“Certificate of Hardiness”: Winter Driving and Modern Urban Living in Edmonton, 1930s-1970s

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This is the second post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

In the first month of 1969, the pace of life in Edmonton stalled under a prolonged cold snap. For twenty-six days the temperature did not rise above -21C. Construction projects ground to a halt, recreational activities were cancelled, and motorists faced difficulties running their automobiles.[1] For many Edmontonians, the shared, wearying experience of protracted frigid temperatures seemed to have had a unifying effect. Some residents embraced the winter conditions and even promoted them as a defining feature of their city. In late January, the Edmonton Journal’s “Certificate of Hardiness” campaign captured these sentiments while also making light of any notion that the cold was causing serious challenges to urban life. A front-page story invited “long-suffering” readers to clip (and later write in for) a spoof certificate designed by Journal cartoonist Edd Uluschak that confirmed they had “lived through” the unprecedented winter conditions.[2] Edmontonians, the campaign implied, should recognize how good most of them had it, and be able to poke fun at themselves for how modern urban living helped insulate them from winter challenges that in earlier times or other places would have demanded a far higher degree of “hardiness.” This humorous commemoration of the cold snap expressed residents’ genuine relief that it was nearing its end and also contained an element of self-deprecation, for Uluschak’s artwork depicted instances of inconvenience, discomfort, and disruption of everyday routine that were hardly matters of survival: waiting in the cold for a city bus, going out in fashionable but impractical clothing, trying to start a sports car in a deep freeze.

More than 100,000 copies of the “Certificate of Hardiness” were distributed by the Edmonton Journal between February and April 1969. Author’s collection, with permission of Edd Uluschak.

Uluschak’s image of a driver trying to thaw his car from a block of ice highlighted how by 1969 automobile use was a key feature and symbol of the modern experience of winter in Edmonton. During the mid-twentieth century, the emergence and diffusion of new technologies that facilitated winter automobile use, including truck-mounted snow plows, block heaters, and snow tires, were important factors in what Bernard Mergen has called the “deseasonalization” of North American cities.[3] In Edmonton, these technologies allowed for dramatically greater personal mobility through year-round use of the automobile. Implementing these modernizing technologies was gradual and uneven, and they never completely eliminated the challenges of winter conditions, but they did make winter driving safer, easier, and more comfortable. In doing so these technologies became key aspects of modern living, daily routines, and community identity in Edmonton.[4]

New winter road management techniques emerged in Alberta during the interwar period, as rural and urban residents increasingly adopted automobiles. The provincial public works department started an experimental snow removal program on main highways in 1929, with the minister of public works explaining that its goal was to “ascertain what measure of relief snow removal will afford and how much winter traffic on the main highways will develop as a result.”[5] Municipal governments (including Edmonton’s) also sought to implement better snow management practices on major public roads, while a growing number of entrepreneurial Albertans worked clearing snow from private driveways and parking lots.[6]

Jasper Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta after a heavy snowfall, December 1942. Provincial Archives of Alberta, BL447.

Winter driving became more common in Alberta after World War Two, driven by and contributing to rising rates of suburbanization and middle- and working-class automobile ownership. While municipal and provincial governments invested more in technology, expertise, and labour to keep major roads open during the winter, new responsibilities also fell on drivers, who were encouraged to adapt their automobiles and driving habits to difficult winter conditions. During the 1950s, the Edmonton Safety Council regularly promoted the use of tires designed especially for winter driving, advocating new designs with lacerated surfaces or imbedded materials that would improve traction in icy conditions.[7] Numerous advice columns and advertisements published in the Journal during the 1950s promoted the idea that practicing safe winter driving was both a sign and a duty of being a true Edmontonian.[8]

By the 1960s, snow management in Edmonton had been carefully planned by city staff, yet many residents still felt there was room for improvement – particularly because major thoroughfares were prioritized while most residential streets were left uncleared.[9] Numerous complaints and debates about snow removal show that it was a widespread community concern, and one that many residents felt compelled to speak out about. They frequently drew comparisons between how particular neighbourhoods or roads were treated, and sometimes looked beyond Edmonton for models of how roads should be managed in winter. In early January 1965, the Journal noted that “while griping about Edmonton’s snow removal, [residents] were holding Winnipeg up as an example of a city where the streets are paved with pavement all winter long.”[10] Residents’ demands – and unfavourable comparisons with another major Prairie city – may have helped push Edmonton city council to increase the budget for its snow removal program to $305,000 a year just a few weeks later.[11]

Edmonton’s Emergency Snow Clearing Routes, 1975-1976, from City of Edmonton, Edmonton Snow Route Guide (1975).

While Edmontonians felt entitled to critique municipal snow management methods, the city’s motoring residents were sometimes critiqued for their winter driving abilities. In 1964, David Montrose, a new Edmonton resident who had recently moved from Montreal, complained to the Journal that “[i]n the few days since snow fell on Edmonton, I have seen as much stupid driving, as much innocently dangerous driving, and as much sheer ignorance of the proper way to drive on a slippery surface, as you might expect to find in Miami, Florida, if that city were one night blanketed with six inches of snow.”[12] Montrose argued it was the responsibility of both the city and drivers to be better organized and more responsive when dealing with snowstorms and icy streets. Montrose explained that his letter was prompted by newspaper coverage about the cost of snow clearing, but he deemed it poor planning rather than a lack of funding that made winter driving in Edmonton so dangerous. Montrose had a harsh assessment of the city’s drivers and their habits, asking whether “a great majority of Edmonton drivers have driven through at least one previous snowy winter – or does each winter kill off the entire crop, leaving only the raw and inexperienced to brave the snows of a new season?” Questions around driver responsibility and preparation were of such interest in the late 1960s that the Journal regularly published winter driving tips and calls for drivers to inspect and service their vehicles more frequently in the winter months.[13] By the late 1960s, winter driving was a fact of life for many Edmonton residents, and these newspaper articles and letters to the editor reflect the community’s aim to make it as safe and predictable as possible.

During the mid-twentieth century, driving through an Edmonton winter became not just a fact of modern city life but also an essential aspect of community identity. As automobile use was democratized after World War Two, Edmontonian drivers adapted their roads, vehicles, and practices in an attempt to transcend the challenges posed by a harsh winter climate. Improved snow management and driving habits were deemed essential responsibilities, with the end goal being the development of a safe, accessible, and predictably functioning urban environment, no matter the weather. In many ways, this very modern goal had been achieved by the time Edmontonians faced the record-breaking cold snap of January 1969. When the community faced prolonged freezing temperatures, city life slowed but most residents’ daily routines went largely uninterrupted. While winter driving imposed costs and inconveniences on Edmonton, it also encouraged governments, service groups, businesses, media, and ordinary residents to develop a sense of community through planning programs, education campaigns, and the experience of using technologies not commonly found in many parts of North America. For historians of cities, technology, and the environment, this points to the value of considering how urban mobility and identity have interacted with climate, especially winter conditions, and merits further examination in other Canadian communities.

[1] Mike Braithwaite, “City Construction Pace Slowed to Crawl by Cold,” Edmonton Journal Jan 23 1969, 3; “Attendance Rises with Temperature at Marmot Basin,” Edmonton Journal Jan 3 1969, 19; Stan Williams, “Skate-a-thon Postponed,” Edmonton Journal Feb 8 1969, 3.

[2] “B-r-r-rother! We’ve Set a Chilling Record of Cold,” Edmonton Journal Jan 24 1969, 1. See also Stan Williams, “On Breaking Records,” Edmonton Journal Jan 24 1969, 3; “Journal Immortalizes City’s Chilling Ordeal,” Edmonton Journal Jan 29 1969, 1. The certificate proved immensely popular: the Journal distributed more than 100,000 copies.

[3] Deseaonalization is a term employed by Mergen to indicate urban areas that have largely overcome the challenges and discomforts of extreme winter weather, often through technological advances. Bernard Mergen, “Slush Funds: A History of D.C. Snow Management,” Washington History 8, no. 1 (1996), 6.

[4] On community identity and shared urban experiences of winter, see Mergen, “Slush Funds,” 5-6. The relationship between technologies and northern environments has also been studied by Marionne Cronin, who argues that northern environments were not passive recipients of technological change, but that instead there is a symbiotic relationship between them with environments shaping technology as much as technology shapes the environment. Cronin, “Shaped by the Land: An Envirotechnical History of a Canadian Bush Plane” in Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History, eds. Stephen Bocking and Brad Martin (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017), 105-106.

[5] “Will Use Tractors to Run Snow Plow,” Edmonton Journal, Dec 3 1929, 11.

[6] See for example “Snow Plow Injures Boy,” Edmonton Bulletin Jan 7 1935, 9.

[7] For example “Tips on Safety: Special Tires Are Urged for Winter Driving Here,” Edmonton Journal Jan 12 1951, 17.

[8] See for example “Notice to Edmonton Motorists,” Edmonton Journal Oct 12 1954, 19; “B.F. Goodrich: Trailmaker Mud-Snow Tire,” Edmonton Journal Oct 18 1954, 18.

[9] As late as 1974, most residential streets were left uncleared by municipal crews. See “City Jumps Budget for Snow Clearance,” Edmonton Journal 12 Sept 1974, 53.

[10] Wilf Popoff, “Winnipeg Gives Edmonton Tips on Removing Snow,” Edmonton Journal Jan 6 1965, 50; “City Challenged,” Edmonton Journal Jan 9 1965, 4.

[11] “Removal of Snow Costlier,” Edmonton Journal Jan 27 1965, 62. Notably, part of the increased budget went to purchase six small snow plows suitable for clearing sidewalks: in the mid 1960s the City was committed to making its streets accessible for automobiles and pedestrians alike.

[12] “Does Any One Here Learn from Experience?” Edmonton Journal Nov 24 1964, 8.

[13] See for example “How to Avoid Mistakes for Better Winter Driving,” Edmonton Journal Oct 23 1969, 8; “Women Need Help with Winter Driving,” Edmonton Journal Nov 11 1969, 57.

Feature Image: Heavy snow storm in Edmonton [111 St. And 97 Ave] showing houses with trees straining under the weight of snow, 1944. Photograph by Viki van Hogezand, A14159, PR1986.0192, Viki Van Hogezand Fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta.
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Lydia Kinasewich

Lydia has recently finished her BA Honours in history at the University of Northern British Columbia. Lydia's research interests include the history of health and nutrition science, particularly how they pertain to agriculture and food industry regulation in 20th-century British Columbia.

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