Surviving a Canadian Winter

Shovelling snow in Whitby, Ontario

The weather in Canada can be exhilarating. One minute it’s clear and sunny, the next, a storm will roll in off the lake soaking everything with torrential rain and turning the roads to rivers.

Autumn colours

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) enjoys a southerly location on the shores of Lake Ontario and this translates into long hot summer days between the months of June and September, spiced up with spectacular thunderstorms and the odd tornado. Because of our proximity to the lake it can be very humid, with temperatures on the humidex reaching the high thirties even low forties. The air is literally like a sauna!

But summer is on the wane now, and thoughts turn to the changes ahead. The flip-flops and sun-hats are packed away, and socks and trousers make a re-appearance after a long absence. In two or three short months, once the beautiful colours of autumn have come and gone, winter will be upon us. Last year, as though on a timer, we had our first proper snowfall on the first of December and from thereon in, we didn’t see much of the grass beneath, until April the following year. What little we did see was dead and brown. The winters in Canada can seem endless and everyone is grateful for the spring when it finally arrives and people can once again start jogging, cycling and walking the trails.



So, what makes winter so tough? Here’s a word for you – Windchill.

Iced slipway into a frozen Lake Ontario

Combined with the actual temperature, this can make it feel like it’s in the minus twenties or thirties. Walking into the wind without some kind of protection on your face can feel like your skin is being flayed by the cold. Sometimes, on returning home, I’d find that my legs were frozen, like blocks of ice, then they would become fiercely itchy as the circulation slowly returned to normal. Bottles of juice, brought along for the children, froze. Our camera even seized up.

But Canada is used to, and well prepared for, the yearly frost-fest. Toronto’s city services offer year-round help for the homeless population including drop-in centres, emergency shelters and housing help, but, during an Extreme Cold Weather Alert, attention shifts to getting people indoors. Transportation is provided to shelters and street outreach workers try to convince people to come inside. An alert is called when Environment Canada:

  • predicts a temperature of -15 degrees Celsius or lower, without wind chill
  • issues a wind chill warning for outdoor activity for people in the Toronto area, and/or
  • ย predicts extreme weather conditions, such as a blizzard, ice storm or sudden drops in temperature.


The lighthouse

If the extreme cold doesn’t get you, the restricted freedom and enforced confinement might have you suffering with Cabin Fever. Well wrapped up, you can still enjoy a walk in the crisp, clear, sunny, beauty that is a typical winter day, and people head out to frozen lakes for a game of ice hockey or just to skate, or go snow-shoeing and ice-fishing, but generally, your everyday, outdoor pursuits are no longer so enjoyable. Although the major roads and pavements are swiftly cleared of snow by a phalanx of snow-ploughs, it still takes time to get properly dressed to go out, and when you come back indoors you inevitably create a slushy puddle as you scramble out of snowy gear. Slowly but surely, outdoor trips become limited to only the necessary. Getting the children dressed for the five-minute walk to school in winter takes longer than the journey itself. Often it’s too cold for them to be outdoors for more than minutes at a time and schools will keep them indoors during recess.



So, how do you stop from turning into a couch potato and gaining twenty pounds in the winter months? One activity steadily gaining popularity here in winter is Mall Walking. Shopping malls are huge indoor spaces with long corridors, perfect for stretching your legs. To get any meaningful exercise you need to walk vigorously and in a straight line which is impossible once the mall is flooded with shoppers so most malls have special mall walking hours, usually an hour or two before the shops open. Because walking is a low impact form of exercise, this is very popular with senior citizens. Most professionals will either be members of a gym or live in a condominium with an on-site gym and/or pool. The rest of us keep up the regular workout that is Shoveling Snow Off The Driveway. If you live on the side of the street with a footpath, or worse, a corner plot, you’re responsible for maintaining a passable path for pedestrians or you could find yourself at the sharp end of a lawsuit.

Over the winter people indulge their indoor hobbies, painting, drawing, scrapbooking and the like. A friend of mine who is a keen photographer uses these long months to sort through and catalogue all his pictures.
Toronto prides itself on staying warming and welcoming throughout the winter, its ever-beating heart pulsating with various cultural events. The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair brings the country to the city with over 300 vendors, horse shows, dog shows and everything else in between. The Wintercity Festival combines three festivals; the WOW series, The Warm up and Winterlicious. The WOW Series is free and takes place outdoors at Nathan Phillips Square. It’s aimed at families and features performances from around the world. The Warm Up Series takes place at indoor venues across downtown Toronto and features multi-media events and performances geared towards both family and mature audiences. Winterlicious is a popular restaurant promotion including over 150 Toronto participants. It boasts events such as culinary demonstrations and market tours. Add to this the nine city museums, 50 ballet and dance companies, six opera companies and two symphony orchestras and you’ll have an idea of the wealth of cultural entertainment occurring throughout the winter months.



Toronto is home to the largest underground shopping complex in the world. Twenty-eight kilometres of underground walkway link shopping, services and entertainment, providing a safe haven from the winter cold and snow, or the summer heat. It’s used by 100,000 daily commuters as well as tourists and residents on their way to sports or cultural events. It’s home to 1,200 shops and services, everything from photocopying to shoe-repairs as well as the usual high street names. More than 50 buildings or office towers are connected through the PATH system. It comprises twenty car parks, five subway stations, two major department stores, two major shopping centres, six major hotels, and a railway terminal. The CN Tower and Rogers Centre are connected via an enclosed elevated walkway, called Skywalk, from Union Station.



Driving in winter conditions is pretty joyless at the best of times and plain dangerous at the worst.

Snow-plough, doing it’s thing

Most people living here are used to it as the nonchalant little dents and dings on their cars in the winter months will attest. Still, it doesn’t mean they do it well. There are always impatient drivers, travelling faster than they should be. In extreme conditions, it’s best not to make a journey but if that’s not possible, you are advised to carry a first aid kit and an emergency kit. Blizzards, white-out conditions and drifts can leave you stranded. Most people carry a collapsible snow shovel to dig themselves out, but you’ll also need food and water, blankets, a candle in a tin (warmth and light), matches and flash-light. Cell/mobile phones should be fully charged but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a signal. Snow tires are used for driving on ice and snow, but not generally necessary in and around the cities and towns as the snow-ploughs are efficient at clearing the snow swiftly. It’s the black ice that’s the biggest danger.

Overall, we try to view winter as a big adventure, snowy landscapes are an arrestingly beautiful sight and the days are primarily bright and sunny. Regular snowfall means we don’t have to suffer the dirty, slushy part for too long before it gets another dusting of pristine whiteness and there’s nothing like snowy weather outside for making you feel snug and cosy inside. Most houses have industrial sized furnaces and ducting throughout, although the hot air they pump out is so drying it causes anything wooden to dry and crack/contract. I don’t need to tell you what it does to your skin. If it all gets too much, you can always join the other snow-birds who head to Florida or the Dominican Republic during the winter months, but, to be honest with you, I’d rather be surrounded by the tranquillity of the soundless, semi-frozen lake on a picturesque winter’s day than the cacophony of a tourist resort. No question!


Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


    1. I used to work with a lady in Ottawa who cycled to work every day of the year. She had specially modified tyres and loved it. Couldn’t get enough of it. I would watch her rock in to the office, dressed as if she’d been to the Arctic, telling me stories of ice danger and snowy hell, and I was in absolute awe of her. I was gobsmacked. Then we upped and moved to Australia before I turned into a similar cold weather-loving freak.

      I take my hat off to you. That is a serious accomplishment ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. Great blog! I’m from Central Alberta, and while we get colder temperatures than you “Easterners” get, it’s dryer so far more bearable. It’s not unusual out here to hit -35 to -40C in December and January. I have American friends who laugh hysterically when I say I have to go “plug in my car”. They all think I have an electric powered vehicle. LOL How long have you been in Canada?

    1. Hi there, thanks for the comment. We have been here just over a year now and are looking forward to our second Canadian winter. The first one we managed to survive without a car so this one should be a breeze! I’ve heard it said a lot of Americans think we live in igloos here in Canada, so your friends are probably highly impressed that you have electricity and have traded in the Huskies ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. Oh well, I’ve educated them enough that they now know the igloos melt in spring, and we actually live in a log cabin in the 2 months we don’t have snow. *smirk* And the huskies got too expensive to feed; we now have a skidoo to drive around on. The car is only for grocery shopping and we chain ‘er up before leaving. Yes, they are quite impressed we actually have electricity and satellite TV that is propped up beside the wood stove.

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