Is it Cold in Canada? Three Ways to Answer

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There’s something about autumn in Oklahoma. The leaves change from crunchy brown to even crunchier brown, the temperature drops to a mere 25° C, and I begin to encounter my favourite question from well-meaning Oklahoman bank tellers, hair stylists, and baristas:

“Is it cold in Canada right now?”

How I want to answer: Canada is really, really big, so it’s probably cold somewhere, you hoser, eh?

How I should answer: Actually, you think it’s cold in Canada because we want you to think it’s cold in Canada. In fact, Euro-Canadians have been deliberately self-fashioning as cold-weather people living in a cold-weather place for as long as Canada has existed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans–especially the British, French, and Germans–spent a great deal of time discussing the airs, waters, and places, to borrow the Hippocratic phrasing, of their colonies. The tropical or sub-tropical climates of Africa and the Indian subcontinent were believed to impart laziness, timidity, femininity (for men,) and overall weakness on their native inhabitants, which made an excellent and convenient justification for perceived European dominance over colonial subjects. This science of environmental/climatic determinism was something of a double-edged sword, as the climate that made Indians or Africans inferior had the potential to do the same for “temperate” European colonial administrators and settlers. There were a variety of physical and rhetorical solutions to this paradox, from the development of European colonial spas to administrative term limits to the construction of the European body as so superior that it could withstand the degenerative aspects of climate (but keep the benefits, such as resistance to disease).

This was the context in which Euro-Canadian settlers found themselves. Climate was seen as one of the more obvious categories of difference between colony and metropole, but Canada appeared, at least on the surface, to be the only one that wasn’t tropical. Settlers began, starting in the mid-19th century, to appropriate the pervasive discourse of climatic determinism to support their own identity. Canada’s northern climate apparently made its inhabitants the opposite of tropical: hardy, stoic, and hyper-masculine.

R. G. Haliburton, 1868. Source: McCord Museum

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rhetoric of the Canada First Party, most active around Canadian Confederation. Canada First was a very small party, with approximately half a dozen members, but they captured the fledgling Canadian imagination; their speeches and addresses were published as pamphlets and repeated in the country’s largest newspapers. In the most celebrated – R. G. Haliburton’s 1869 “The Men of the North and Their Place in History” – Haliburton traces Euro-Canadian heritage back to the Normans. The northern climate, he claimed, changed Canadian settler constitutions and allowed them to reach back to that ancient ancestry:

“The cold north wind that rocked the cradle of our race, still blows through our forests and breathes the spirit of liberty into our hearts, and lends strength and vigour to our limbs. As long as the north wind blows, and the snow and the sleet drive over our forests and fields…we must be a hardy, a healthy, a virtuous, a daring, and if we are worthy of our ancestors, a dominant race.”

Canada First leader William Alexander Foster went so far as to say in an 1888 address that “Thor hammers and Thor hammerings appeal to us–for we are a Northern people…more manly, more real, than the weak, marrow-bones…effeminate South.” The “South,” in this case, meant the “tropical” United States; Canada’s perceived coldness became a key feature of difference between both its overseas and Southern neighbours.

Punch’s Fancy Portraits (1883): “Lord Lansdowne in his new Canadian Costume, specially adapted to remaining for some Time out in the Cold.”

But this use of climate for national-identity purposes was not without its drawbacks. Newspaper editors saw the focus on coldness, winters, and snow to be detrimental to potential immigration. As one editorial in an 1888 Edmonton Bulletin blatantly stated, “nothing has tended more strongly against the settlement of the Canadian North-West than the mere fact of its latitude.” However, Edmonton’s latitude is nearly the same as Manchester’s, and only 2° higher than London; the “mere fact” was tempered with cultural construction. Some blamed the British press for emphasizing, as it did for the tropical colonies, the extremes of Canadian climate. However, it also appeared that Canadians were equally guilty. One Globe and Mail editorial, written in response to an 1883 Punch cartoon in which Lord Lansdowne is depicted in his new “Canadian costume” – the uniform of the Montreal Snowshoe Club – claimed, “Canadians cannot complain of English journals insisting thus on the wintry aspect of Canadian life, for our own press is continually doing the same thing.” This insistence was manifested in, among other things, the development of Canadian winter sport culture, evidenced by Lansdowne’s “costume,” and the still-popular “Winter Carnival” tradition in which snow and ice are celebrated.

This deliberate cultural construction, originally based in imperial science, has now been subsumed by Canadian culture writ large. We may shout, “WE THE NORTH,” at basketball games, but we also need the reminder in our beer commercials that we don’t all live in igloos or drive dogsleds. This, dear barista or hair stylist or bank teller, is why you wonder if it’s cold in Canada right now.

How I usually answer: Yes. Yes it is.

Feature Image: Cornelius Krieghoff, Winter scene with two racing sleighs, 1858. Source: McCord Museum.
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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.


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