“Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.”
(Gilles Vigneault, Quebecois singer-songwriter.)
Quebec’s iconic musician captured the essence of this ‘land of snowstorms’ in his famous 1965 song that declares ‘my country is not a country, it’s winter.’ Gilles Vigneault’s song used winter as a metaphor for the cultural isolation of Quebec at the time. But it quickly became famous outside the province because the rest of the country related deeply to the lyrical description of our cold country. For me winter is a constant background refrain. In deepest January it’s hard to believe I will ever be warm again. In the depths of July I think how odd it is that in six months all will be frozen. Each season is a referential verse to the main song that is winter.
I can still recall the moment that winter became a pivotal part of my life. I was about five years old and playing outside in the cold winter twilight. It was in the early 1960’s when parents let their children play in the backyard alone in the dark. I remember looking up into the clear night sky sprinkled with stars and suddenly I realized I was part of something that was larger than my backyard of snow tunnels. I sensed a world beyond my blue snowsuit and boots. That clear winter night opened my imagination to the possibilities of life, and of adventure.
Since then I have been drawn to cold, remote places where winter isn’t just a season, it’s a living presence. I spent eight years in the Northwest Territories where winter comes in early October and reluctantly leaves in late May. For me winter is a time for thought, expansive ideas and adventure. I would be lost without it.
But not everyone has the same relationship with the season of cold and dark. In fact, winter can take a huge toll. More than 9,000 people in Canada end up in the hospital from slipping on the ice every winter. While seniors make up a big part of that number, it’s actually younger people between the ages of 18 to 64 who are affected the most.
Dwindling light and long dark nights are also big contributors to mental health issues. Ten percent of all depression cases in Canada are linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Not surprisingly, many people in Ottawa prepare for winter as if they are getting ready for a siege. Lawns are raked clean, coats and boots are recruited from the back of the closet and shovels are lined up like cannons to be aimed at the enemy.
The true reality of winter is not what we see in the cheery photos of skaters on the Rideau Canal, but is an exercise in strategic survival. The book Minus 20 is about the grim love-hate relationship that people in Ottawa have with winter. This project shows the other side of the season in Ottawa, not its happy winter sports, but the daily, grey slog. The project is a snapshot of what we experience in this city every year, a testament to how living in the dark and cold can affect us and our approach to life as we get through another season in this, the land of snowstorms.