by Jon Malek
A new Filipino immigrant to Winnipeg stepped off the plane, took a look around his new home province, and muttered, “Man, ito ba?”
Manitoba and the Canadian Prairies are often the targets of jokes, both from residents and those living in other provinces. For some, the long, endless prairies; short, hot summers; and long, cold winters have no appeal. But the truth of it is that there are a lot of good things in Manitoba. It is a glorious thing to be able to go 15 minutes outside of Winnipeg and see the point where the land and sky meet. And while I have never truly become “used” to the deep cold (or snow banks) of a prairie winter, I also never tire of fall in Winnipeg.
At this time of the year, I often think of those welcome newcomers to our city, especially those who have never experienced an autumn or winter here. This time of year presents a number of challenges to immigrants in the city, especially those who are not forewarned about what to expect and how best to prepare for it. There is nothing new about this. In the first year of the Red River Settlement – the first major European settlement in what is now Manitoba – settlers rushed to build proper living quarters to stave off temperatures that fell as low as -50º C. Indeed, many of France’s first colonies in North America in the 1600s failed because the colonists were unprepared for the harsh winter conditions, and those who survived had to rely on the help of the earlier-arrived Dutch settlers in what is now New York, or the local indigenous populations.
Sometimes, information about what to expect when that plane lands in Canada is unclear or mixed up. I heard one immigrant to Ontario from Latin America tell a story about how all their friends and family warned them about how cold Canada was. Listening to this advice, the family disembarked the plane wearing winter coats, snow pants, boots, gloves and toques. Unfortunately, it was early August and the temperatures were well above 25º C. While stories like this are told with a sense of humour (especially many years after), other experiences aren’t always so. In some of my interviews with community members, I’ve heard stories of how families were unprepared for just how cold it got. Of course, the meaning of cold is relative; to a Winnipeger, “cold” might be lower than -20º C; for someone from Southern Ontario, below -10º C is “cold” (to be fair, Toronto area winters are very humid and chill the bones!); but for someone from Manila, for example, “cold” might mean staying overnight in Baguio City. Recent Filipino immigrants to the city often have family or friends already living here to help them adjust, but sometimes simple facts like how much one should wear on a cold day is not shared. This time of year can be a little deceiving and even confusing for some. For example, yesterday the temperature rose well above 20º C, yet as I write this now I’m wearing a sweater with my home’s central heating on as I tuck in from the cold fall day outside.
One must be ready for the coming winter though, because dangers such as frostbite are real and can occur fairly quickly. For those who rely on public transit for transportation, this is a particularly a concern, especially as Winnipeg Transit continues to struggle with its bus fleet and waiting times may continue to be longer than usual at bus stops. To prepare for Winnipeg winter, it is best to ensure that you and your children are properly dressed: this includes a well insulated pair of boots with a good grip and dry socks; warm pants and even an extra layer of snow pants; a proper winter jacket and sweater underneath; and a good pair of winter gloves and a toque to cover your head and ears (balaclavas are also nice, covering your whole face). In short, layer up! Cover up! Frost can happen quicker than we can realize, especially with children, and with Manitoba’s notorious wind chill, one must be prepared. Also, it is safest to avoid clothing made of cotton, especially for children – cotton absorbs moisture quickly (like melting snow on gloves), and dries slowly in the cooler temperatures, meaning wet clothes. New winter clothes can be expensive, so don’t hesitate to ask those you know if they have extra clothing, or to visit used clothing stores such as Value Village and Salvation Army.
Those who live here call Winnipeg, Winter-Peg for a reason. Just like autumn, with the changing colours and falling leaves, winter can be a beautiful time of year. For me, there is nothing much more magical than the year’s first snowfall or waking up to hoarfrost on your trees outside. I know I’m not alone in this; time and again I’ve heard how new immigrants to the city have relished the city’s first snow fall, experienced how much fun skating on the Red River in December for the first time is, and indeed how Filipinos quickly adapt to winter like pros. One community member has even told me that, after having lived in Canada for so long, they are no longer able to take the heat of the Philippines.
Weather is truly an aspect of integrating into a new country. Getting used to the changing, and quite frankly crazy, weather patterns of Manitoba is part of the process of becoming “Canadian.” And when you consider that newcomers from the Philippines are coming from a tropical climate, it is understandable why Anita Chen in 1998 titled her book on Filipino immigration to Canada From Sunbelt to Snowbelt. While weather may not define a person, exposure and acclimatization to drastically different weather patterns make up part of the immigrant experience. Being prepared for and informed about Winnipeg winters will allow new Filipino families to create cherished memories of their first snowfall (and, sorry to say, first ridiculous Winnipeg blizzard), first ice skating, and time-old practices of tobogganing, having a snowball fight, or making snowmen.
Welcome to Winter-Peg! As part of my ongoing research on the Filipino community in Winnipeg, I would love to hear your experiences of winter in Winnipeg. You can easily contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories, suggestions for others, or questions.
The following are some useful links for those who are new to Winnipeg and are about to experience their first winter. Please share these links widely.
- http://ec.gc.ca/meteo-weather/default.asp?lang=En&n=46FBA88B-1 - What natural winter hazards one might expect.
- http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/5-tips-for-keeping-warm-during-a-canadian-winter-1.1345737 - Some excellent tips for dressing in Canada’s winters.
- http://www.wrha.mb.ca/wave/2010/12/old-man-winter.php - Dressing for winter and protecting your health.
- http://www.gov.mb.ca/safety/winter/ - General links from the Province of Manitoba on winter living.
- http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/wintsafe.htm - Some advice from the University of Michigan on safety while enjoying winter activities
- http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/4862.asp - Winter sport safety for children.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.