Saturday, February 9, 2013

Canadians Irrational Fear of Snow Days

My 13 year old daughter walks to school yesterday.
Just before we were going to move to Canada, many people in the US told us how different those Canadians were. Now we had met many Canadians and, to us, they seemed pretty darn normal and definitely polite. So we put it down to the Americans being the different ones.

During our first winter here there wasn't much or really any snow. But yesterday, a snow storm hit (as it did later on for the North-East of the US). This storm generated about a foot of snow, exactly as forecast. Now when we were in Boston that forecast would have triggered a snow day. Basically, school would be cancelled and we would be expected to stay home and off the roads. We must have had about four or five of these during our two Boston winters. 

But here in Toronto, things were different. I would have conversations like this:

"So do you think they are going to call a snow day tomorrow?"

"No way. I can't remember there ever being a snow day. The University of Toronto has never had one and neither has my kid's school."


"The whole time I was growing up, we had only one snow day. My parents were so upset they marched us to school anyway just to check and left us standing at the school gates for an hour."

"Wasn't that terrible."

"Noooo. We wanted to go to school. What was terrible was that the teachers didn't show up."

The Canadians take pride in the fact that they don't let snow interfere with their intention to pursue normal activities. I say intention because when you get a foot of snow, it interferes with normal activities. This was driven home to me literally yesterday morning as I tried to drive the kids to school, ploughing through the snow as we went, windshield freezing up in the negative 10 degrees Celsius temperature. What were these people thinking? No one should be out on a day like this. 

Thomas Schelling in his Nobel prize speech remarks at how amazing it was that for more than 60 years, no nuclear bomb has been dropped in anger. His thesis was the longer time went without a bomb, the more repugnant the idea of using it became. Jerry Seinfeld posits a similar way of keeping count on activities as a way to avoid procrastination. 

For Canadians, this is encapsulated in the 'days since the last snow day' count. Yesterday's storm was the worst in five years. Five years ago, therefore, they had a worse storm. It was so bad that they had to bring out the army to clear the road. And did they have a snow day then? Noooo. The kids remembered the army on the streets as they drove or trudged by. In the real world, when the army is on the streets the public shouldn't be there save for an Armistice or Remembrance Day parade. For these Canadians they behave like the dark night in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "it's just a few flurries. That won't stop us" as their arms fall off from frostbite. 

Now, as it turns out, my kids go to a more international school than is usual. So when they got there, half the class hadn't shown up. Why? They knew better unlike ourselves. 

So what did they do that day? Well, and remember it was negative 10 degrees and a snow storm out, they increased the number and length of recesses and played outside! Basically, they doubled down on the snow day. Not only did they not stay away from the snow, they took it as a signal to get down with it. Suffice it to say, my two youngest kids had the best day ever.

That was until the drive home. That is something that usually takes about 15 minutes from my work as I navigate through the Toronto streets to pick up scattered children. Yesterday, it took 2 hours. Why? Because there is a hill going north in Toronto. Not a big hill but a hill nonetheless. And cars were just struggling to get up it. Not most cars but one or two without snow tyres etc. People got out to help push only for the car to slide back towards them. It was chaos ... the sort of chaos that would normally cause people to stay at home. 

I proclaimed that we would 'go rouge' on our definition of snow days in the future. I would look at the forecast and if it seemed insane to go out, we would all stay at home and bugger the consequences. They can send the army for us for all I care.

"No way you can do that Dad."

"Why not?"

"Well, I'm not going to hold to it. My school has never had a snow day and everyone showed up today. I am not missing a minute of class!"

"Then you are on your own ..."

"I'll walk [it would be 8 kilometers]. I'm not stopped for just a little flurry."

"Or a flesh wound."


I guess you could say, at least for one member of our family, assimilation achieved. Well played, Canada.