Getting Over the Snow

The Montreal Gazette’s number 1 news story of 2008: It snowed. The city was treated to 3.7 meters of the stuff between November 2007 and April ’08 and, according to journalist Anne Sutherland, Montrealers spent the winter “hip deep in misery.”

I suppose I should be used to this by now, but it still surprises me every time snow makes the front page. In a city that is blanketed with the stuff for nearly half of the year, every year, why do snow storms – and the subsequent snow-plowing debacle – consistently generate a flurry of media attention?

It wouldn’t be so bad if we just wanted to talk about the weather – after all, for many city-dwellers the weather is our only daily reminder that we belong to a wider natural environment that is beyond our immediate control. The intense climatic ups and down that all Montrealers live with are one of the few experiences that we share with our neighbours, our co-workers, and even strangers on the bus. But the media has an unhelpful habit of seeking out and broadcasting the most unpleasant snow-related experiences (usually extra hours tacked onto already lengthy car commutes) and then eagerly blaming the city for botching the snow-clearing before the last flakes have even had a chance to settle.

After receiving 20 cm of snow earlier this month, Marcel Tremblay, the city’s committee member responsible for public services, pointed out that the free parking lots which are designed to get cars off the street and facilitate snow clearing remained underused, towing illegally parked cars was slowing down the clearing operations, and despite tough driving conditions, there hadn’t been any increase in public transit usage.

It seems many of us assume that City workers should make winter conditions effectively disappear while we go on behaving exactly as we do the rest of the year. And this expectation is more than unrealistic, it’s a symptom that Montrealers have become disconnected from their sense of physical place.

It may be sunny year-round on our favourite TV shows. Perhaps it’s business as usual at our company’s international offices. Our facebook friends might not have to wade through slush puddles on every street-corner. But as globally dispersed as our social and economic interactions may be, we all still inhabit a real place, and for those of us who are from Montreal or have chosen to live here, winter is an elemental, undeniable part of our existence. Even the most efficient snow plow team in the world won’t take it away.

To make matters worse, many of us live in an urban (or suburban) environment that does not take reality of our climate into account. Development has become increasingly homogeneous across North America in the last sixty years – our weather patterns have not. Cars and the culture of individual car ownership were certainly not conceived for a place with 4-foot snow banks. Sprawl’s strict separation of homes, shops and workplaces; its detached houses, long driveways, and vast outdoor parking lots, were clearly not designed with 20-cm snowfalls or -20 degree weather at heart.

But Montreal is a unique city in a lot of ways and these conditions are one of them. We need accept it and we need to move on…which may mean not moving at all or using alternative transportation when snow limits our mobility. We can shop and socialize locally when it’s too snowy to dig the car out and the buses are struggling to make it down the street. We can try to build flexibility in our work schedules when the weather reduces our mobility or work from home when possible. We can replace strollers with toboggans, and wear warm, waterproof winter boots, even when they are not in style.

How about turning the bike path network into cross-country a ski route in the winter?

We also need to embody the realities of winter in the urban form beyond the architectural technicalities (snow loads, insulation, thermal contraction).  Neither importing cookie-cutter development models, nor counting on international starchitects is the best way to acheive this. It means things like considering accessibility in snowy and icy conditions (indoor passageways are handy and long private driveways are not). Permeable streetscapes, for instance multiple store-fronts rather than a large commercial block with a single entrance, give people the chance to get out of the cold. We need ensure that there are non-commercial indoor places that are truly public and outdoor public spaces that are attractive year-round.  Even if – or especially if – that means that homeless people will find nooks and crannies to curl up in for a time.

La Presse’s Stéphane Laporte takes a more level-headed approach than his fellow journalists, urging Montrealers to embrace our snowy destiny.“Il neige à Montréal, sporadiquement, de novembre à avril… C’est normal. C’est notre destin. Notre identité,”  he writes in a wry editorial,

“Montréal est couvert à la grandeur et on voudrait que ça soit parti en deux heures. Les nerfs! La neige, ce n’est pas une substance radioactive ou explosive. C’est juste de l’eau prise ensemble. Ça ne nous mangera pas. On peut même s’amuser avec.”


Kids excitedly hit the toboggan run at Murray Hill park, Dec 31st.


  1. To stretch our imaginations with a different take on the québécois winter, there is no better book than Abolissons l’hiver! by the anthropologist Bernard Arcand (Boréal, 1999). He imagines a Quebec where everything would slow down and we’d take the long holidays during winter… a very interesting reversal!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Also, I feel like we should question why we can really only find boots that are designed in the US or even Europe that don’t match the reality of a Montreal winter. I see a lot of people wear boots that have very little traction. They may look nice on the streets of New York or even the catwalks, but they are not very useful for navigating our streets.

    Why don’t we have a popular local boot that’s made to tackle our icy streets? And if such a boot exists (Sorel’s maybe?) how good are they, and why are they not more popular?

    I’m tired of seeing people wearing running shoes, slipping on the ice and blaming the city!

  3. I am also with you on this one.

    I won’t deny that snow/winter are not exactly my favourite things, but instead of complaining about it, I have chosen to embrace it. Some people get so upset every time a snow fall is forecasted – as if it’s the weatherman’s fault for following storm systems and letting us know about it!

    And when it comes to winter time, who cares about being fashionable, especially on those days where it’s -25 or snowing like crazy? Save your toes from frostbite and your hips from fractures and wear a decent pair of boots, for crying out loud!

  4. I like the point about the boots. I’ll be watching this post to see if any recommendations come in.

  5. Re: Boots

    I’ve always gone to L’Equipeur for winter boots. I bought a pair last year and the ones that I had before that lasted me 5 years. Sure, they cost more but that’s because they’re good and last a long time. Both pairs are hard-toe, have good grip on ice and are warm. That’s everything I look for in a boot.

  6. shoe stores are the last place I’d go for winter boots. In order of preference I use Sorel boots (the rubber-bottomed, leather-uppers, with felt liners) for real winter conditions, winter hiking boots for non slush or deep snow (or winter cycling), and snow clogs (“clogs” with real heels) by Merrel for quick action required no adverse conditions use.

    There’s a variety of stud-covered crampon devices for boots and shoes, and newspaper coverage notwithstanding, the icy sidewalks are a genuine hazard. Therefore I suggest that shoe/boot crampons are essential accessories for any sane person.

  7. We do live in a place with long, hard winters, but that doesn’t mean we have to like them. There are many things I like very much about Montréal, but the horrendous winters are not one of them. Oh,how Iong to get out on my bicycle again, and look, if not fashionable, at least somewhat attractive and urbane.

    I cycled until about the 6th of December, putting the vélo away for a couple of snowy patches, and it is very rare that I don’t have it out for at least certain periods in March, and certainly in April. It is important not to make the bloody winter seem even longer than it actually is. And it is most certainly not my identity.

  8. Les raquettes peuvent aussi joindre l’utile à l’agréable. J’habite près de l’échangeur Turcot et travaille près du pont Wellington. D’avance, lorsque je sais qu’il neigera, je me lève une heure plus tôt pour me rendre au bureau en raquettes! J’arrive réveillé, heureux et surtout avant tout le reste du staff… Au premier niveau de lecture “Mon Pays” de Gilles Vigneault résumme assez bien ce à quoi on doit s’attendre durant la saison froide. (Pour le reste, je m’abstiens de tout commentaire politique concernant le dernier vers.)

    I conclude with a note on boot crampons by saying it’s too sad they don’t come with a notice inviting those who wear them to be kind enough the take them off when they enter the subway, the drugstore, the market… I feel sorry for the floors.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with you. Watching us get 30cm of snow finished off by rain that turns everything into ice is a fact of living in canada. It isn’t the city’s fault that mother nature created rediculously icy conditions.
    The city was very prompt at clearing the snow in many areas but the freezing rain and the resultant coating of ice isn’t something that snowplows are designed to deal with… not without taking half the sidewalk with them anyway.
    Unless citizens would like the city to ‘salt the earth’ so that nothing grows along the sidewalks the rest of the year we need to learn to put up with a little ice.
    If you answered yes salt the earth then you also shouldn’t complain when the city needs to up the taxes for us to pay for all the extra salt.
    Or you could try to leave a little bit earlier and walk a little slower for the 10 days of the year that the ice is an issue.

  10. What is it with the weather anyway? Is there some deep bottled up frustration with life that makes us welcome winter like some kind of existential torture? Makes us take it personally?

    It’s there, it happens every year, and we should be okay with it. Having said that, I am still going to bitch about icy sidewalks :P. We really should be the ultimate masters of keeping city sidewalks ice free in winter, or at least not dangerous. Seems to me the bus companies used to take responsibility for a little bit of the space at their stops once upon a time but today they are amongst the worst spots. Ever stepped “down” to get in a bus?

  11. Hugh McClennan’s The Watch that Ends the Night lamented the fact that we started living like New Yorkers back in the 1930s… depending on car culture and fashion more than living with the snow and enjoying it for what it is. It’s not like it’s only a possibility, like in Vancouver; it’s our reality.

    There are images somewhere of sleigh races down Mount Royal in winter. At night, lit with torches! Whooo!

    As for boots and accoutrements, a selection is obviously necessary: (removable) crampons, winter hiking boots, soloman snow shoes, and a pair of “city boots” for mild days.

  12. Nice to have the money for several pair of winter boots! That is not possible for a great many people in my neighbourhood and elsewhere.

    Oui, j’aime râler, pourquoi pas? Also suspect I’m at least twice as old as Alannah, and although I’ve enjoyed lots of madness in Montréal over the decades (there is nowhere else in North America I’d live, though I would gladly take a ticket to someplace in Europe I could cycle year-round) winter means months on end of pain, in joints I didn’t even know I had.

    And trudging through the muck dressed like a Ruritanian peasant, not an educated urbanite…

  13. The last two years I have discovered longjohns. It now strikes me as totally crazy that I used to walk around in winter all bundled up but with basically a pair of jeans on my legs. Yea, you do reach an age where your body starts throwing you some hints. Maybe just drifting back to childhood when you actually are dressed properly for winter and just spending all day swimming in the snow….

  14. Sitting in Toronto on a sunny, if cold, day, it warms my heart to know that Montrealers complain about the snow too.

    Toronto seems to think it’s the only city inconvenienced by snow, and there was that embarrassing escapade where a former mayor called in the army to help dig us out.

    It’s winter. It snows. It will melt.


  15. Traditional longjohns can be bulky and uncomfortable, but there are leggings and undershirts now that are much lighter in weight and bulk, while adding comforting warmth. Silk and bamboo are among the more natural fibres.

    You can be get too warm, though, when taking the métro to work etc.

    Still, I keep praying for it to melt and go away… My cat agrees.

  16. Sheepskin-lined Saute-Mouton boots are made in Charlesbourg, in Québec City, and they have a good range of styles. Very warm.
    Also try Pajar boots and La Canadienne boots, both apparently still made in Montréal.

  17. I am from Israel, and I must say that I do not understand what everyone is complaining about! Sure it can get cold, but it is easier to put on additional layers than it is to hide from the heat in many other climates. And there is nothing like fresh snow to add some sparkle to our lives. Plus, we are even fortunate that Montreal actually gets quite a bit of sunshine in the winter, although the clear bright days are also the coldest ones.

    I had a colleague from the UK (where they really have lovely weather) who remarked how Montrealers have a proclivity for complaining about the weather. She noted that the “averages” which we so love to talk about here are actually just an average of extremes! On any given day of the year, there could be differences of up to thirty degrees or more from one year to the next (ie +15 one year, -15 the next)….

    I recommend silk long-underwear for anyone who alternates extended periods of time outside and inside. They are nice and warm, but remain comfortable even if left on all day in the office! And of course, Pajar boots are awesome yet stylish. They can be found at good prices at an outlet store on Mont Royal (le 103?) or at Schraeder’s on St. Laurent.

  18. Some polypropylene(?) longjohns are as thin, soft and warm as silk, and cheaper, if you don’t mind a non-natural fibre. That said, I prefer the silk. Bamboo I haven’t found yet. (Bamboo sheets are great, too.)

    Ce pays, c’est hiver, to paraphrase the old song.

  19. I don’t want to do publicity for anyone, but local firm Elita makes the bamboo warmwear, and they aren’t very expensive – I have leggings that look nice enough to wear on a bicycle under a skirt, and are thin enough to slip under trousers without looking like a sausage. So far they’ve held up to cycling, which can be rough on the inseam area, obviously.

    I’m still looking for silk undershirts for sale in Montréal (not online). MEC make them, but they have a high crewneck, which I find strangling.

    Gilles Vigneault is from a much colder and wintrier place (Lower North Shore), than Montréal. In recent years, we’ve seen heavy snows, but also practically no winter at all until mid-January the year before. I rode my bicycle until 15 January. Right now there isn’t much snow, and the city has finally cleaned up most of the dangerous ice.

    Zvi, there are a lot of other reasons I wouldn’t want to be living in Israel/Palestine, or even in Southern Italy (corruption and poor services), but not the weather. I crave warmth like a cat needs to sit in the sun. I was never as physically well as when studying and living in Central Italy. If I could get a job I could live on there or in the south of France, I’d leave tomorrow. (Do have to think of places where I speak the language fluently).

  20. Allanah, another great post. Not only that, but thanks to Maria I learn that Elita is a local company! More reason to buy their great underwear.

    Loving winter is all about the right underwear and outerwear. I decided, a handful of years ago, to quit whining about winter and just enjoy it. So I finally bought a warm coat and good boots. I started skating and cross-country skiing regularly. Even took up downhill (which I subsequently gave up as of last year – too damned expensive.

    Why can’t we Canadians/Quebecois/Montrealer embrace who we are? We are winter creatures. Really, is there anything in the world more fun than a showball fight? I’ve lived in hot countries when I was younger and was glad to skip winter. But something has changed since then and now, well, I wouldn’t give up winter for all the money and sun in the world.

  21. A little late here, but let me just add my AMEN! to the list. Great post. Winter is wonderful but we’ve completely lost sight of that, with our dependence on cars. The only people really complaining are the drivers.

    It also really saddens and frustrates me how we expect the city to clean our sidewalks for us. This is true today for most homeowners, except the old portuguese man, who with the industry of the retired, are out every day with their collection of shovels, brooms and even handbrushes to make sure their stairs and porch area are completely clean. I’m very impressed with them and try to keep up.

    I think we should have a spirit of friendly competition, where each house hold tries to have the cleanest walk, and by extension, each block tries to have the cleanest block. The city could go around giving small prizes.

    On those weird thaw days, where snow starts to melt, we should be out taking advantage, clearing our stairs and sidewalks, by throwing the snow out into the street where the cars will facilitate the melting. Imagine how much the city would save on fuel costs if citizens got out and made most of the snow melt instead of waiting for the truck to come around with the gravel.

  22. Thanks, Maria, first for the Elita info – my search begins! – and I didn’t know where exactly M. Vigneault was from – so it makes particular sense he’d characterize “son pays” that way – but I was thinking more of the “embrace winter” attitude that Québecers, and Canadians in general, should have, not so much of our relatively mild climate. (I lived in southern Vermont for a year once, and, yes, it was colder there!)

  23. By the way, I’ve never owned or driven a car in my life, and I’m in my 50s, and rather virulently anti-car. Just getting old and crotchety, I guess, but for me winter is something very painful. So far this one has not been nearly as bad as the last, and it was mild and not at all icy this afternoon as I went out for a walk and shopping (at Jean-Talon market, nearby) after I had finished my day’s work on the computer.

    I don’t think everyone here grasps the sheer joy of bitching, complaining, refusing to go gentle into any night, even a temporary one, and generally being ornery. I think a snowball fight might edge out a visit to the dentist’s as fun, but changing the cat’s box is far more appealing, as is scrubbing out grout.

    Lots of Italian and Portuguese gents of a certain age wage their own little fussy war against snow and ice in Villeray and environs. Indeed I’ve seen fellows brushing away errant snowflakes with one of those little brushes for windshields.

  24. I leave in a great neighbourhood where everyone shovels the snow into the street and then parks completly behind you so right now I am kidnapped in my own home since I can`t get my vehicule out. What is the by-law against throwing snow in the street.

  25. AMAZING!!! Thank you thank you thank you Alannah. Thank you. Call me a FREAK but I LOVE the winter, it’s one of the reasons I still live in Montreal! Coming from Texas where the weather is always dry and so HOT you need air conditioning on Christmas Day, It’s such a joy to be able to play outside year round! If only, if ONLY people here could really embrace the CHANGE that comes with winter, and stop acting like they should be able to move around the city exactly the same way year round. I remember seeing a headline from Le Devoir a few weeks back that loosely translated to “Slowing returning back to normal” above a photo of a snow plow. I was ENRAGED! Snow in the winter covering everything like a soft snuggle blanket is NORMAL! Winters are a CHALLENGE but, if you haven’t let yourself be enslaved by four-wheeled fossil fuel spewing DINOSAURS then it’s a FUN challenge to ask, HOW WILL I MOVE ABOUT THE CITY TODAY? I’m a bike fanatic, and miss my 30km commute along the Lachine Canal more than I miss my mother, but my city winter bike is fun in a different way, and if I can make it out before my arch-nemeses the snow plows, my CROSS-COUNTRY SKIS make for great urban transportation and are highly URBANE and FASHIONABLE with my wool knickers and knee-highs. It’s a beautiful thing that living year-round in Montreal is like living in two wonderful and different cities. And if you don’t like it PLEASE LEAVE and take your CARS and SNOW PLOWS with you! What’s the by-law against throwing NATURE-KILLING salt in the street and using ASTHMA-INDUCING MONSTERS to take all that PRECIOUS SNOW away to ROT IN A LANDFILL??? Thanks again, Alannah, for being coherent and comprehensive in your arguments when my emotions inhibit me from doing the same.

  26. Yay Jack! I love your passion for winter!
    Winter is just fucking glorious, isn’t it.

  27. Jack, why so many caps?

    I sure as hell wouldn’t live in Texas, for fairly obvious reasons of the death penalty, moronic politicians who go on to lay waste to the world and urban sprawl on steroids, but we can agree to disagree without being loud and rude. There are lots of reasons I wouldn’t live anywhere else in North America, but snow is not one of them.

    One of the reasons I love living here is that it is possible to get around without a car.

    If you will pay for my move to the south of France or central Italy and find me a decent job there, then I’ll gladly leave. If not, I’ll stay here for all the wonderful things here, and continue to bitch about the winter. And I won’t be so rude as to wish you arthritis, even though nobody has ever died from it.

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