It was the kind of snowy day that called for the tallest boots and the fluffiest mittens. A day of type shovel three times. Stay home and don’t risk the hike outside until the snow stops in the day. The guy Toronto simply doesn’t see too often, and the one who’s sure to make his way into the history books.
As of 7 p.m., 36 cm of snow had been officially recorded in downtown Toronto, while Pearson International Airport reported 33 cm had fallen.
Vehicles were stranded in the GTA on Monday for up to eight hours as the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway were closed under pressure. Canada Post service has been suspended for much of the province. The TTC struggled throughout the day, with many stranded buses seen in the city. Toronto library branches, COVID-19 vaccination clinics and outdoor skating rinks were among the closures. About a third of arrivals and departures from Pearson airport have been cancelled.
And, perhaps most painfully for many families, a long-awaited return to the classroom was scuttled after weeks of online learning forced by Omicron concerns.
“It really is a one-day wonder,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada.
The storm’s exact ranking in the history books depends on where — like downtown, the airport, or the waterfront — you’re measuring. Many over the decades have brought fewer inches but more carnage. For example, no deaths had been reported on Monday evening.
But, according to Alan MacEachern, professor of history at Western University, there’s no question the storm was a “unifier” for Ontario. It is quite unusual, he said, for snow to fall on most parts of the province simultaneously with such a vengeance.
We checked the Star’s archives, with some context from MacEachern, to see how this one measured up.
December 11, 1944
Current record holder for the most snowfall in a single day, this war blizzard is considered “the worst snowstorm Toronto has ever seen”, according to a Toronto Daily Star report from that day. Nine people died during the storm — likely caused by the exertion of walking or shoveling, MacEachern said — which dropped 19 inches of snow. Deliveries of bread, milk and other goods were made on a restricted and emergency basis only or were stopped altogether.
Storms like this are pretty rare now, MacEachern said, because the city is essentially a heat island.
This storm of war presented unique challenges for the city, as many men were absent and women worked in factories to support their overseas efforts, he noted.
Factories producing ammunition and other war materials were closed for a few days as the city was snowed in, and the city called in volunteers – probably women – to shovel the city streets, a task that was being carried out by hand with shovels rather than modern snowplows.
February 25, 1965
Responsible for at least 10 deaths and six heart attacks as people trudged through snowdrifts, the storm has been called the “worst snowstorm in 21 years”. Dropping 39.9 cm of snow on the city, this 1965 storm left abandoned cars strewn on Toronto’s highways and closed schools early. The cleanup, estimated at $1 million, took most of the week. Eric Cross, former attorney general and minister of municipal affairs for Ontario, died in Woodstock, Ont., while trying to walk from his broken down car to his home.
Meanwhile, 16 employees of Di Walt Sales Ltd. were taken to hospital after being exposed to carbon monoxide due to snow blocking the plant’s exhaust vents.
January 2, 1999
One of three major snowfalls in a 14-day period, the infamous 1999 storm dropped 38cm in one day, prompting Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman to call in the military to help him clean the city of its meter of accumulated snow. A total of 550 soldiers were deployed to help with the shoveling and plowing, sparking a memorable mockery of the city as Canadians criticized the decision.
“I think he had to,” Phillips said. “I always defended (Lastman) on that.”
MacEachern isn’t quick to defend Lastman’s decision to call in the military or declare a state of emergency, calling it “excess.”
In 1998 Quebec had an ice storm so big they called in the army. “Maybe Mel Lastman thought it was the (Toronto) ice storm 12 months later.”
There’s one key detail about this blizzard that people might want to keep in mind: An entire year’s worth of snow fell on the city in just one month, Phillips said. On average, Toronto sees about 110 cm of snow every year. In 1999, January alone was 118 cm.
“It was weird because it wasn’t a single storm,” MacEachern said. “It was a few storms piled on top of each other over the course of two weeks.”
The storm cleanup cost $14 million.
January 23, 1966
Toronto spent $500,000 and a week clearing 36.8 cm of snow during this storm. The airport closed for more than 16 hours and 200 flights were cancelled, stranding 7,000 passengers who were forced to seek alternative transport.
At least five people have died of heart attacks caused by shoveling snow.
Meanwhile, a snow-melting machine rented by the city failed miserably at its job, suffering multiple breakdowns. Many skied to where they needed to go, something Torontonians still do today.
November 30, 1940
The streetcars were busy with “the heaviest crowds in years,” a Toronto Daily Star article said of that 1940 storm that dumped 33.5cm of snow. Drivers left their cars at home and headed for public transit, which was running behind schedule, the newspaper reported.
Two were killed during the storm, one of whom died after falling in front of a streetcar crossing Lakeshore Ave. The other died of a heart attack. Five were treated in hospital for falls related to snow and ice.
With files from Astrid Lange, Dorcas Marfo and Ivy Mak
Clarification — January 18, 2022: This article has been updated to remove a sentence incorrectly stating the total amount of snowfall recorded in Toronto.
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