Mon pays — c’est l’hiver

This is the title of a song, if not an anthem, popularized in Québec by Gilles Vigneault. The lyrics describe how adaptation to the New Land’s most difficult season coalesced the settlers of New France into a people.

In year 2001, how does winter define us?

While most Pontiac residents are enjoying (else enduring) winter, other Quebeckers are reading Le Soleil de la Floride, else Âllo-Police or the Journal de Montréal in balmy Florida. In fact, a microcosm of Quebec flourishes near Fort Lauderdale, where during winter approximately half a million Quebecers evade snow for three months. Hmm… perhaps their refrain would be “Mon pays, c’est Floride.”

In his book Sacre Blues, author Taras Grescoe notes, “Somewhere between bohemian Key West, where Michel Tremblay can be seen riding his bicycle, and stinking-rich Jupiter, where Céline Dion has a $10-million mansion, lies “Floribec,” a five-kilometre wide coastal strip that has become a de facto, low-rent suburb of urban Québec.”

Winter once represented serious hardship for a largely rural Québec population. The snow covered gardens and fields, impeding most outside work. But in our region, as snowfall came, many men headed to the lumber camps leaving wives and children to cope until spring melt and the logging boom returned their menfolk home. For the lumberjacks, winter represented gruelling work from dawn to dusk, and nights weren’t much better in crowded, louse-infested shanties.

Mon pays, c’est l’hiver….

Whether we flee its wrath by heading to Florida or enjoy its chill, since Europeans first landed here in Canada, we’ve recognized it as a force to be reckoned with. The earliest settlers of Quebec from France coined a whole new language to describe winter’s various forms.

Says author Grescoe, “First there was the averse, the little snowfall; then the bordée or abât, the full-fledged snowstorm, which could drop up to two metres of snow on a village at a time. Between the pluie verglaçante, the freezing rain that bowed thick birch limbs to the ground, and the tempête des coneilles — the late-winter snowstorm — there were endless poudreries, whiteouts of blowing snow. … Even the winds had to be assigned special names: the surouêt, the southwest wind that heralded warmer weather, was nothing next to the dreaded nordet, from the icy north Atlantic, the wind that brought the worst blizzards.”

Winter also was the time for community. It was a time for music, for the grand oral tradition practiced by northern cultures throughout the world whereby grandparents embellished tales ‘round the wood fire. It was downtime, where outside physical activity was lessened, replaced by time spent mending tools and clothing.

But after the early 1900s, when rural Quebecers flocked to urban centres and the factories of New England, desperate for work, we viewed winter differently. It became an event which many people could escape.

City streets are swept as clear of offending snowflakes as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Montréal’s Underground City — like Toronto’s subway system — permits residents to thumb their noses at the bitter chill outside. It’s entirely possible to live throughout winter without “sensible” winter clothing of any sort and by that I mean tuques, mittens — and lunar-like boots. Indeed, winter is frequently viewed as a playground… if you don’t live in it daily, as we Pontiac residents do.

In contrast to city dwellers, winter in the Pontiac countryside would be impossible without adequate, serious protection. Here in our neck of Québec’s wintery woods, we must be hardy and here, truly, “mon pays, c’est vraiement l’hiver.” We need to stock our vehicles with emergency gear because if the going gets perilous on either Highway 148 or the backroads, our lives can be at risk. Folks like you and me expand to Michelin-like proportions as we don our snowmobile suits, arctic boots, toques and mittens before heading outside.

And choring takes on daunting proportions in winter. It’s hard labour to keep pastured livestock fed and watered during the long, cold months where watering troughs can freeze solid all too quickly. And it’s not just cold for farmers. What about outdoor workers from Hydro Québec? What about those hardy souls who stagger through drifts to refill our thirsty oil tanks?

Yes, winter continues to define us.

Whatever the language, whatever the century, winter defies us with freezing, cold weather.

And we have to realize in 2001 that technology cannot save us from nature: sure, some who are so-inclined and who can afford it can hop a plane for a palm-tree-studded beach. And undeniably, clever inventions can help us cope with winter, whether we live in cities or in the Pontiac coountryside.

In his book, Grescoe notes, “Year after year, Environment Canada tells us average winter temperatures are reaching record highs… Among the world’s scientists — particularly those whose research isn’t subsidized by fossil fuel companies — there’s a growing consensus that unstabilized levels of greenhouse gases, by raising temperatures, will likely lead to extreme weather events. In Québec, that means floods, freezing rain, heavy snowstorms.”

By all accounts, Grescoe’s right. Here at our farm in 1998 we enjoyed the novelty of six days without power while nestled in our wood-stove comfort. Easy for us to say, without livestock to water and feed. But we wouldn’t care to repeat that situation often.

Will we? Indicators point to more winters of freezing rain. This means more power outages, certainly until powerlines are buried underground or until technology “saves us from ourselves.”

As if.

However, unlike Québec “snowbird” migrants, our winged songbirds aren’t so fortunate. The cerulean warbler is on Canada’s national list of endangered species… one of our Québec warblers that some of you may know. Human beings are destroying its natural habitat, not only here in the province, but also its southern wintering grounds in South America.

The Canadian Nature Federation (CNF) website ( )informs us that a “significant wintering area under threat is in northern Ecuador in Mindo ­- the first Latin American site to be designated as a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). Mindo received this designation because of its large concentration of bird species — it is home to nearly 5 per cent (450) of the world’s 10.000 species, including 30 that are found nowhere else.”

How is Canada, and therefore us, linked to Mindo? The CNF site explains: “A decision made recently by Ecuadorian President Gustavo Noboa to consider building a pipeline through Mindo will place these birds in greater peril. A Canadian company, Alberta Energy Company, along with a consortium of U.S., Italian, Spanish, Argentinian and Ecuadorian oil companies, is playing a key role. Ironically, some of these companies that are about to wreak havoc in one of the most important wilderness areas in South America pride themselves for their support of biodiversity projects.”

Winter defines me; defines you. How you and I choose to act, as human beings, may largely be a matter of personal choice. What the warblers can do is not: they adapt or perish. Canadians are implicated participants in the process of habitat destruction.

Now that 2001 has dawned, I suppose all of us would agree now that the New Millennium has arrived. Will we finally learn, this millennium, that our actions define not only ourselves, but directly affect the natural world in which we live?


Katharine Fletcher is a writer based near Quyon, Québec. Contact her at, check out her website at, else read her column at