
However, our opinions noticeably diverged when it came to the weather. Note that out of the five days that we were in Edmonton, three reached above zero and the coldest daily high was a balmy -5 C. Let me repeat: it was above zero! In the middle of January! In Edmonton! In this context, when the kids from Nova Scotia were shivering and when a delegation from B.C. voiced their desire to head home and get “out of the cold,” understandably, I had the urge to punch them all in their big, stupid faces! You know, there were a lot of very intelligent people at this conference who brought along plenty of insight on a wide array of topics, but one thing is for sure: for those who have only lived outside the far north or the prairies, they don’t even fuckin’ know what cold is!
Sure, when the mercury plummets below -30 C and those wicked Arctic winter winds whip across the flat and open terrain, us folks in Winnipeg, Brandon and Saskatoon all start to mutter and curse under our breath while dreaming of a three-month Mexican vacation — but we shouldn’t. In a region of Canada that is far too often plagued by a major inferiority complex, we should look upon our frigid winters not as a curse, but as a badge of honour.
Yeah, that January heating bill is usually pretty steep and, yeah, it sucks when the car engine won’t turn over in the morning, or when it’s so cold that your contact lenses freeze temporarily to your eyeballs, but look at it this way: on those days where it feels like hell has finally frozen over and seemingly everything around us has stopped functioning properly we still zip up those parkas, pull on those toques and scarves and head out on our daily business. Each day becomes a test of our collective character and each day, on the whole, we tough it out. Two days in January 2004 stand out distinctively as an example of this prairie hardiness.
In Winnipeg at the very end of that month, the public school divisions were faced with a problem. With a wind-chill approaching -60 C, the city’s public school bus fleet was physically unable to operate. It was so cold that the busses literally broke down. Although the weather almost certainly represented a hazard and many students lacked access to their normal mode of transportation, the show had to go on. Classes were scheduled as usual, and my school at the time (Arthur A. Leach Junior High) told students to employ every possible effort to attend. And you know what? A sizable portion of the student body found a way to make it in those days. I could be wrong about this, but something tells me that somehow, the posh kids in Toronto would not be expected to do the same. Further, the absolute ferocity of that cold is something I will never forget. I carpooled with a friend that first morning and just the harsh intensity of the sprint from the end of the parking lot to the front door evoked a sense of heightened awareness that was memorable. Last week in Edmonton, I was reminded of this feeling when one of the student journalists from Nanaimo, B.C. bragged how it was 13 C back home. OK, awesome, but it’s 13 C and cloudy nearly every friggin’ day there. There’s nothing memorable or special about that.
So, while it’s easy for us in the Canadian prairies to bemoan our frosty winter existence, and secretly dream of a separate life in paradise, in reality, we should all be holding our heads high. Nothing displays our toughness and our fortitude quite like the days when frostbite is always imminent and our vehicles take an hour to warm up. For me, I live in the coldest major city in the coldest country on Earth and you know something? That’s pretty cool.