Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Quit Complaining – It’s Only Winter! 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, February 3 / 14

Zack Gross

My wife made me change the channel away from the Jets game last night to the Rick Mercer Report on CBC, so that I would watch his weekly “Rant.” 

They are always insightful and cheeky, vintage Rick Mercer, and usually pillory a government policy or a particular politician.  This time, his target was all of us Canadians who are aghast at the “old-time” winter we have been suffering through.  His final volley:  “People!  It’s not a Polar Vortex!  It’s just winter!!”

Some might argue that it is more than “just winter,” as many places are receiving frost or snowfalls where they have never existed before.  In recent weeks, Central and South America have suffered major export crop losses due to frost.  Atlanta school children slept at their desks overnight last week after a heavy snowfall meant that it was unsafe for buses to take them home.  Climate change anyone?

My long career in international development has “acclimatized” me to the struggles of migrants coming from tropical climates to our province as students or to stay, work and live here permanently.  As well, I’ve seen what happens to Manitobans who go and live long-term in those warmer parts of our world. 

I was Skyping with my youngest daughter who is working in Nairobi, Kenya for Engineers without Borders, and has been there about eight months.  She was wearing a sweater and scarf and complaining about their cold +20 degree day while my wife and I were sitting in Manitoba at -20 degrees and thinking that we were experiencing a warm spell!

We’ve hosted visitors to Manitoba from Africa and Latin America over the years.  A couple of years ago, on a lovely June evening, people from Tanzania who have connected with the Marquis Project for the past two decades visited our home and we brought together many of their Canadian friends and supporters for a barbecue. 

The Africans, by mid-evening, were borrowing our heavy jackets and even parkas when a breeze came up!

I remember one winter where Brandon-Westman churches hosted a speaker from Guatemala, Central America.  After he and I had driven around the rural areas for a week, getting stuck in snowdrifts and enduring freezing winds, he said that only the Guatemalan army made him more fearful than a Manitoba winter.

Currently, working and teaching in Winnipeg and the Interlake, I meet many students and recent immigrants from all over Africa and Asia in particular.  Of course, the first question many of these folks are asked is:  “Is this your first winter?”  You can tell that they now expect the question and have devised polite answers in case by not liking winter, they will offend their new Manitoba friends and colleagues. 

Our climate is toughest on those who actually arrive to study at the start of the January university or college term.  They have no time to get used to the weather by going through autumn into freeze-up.  Many of them describe our cold as “painful” and they wear many layers to keep warm.  I met with a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo the other day, who wore his regular clothes, then a sweater, then a leather jacket and finally a parka.  When our meeting ended, he couldn’t find his gloves and there was real panic in his eyes! 

Some are more adventurous than others.  They look forward to experiencing their first snowfall and are quick to try skating, snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling and other winter pastimes.  Others lock themselves up in their dorms or apartments fearful of going out and this leads to many challenges, such as homesickness and depression. 

A university student from Pakistan who visited my office talked excitedly about the indoor route that she had discovered that takes her from the University of Winnipeg 95% of the way to my office near the downtown MTS Centre!

Back in the mid-90s, the Marquis Project hosted a group of students and their leaders from the East African country of Uganda.  My kids, very young at the time, still remember this as a magical time, having African “friends” visit in the dead of winter (February, as I recall) and taking part in snowball fights and the other activities that make adults impressed by how kids can turn cold and snow into fun!

So, as Rick Mercer says, it is ONLY winter, although this year’s is a little more challenging than most.  Those of us old enough to remember the blizzards of 1966 or 1986 or 1997 can take heart that all cold things must come to an end!

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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