View from here - Snow given the cold shoulder

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Think the frosty winter that shut UK schools nationwide was bad? Not even metres of the white stuff can close Canadian doors, writes Nathan Greenfield

Canadian school kids have watched the news reports of British schools closed by snow and ice with envy. Snow can land here in units of two or more feet - and we had some 14 feet (4.3 metres) of the stuff in the winter of 200708. Yet despite the impressive totals, snow alone rarely closes schools.

Those in the city have been particularly impervious. Some may have shut during the ice storm of 1999, which brought down the power grid in parts of Quebec and Ontario and forced the closing of all but one of Montreal's bridges. But Montreal, which averages 88 inches (2.2 metres) of snow per year, has still had just two snow days in the last 10 years.

While some heads in England closed their schools for a day and let their pupils enjoy making snowballs, it takes treacherous roads for authorities in Canada to stop school bus services.

There is no specific amount of snow or ice that triggers the decision to pull the yellow buses off the roads. The decision must be made early. In Halifax, the capital city of Nova Scotia, after nights when freezing rain or icing conditions are forecast, officials and bus drivers assess the roads at 4.30am and make their recommendation an hour later.

In hilly West Quebec, a few millimetres of freezing rain is enough to cause officials to cancel bus services, while just across the river in flat Ottawa, buses can still be running. During the historic snowfalls of two years ago, however, school buses were cancelled in Ottawa seven times. In rural boards, their cancellation is often accompanied by the closing of the schools.

The same is not true for cities. Ottawa schools were not closed during that winter, nor were those in Toronto.

And while some parents may allow an unofficial, playful "snow day" for their children, most don't. Students who live in walking distance are expected to walk; sidewalks are cleared by cute sidewalk-sized ploughs that often move so fast they leave behind a plume of "snow smoke".

Roads and highway departments deploy huge machines. The first is a roadgrader - the plough of which is the size of a traffic lane. On multiple lane roads and highways, several are used in formation so the snow is ploughed from the left (the middle of the road) to the side. Later, traffic lane-sized blowers blast the snow into dump trucks. After the final removal, tons of sand and rock salt are spread on the roads to keep them from freezing and provide traction.

Older Canadians moan that they always trudged to school through unplowed streets, no matter how bad the whiteout conditions.

But while their memories may be selective, one significant change has occurred since their youth. Schoolyard snowball fights were banned by school boards across the country about a decade ago for two reasons: zero tolerance policies on poor behaviour and insurance regulations. The weather may be snowier than in England, but local officials' fears remain roughly the same.

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