Commentary  Pouring cash into snowbanks

We’re great at snow removal, but increasingly, little else

I was five years old when my father woke me up in the middle of the night insisting that I watch the wonder that is Montreal snow removal. Being that he’s from the Netherlands, and has an affinity for trains, my father was gaga over the monster machines, their precision, and the sheer magnitude of the operation. His enthusiasm was infectious. Decades later, and despite many misgivings, I still can’t help taking pause to admire the one thing we definitely do right in this part of the world: snow removal. Instead of lauding what are increasingly embarrassing social programs like “education” and “health care,” maybe we should start touting our  mind blowing ability to plow snow.

There is a whole lot wrong with the entire premise of snow plowing. Canada spends about $1 billion per year largely clearing the way for cars. In Montreal alone, it’s an annual average of $145 million. Most of that is spent making it easier for 1.3 million cars to circulate through Montreal’s streets every day. In the long run, it would be nice to get rid of most car traffic in the city, but until that day never comes, it’s a losing battle for pedestrians and cyclists who are left to navigate mountains of snow and lakes of slush created as the way is cleared for their vehicular enemy. The way we plow continues to support the primacy of the motor vehicle over all other forms of transportation.

The cars aren’t without complaint either. As the city of Montreal’s Snow Removal 101 website gladly informs us, snow removal occurs in four phases, only one of which is actually removal. Until then, snow is simply pushed to the sides of roads and sidewalks so traffic can flow. Woe to you who might be parked – you are likely to find yourself digging out of a snowbank. If not, then you’ve probably parked long enough to be towed in the process, and were the unhappy recipient of a $117 ticket.

Pollution is a problem too. In the name of fuel efficiency, the more than 2,500 machines performing Montreal’s snow removal are exempt from strict emissions regulations. The “melters” (largely salt) used to thaw ice and snow can contaminate fresh water and soil.

On top of all this, almost every year, a few people are put to pasture by snow plows – some of the accidents are gruesome, and most Montreal pedestrians have likely had a brush with death at the hands of some kind of deadly snow removing contraption.

Last but not least is the wide variety of property damage that plowing creates. In that category, the favourite perennial complaint is the pothole: the more and better our plowing, the deeper and deadlier are our famous craters.

Despite its many shortcomings, snow removal is, to some degree, a necessary public service, and we do it exceptionally well. I was recently in the Netherlands and it was pandemonium after only a few centimetres fell. The country’s traffic was crippled for days. They were so unprepared that they ran out of salt and the country’s roads turned into skating rinks. Even the militant bicycling culture was sidelined. When I tried to relay to my relatives how absurd this seems to a Canadian because we have such breathtaking plowing, they had no idea what I was talking about.

So, I’d like to nominate our snow removal for addition to the list of things Canadians brag about to the world. Because our previously world famous social systems – health care and education, in particular – are being systematically dismantled and privatized, I’m not satisfied that all we’re left with is hockey, Tim Horton’s, beavers, politeness, our shitty climate, and not being American.

We need a solid public service on that list. Since the automobile and oil and gas industries evidently aren’t going anywhere, and climate change only seems to be making our winters more erratic, I bet our remarkable snow removal will be around for the long haul. So let’s secure our place as the goofy, backwards north, and start bragging about how we kick winter’s ass with remarkable speed and efficiency by pouring money into snowbanks instead of, well, everything else. We certainly don’t have much else to show the world at the moment. ο