Ottawa: The City the Snow Day Fairy Forgot

So, Ottawa had a full day of cold, wet, blowy snow yesterday. It started some time during the night and never stopped.

Leading the radio’s newscast first thing in the morning was the expected announcement that no school buses would be running anywhere in the Ottawa area.

As usual, however, all schools were open and teachers, librarians, custodians and other school staff along with non-bussing students were expected to be at school.

So, the buses are off the road because of unsafe, hazardous road conditions that make travelling risky, but everyone not taking a school bus has to take on that risk?


Where did this policy come from that Ottawa schools will never close? The policy also seems to extend to workplaces. My workplace has never closed in living memory of anyone I work with.

Is there some sort of bet on with Calgary to see which city is more macho or something?

In Halifax, they closed up the whole town whenever the weather was bad or even threatened to get bad. Schools closed, government offices closed, most businesses closed and the buses stopped running. Halifax city hall’s thinking was to just get as many people as possible off the streets so the roadways could be cleared quickly. They also reckoned that with people staying home, emergency crews could spend their time addressing real emergencies instead of spending all their time digging yet another car or bus out of a snow bank or responding to weather-related traffic accidents.

I was speaking with a teacher today and she said Ottawa’s “we never close” policy was for economic reasons – that if everyone stayed home, the city would lose too much money. I don’t know if she was speculating or had some inside information. Mainly, she was royally pissed at having to spend hours getting to school in the morning when only a handful of kids would be there and no real school work could be conducted anyway. She basically spent the day babysitting. Then she had to stand around for more hours in the afternoon waiting for buses that never came because OC Transpo buses can’t make it up even the slightest grade when the roads are slippery with snow because they have no snow tires.***

Other cities close schools and businesses and even suspend public transportation services when weather conditions get bad. Why not Ottawa? Does anyone know?

I mean, gee willikers, Snow Days are a tradition. An unexpected treat to be anticipated and savoured — a little bonus for living in a climate like this.


*** Note:  Though there are lots of delays and buses running off the road during winter storms, I must give kudos to the intrepid drivers who manage to handle those big, tractionless vehicles and keep so many of them moving. Especially since they didn’t get a lot of winter driving practice in last year — Zing.


32 responses to “Ottawa: The City the Snow Day Fairy Forgot

  1. My Metro Vancouver school district has this policy, believe it or not: in case of extreme weather, they will close the schools but only for all students. Teachers, office staff, custodial staff etc are all still expected to show up for work. And if you can’t get to your own school, you are supposed to somehow get to the school nearest to your home. To do what with whom? They don’t specify that part …

  2. Doesn’t this beg the question? If everyone stays at home so that the roads can be cleared more easily, who is driving on those cleared roads?

    I’m not salaried, so if my office closes, I don’t work, and I don’t get paid. That would not make me a happy camper, especially since I live relatively close to my office.

    – RG>

  3. Down here when they close schools the teachers usually still have to work. They make them do what they call ‘in service training days.’

  4. We are opposites! If 400 snowflakes fall here, everyone goes insane and all schools, colleges and churches close, as well as many businesses. Maybe its because we don’t have snow tires. Or maybe it’s because Texans are CRAZY.

  5. I miss blizzards – it’s been 15 years since I lived in Winnipeg and experienced real snow. Lived in Vancouver for just shy of two years and both winters when there was a light dusting the entire city shut down. Steep grades and no snow tires will do that.

  6. To be fair, the one time I’ve seen Halifax shut down there was about 2′ of snow, rather than the 6″ or so that we saw here by yesterday afternoon.

  7. I battled my way through the snow yesterday to get to the daycare I was working at for the day, which is located within an elementary school. With the buses not running, I was shocked by how many kids were actually in attendance, but then I remembered that the school was in a high-needs area of the city. A lot of the families are so poor (and/or challenged by mental illness, addiction, etc), the kids get their only solid meal of the day at daycare and their only peace and stability at school. So I understand why these places stayed open.

    That said, I could have done without having to drive there myself yesterday! I am lucky that my boss trusts us to call our own shots, so I went home early to avoid having my little car snowed into the parking lot.


  8. Even at the Widget Factory, we got a partial snow day. At 3:00 PM, they told us to go home. Which, in my five years of working there, I’d NEVER seen before.

    I mean, if we got a partial snow day, I’d figure ANYONE would.

    But apparently not Ottawa.

    But then again, our Nation’s Capital is seat of the Federal Govt.

    If all those Civil Servants stopped working for even one day, the whole country would (*snicker*) grind to a halt.

  9. i’ve been away on training all week with 2 folks from Halifax, I swear they were slack jawed by the end of the day yesterday – they just couldn’t believe a) we were still expected to sit through the training and b) that we were all so calm about it.
    meanwhile back at work our director released everyone at 2:30. i feel like i missed out.

  10. Pinklea – Oh. That’s even worse than Ottawa’s policy. At least there are always a few local kids at most of the schools to babysit. I guess you can all get caught up on your marking and lesson planning and stuff? It’s insane though since you could do all that stuff at home without risking your life.

    Grouchy – Well, people will be driving on the cleared roads after they’re cleared. Like the next day maybe? How do you clear roads when they’re bumper to bumper traffic that’s spinning its wheels and slipping and sliding off the sides so that when you plow the roads you dump slush and snow and ice all over the abandoned cars? I’m also not suggesting EVERY business shut its doors. In Ottawa if we can get the school people and the government people off the roads that’s 90% of the battle right there.

    Dr. Monkey – We have in service training days or PD days, too. Are you talking about when they close schools because of inclement weather (Do they even have that down there?)

    Geewits – I didn’t even know ya’ll got any snow. Snow can be pretty trecherous if you don’t know how to drive in it and don’t have the right tires on your big Texas Hummers. When those things spin out of control….well, I guess nothing much happens to them – except they probably take out a few bungalows and trees as they go.

    Sean – Well, brace yourself for Ottawa, dude. I’m sure Winnipeg has us beat all to hell as far as shitty weather goes, but we make a pretty good winter showing.

    Matt – Yes, for the whole city to shut down it needed more than a few inches of snow, but they would definitely have shut the schools in weather like this and for sure government offices would have closed, if not first thing in the morning then by noon. I’m not suggesting the entire city shuts down at the first hint of bad weather. That would be crazy. And I’m not crazy. Not completely crazy anyway.

    J – There may be good reasons for keeping all the schools open, I don’t know. I know if all the kids had to stay home then someone would have to be home to look after them, which could cause a chain of difficulties. And there are situations like you’ve pointed out All in all it just seems crazy to force so many people out in their cars in conditions like that.

    Friar – HA! See, and yesterday morning you were all grumbly because you thought us government types had gotten the day off and instead it turns out that the widget world threw in the towel. Well, well, well. The only time anyone in my office ever remembers the place closing is during the legendary “ice storm” and that was only because there was no heat or water or electricity or something and we have pretty strict rules about people working in the dark in temperatures below zero.

    Meanie – Ha ha – I know, I felt the same way my first winter here. “What do you mean we don’t get snow days?” I yelled. And the next day everyone coming in talking about how it took them 4 hours to get home like it was some sort of badge of honour. It’s retarded. Our office was open to the bitter end of the day.

  11. I was talking to a teacher during a blizzard on an OC Transpo bus a couple of years ago and she told me that the reason the schools stay open during blizzards is because of the funding formula. The province pays each school on a per diem basis for the number of days it’s open each year. If they close the school, they lose that day’s money. The buses don’t run because of the potential safety risks to children (and potential lawsuits), and the schools are essentially non-functioning during blizzards. Even the non-bused kids mostly don’t go. But teachers are expected to risk their lives getting there solely so that the day’s funding is not sacrificed.

    That would really piss me off if I were a teacher.

  12. I’m expected to get to work no matter the weather. I can be late, but I still need to be there. Because, you know, the world will come to an end if this lowly accounting clerk isn’t at her desk for the day.

  13. I know….it still amazes me.

    But we’re in the middle of Butt-Chuck nowhere. Pretty much everyone has a commute ranging from 25-100 km on a blustery highway.

    So it would have made SENSE to allow us to drive home in the daylight, to be a bit safer.

    That’s what frigthens me the most .

    Big Brother at the Factory actually did something that made SENSE.

  14. I have never ever had a snow day. Then again I guess it comes from Prairie toughness.

    In all fairness in Saskatchewan it’s extremely rare that we get all that much snow, usually it’s too cold to snow.

    We did fairly often have recesses indoors, and weren’t allowed outside due to the windchill.

    (This was back when they used a real windchill factor (above 1800) and not this whole “feels like” stuff. That’s a rant for another time…)

    Anyways that was my experience, I never had a snow day ever during my time in school.

  15. I moved to Ottawa from Sudbury in early summer of 1997, where we did get the odd snow day and my employer, the provincial gov’t, would tell us not to come in. When I arrived here to start work for the feds, I asked a co-worker if there were ever days that the federal gov’t closed down due to weather. She shot me a whithering look and proceeded to tell me that this was the FEDERAL government, and not some pissant provincial government that would close down at the first sign of snow. Anybody remember January 1998?? Along came the ice storm and we stayed home for 4 or 5 days.

    I’m lucky in that it’s easy for me to work from home. During the winter, I always take work home with me, and if the weather is going to be horrible, I just work at home. It’s much more productive for me to be working rather than spending 2 hours on my usual 50-minute commute. That being said, I did come in yesterday for meetings (and a lunch date.)

  16. Zoom – Well, it only makes sense that money is behind anything that doesn’t make any other kind of sense. How do other school boards manage it? Even other Ontario school boards? Doesn’t all their funding come from the same place? Or do the other schools care more about their employees’ safety than they do about losing a day’s worth of cash?

    Sky – You must not be looking forward to going back to work. Is there no way you can avoid that daily grind?

    Friar – Could this be the beginning of a whole new widget management style?

    Ellie – How very humane of you. Was it supposed to snow? Or were they just afraid that kids were going to get blown into traffic by the winds? Kids ARE pretty light.

    Justin – Man, that sucks. An entire school career without a snow day? And then you have to have indoor recess on top of everything else? That truly sucks. Really. I feel sorry for you. An unexpected day off every once in a while may not seem like a big deal, but boy, it’s better than Christmas (especially the Christmases we used to have — see Tuesday’s post)

    Alison – Stop rubbing it in that you braved driving for 2 hours in a blizzard to go have lunch with your “friends” just a couple of days after stiffing US on a perfectly lovely day for some made-up pretend reason like your dog ate your distributor cap or something. Sheesh. OKAY already. We get the message.

  17. In Renfrew County when I was growing up even if the schools closed the teachers and staff still had to go to school. That generally meant that I still had to go to school, since my parents were teachers (at least until I got old enough that I could just stay home on my own).

    Anyway, I would end up being one of the 20 or 30 kids in the whole school who actually made it in. The rest were either kids of other teachers, or kids who lived within walking distance whose parents sent them off to school despite the fact that school was canceled. Apparently the schools weren’t allowed to just turn us away. Can’t remember what we’d end up doing, but I remember it was soooooooo boooooooring. Or at least that’s what I told my parents at the end of the day.

  18. Just read Zoom’s comment…yes, that’s right. Our schools never actually canceled classes. They only ever canceled the school buses. And in rural Renfrew County where 98% of the kids are bused to school, that pretty much cancels classes without ACTUALLY canceling classes.

    I remember some pretty harrowing drives into town so that my parents could get themselves to work on snow days.

  19. And when do we get time to shovel our driveways??

    I have been out 4 times in the past 24 hours for a total of 2 and a half hours. I’m done with winter. ALTHOUGH, the commute IS a lot nicer this year than it was last year at this time. 😉

  20. Ice storm? What ice storm? Oh, that’s right, I was in Texas during that. 😉

    Actually, it snowed there, too, on the day before we arrived. In “The Sun City” El Paso. And despite it only being about a half an inch or so, the lawns were big enough for someone to muster up a snowman. The news people were all like “AAAHH! SNOW! STAY IN YOUR HOMES!”, meanwhile us Canucks were walking to the corner store in our spring jackets.

    On the way back, the delays were in Chicago, not Ottawa.

    – RG>

  21. Zoom is correct. If a school is closed, the province deducts the equivalent of one day of grants.
    Plus, school is needed for those parents who must work and can’t afford to pay for daycare, or even find it on short notice.

    I grew up in Northeastern Ontario, where winter is much more harsh than in Ottawa. I don’t recall ever having a snow day, although on a few occasions, the buses couldn’t make it in, so rural kids were absent. And buses would be on the roads, despite temperatures often flirting with the -40 mark (which is where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge).

    However, during a particularly cold snap a few years back, I kept hearing of buses not running. Being the good, inquisitive little newsman that I am, I inquired, and was told that diesel fuel turns to jelly at -38C. So that happens at actual temperatures below that, because the moving bus gets colder. When we were kids, all the buses were powered by gasoline.

  22. I suppose this is what you get for locating your capital city in a terribly inhospitable place. If not for Queen Victoria, we might all be living somewhere nicer.

  23. Mary Lynn – How odd. I lived up near Barrie one year in ski country where it snows pretty much every day and they cancelled schools all the time. That winter I was there I think the kids were home more than they were at school. And there’s poor you with never having a school day.

    Jazz – Really? Didn’t you say on your blog yesterday that schools were closed? Or was that buses?

    Jodes22 – If you have that much of a driveway, I’d hire someone to come and do it. Driveway shovelling is like housework — it can be satisfying once in a while, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s worth the $$ to pay someone else to do it.

    Grouchy – I’m sure we’d be freaking out if we were in Texas in mid-summer, too, when the heat is over 100F day after day after day. Were you there in the summer?

    Bob – Actually, for the most part, it’s not cold that makes driving conditions hazardous. I read that although people try to deny it, our climate IS changing to the extent that winters aren’t as cold as they used to be so that there are more freezing rain and slush conditions on roads on a regular basis which is much more hazardous for driving than straight up sub-sub zero temperatures or cold snow. So there may not have been the need for “snow days” several decades ago that there is now. Of course when it gets to -40 or -50 they also advise young children and old people not to go outdoors at all because their delicate hearts, lungs and skin can’t take it.

    Milan – Canada should get back on that plan to buy the Turks and Caicos Islands and make the nation’s capital down there. All us poor federal government employees would have to move, of course…

  24. Couldn’t we just move the capital to Victoria, B.C.? Sure, it would require enlarging the city a lot, but we would only have to deal with a couple of snowy days, most years.

  25. Well, I can’t contribute much here. I live in Edinburgh and we are so pathetic that more than 3 flakes of snow falling anywhere near us causes the whole city to grind to a halt.

  26. Milan – Ya, but think of all the travelling that would need to be done when Directors and Managers from other parts of the country have to get to the Capital for all their important meetings and conferences. It’s one thing for everyone to fly to Ottawa, but quite another for them all to have to fly to Vancouver and then to Victoria. And they’d find so many more reasons to have meetings in Victoria than they do in Ottawa. Of course Turks and Caicos would be even worse.

    Loth – Quite right, too! Everything SHOULD grind to a halt in the winter. Who wants to walk to work first thing in the morning, in the dark, in minus 15 degrees with the wind whipping shards of snow into your face?

  27. It’s one of those weird things. One of my coworkers sent around an email asking what we planned to do if the schools were closed… I replied that I can’t remember that ever happening. (I think the last time was the ice storm in what… 1998?)

  28. Probably someone has said this, but if the school closes, the school board does not get the money for an instruction day. This was true when I was a trustee, anyway, and I hated it but we left the schools open. Principals knew which teachers could easily make it and who could not and the teachers who could get in supervised the few intrepid students who walked or were driven in and, in an unwritten policy, got breaks at other times.
    I taught in Hamilton in the late sixties. I lived in Dundas (below mountain, west) and taught above mountain, about as far east as you could go and not be in Stoney Creek. It took me two hours to get to school on bad snow days because every access up and down the escarpment would be clogged by bad drivers with bald tires. Not a good scene.
    I do not understand why the city cannot equip the buses with good tires. Typical City of Ottawa government.

  29. i can still conjure the “snow day” excitement, a special treat like the ice cream truck 🙂

    the school not closing is ridiculous, and even more so the office you work in.

    you canadians are hard core.

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