When people call British Columbia “Lotos Land” or “the California of Canada,” they’re not just talking about the alternative cultures or the casual standards of dress. They’re also talking about the weather in the southwest corner of the province, which has fewer extremes of heat or cold than anywhere else in Canada.
Unfortunately, this reputation has one overwhelming problem: the locals believe it more than the tourists.
Most of the year, this delusion is harmless. Anyone who has lived here for more than a few years is unlikely to carry an umbrella, much less wear rain boots, but the weather is mild enough that going through the day slightly soggy is no great hardship – especially since half the locals have stripped down to shorts and T-shirts at the first sign of the temperature inching above five degrees, so that no dry cleaning bill is involved.
However, denial of rain is one thing, and denial of snow another. Because the average winter has only a few weeks of snow – and, every few years, none at all – the general population has convinced itself that the region never suffers snow at all. Every year, a majority of drivers resist adding snow tires to their cars at the end of October. It isn’t unheard of for local municipalities to forget to set aside money for snow removal, or to run through the entire budget for that line item halfway through winter. And only in the Vancouver area could the provincial government pay $3.3 billion for a bridge so badly designed that snow and ice falling from the cables is a major danger to traffic.
Consequently, the first half centimeter of the season sends the entire region into a panic more commonly reserved for a visit by a radioactive monster from the sea. Within an hour of the first flakes falling, the downtown core is deserted, except for the people crowding the Skytrain stations waiting to flee. Often, they have a long wait because, true to regional form, the system wasn’t designed to minimize the effect of ice on the tracks. One memorable year, the doors iced shut, and a uniquely Canadian solution had to be found – beating the doors with hockey sticks to knock the ice off.
Meanwhile, on the roads, the refugees from the office towers are demonstrating their total ignorance of physics, sliding over the snow in their summer tires and slamming on the brakes every thirty meters. Soon, cars are being abandoned in the middle of the road. Occasionally, someone from back east can be seen holding themselves upright on the frozen lampposts, unable to stand because of the helpless laughter that has possessed them as a few stray flakes of snow cripple a city. The easterners have seen real snow storms, and driven in them, too.
The next day, as likely as not, half the city will take the day off on the excuse that no one can get into work. This response to the weather fits well with the casual work ethic, but it’s not just an excuse. The chances are that only the major roads have been ploughed overnight, and getting to them can take hours.
Even if you leave your car at home, your odds of getting anywhere are remote. No municipality clears sidewalks, insisting that home and store owners must do so. Most do not.
As for public transit, forget it. You’re lucky if a few extra buses or Skytrain cars are put into service. And, even if you are lucky enough to find a place on a bus that takes you where you need to go, water is running over its floor as slick as any ice, and the steam rising from people’s clothing leaves you half-blind and disgusted by the prevailing levels of personal hygiene. All you can do is bury your face in the old scarf you hastily pulled from the bottom of the closet last night and do your best to avoid eye contact.
All this is discouraging enough, but it gets worse. Of those who stay home, few will spend the extra leisure winterizing their cars. Instead, what happens is that most people get an unexpected holiday, and the snow disappears in a freezing deluge of rain that floods the streets for a day or two.
Then, like trauma victims everywhere, the locals promptly forget their experiences. A few weeks later, they go through the whole experience with the same details, and again a few weeks after that, until the cherry blossoms appear, and the regional delusion comes slowly into some kind of rough sync with the weather and reality.