First winters in Canada can be a shock. How one program is helping newcomers find warmth in the Canadian cold

Paula Sofia Morales still recalls how whimsical her first snowfall in Canada was.

She remembers how the light flakes landed on her hair and palms. She would even kick the fluffy snow on the sidewalk for fun.

But as the frigid weather dragged on, the former international student found herself stuck indoors more often and couldn’t help thinking of her family back home in tropical Guatemala, where winter is associated with rain showers.

“Before coming to Canada, I would hear that seasonal depression was a thing, but I would not understand that. I thought people were just being a bit too dramatic,” says the Toronto woman, who came here in 2018 to study performing arts, arts administration and cultural management.

“As the winter came, I started to understand, because that tied to that loneliness and the fact of not having family or a very tight group of friends in Canada. The winter actually hit a lot harder.”

For many newcomers to Canada, the first winter can be harsh and cold as they struggle to adapt to a new life and watch, from the sidelines, how other Canadians are celebrating and embracing the season.

That’s why Alex Rand and his team at the Bentway wanted to offer a different winter experience for new immigrants arriving in Greater Toronto.

The Bentway, a not-for-profit that runs a skate trail, events and activities under a stretch of the Gardiner Expressway near the Fort York area, has launched its “First Winter” programs to explore newcomers’ experiences of Toronto’s cold season.

“We wanted to reflect on the experience of winter with fresh eyes and fresh perspectives. We think of ice skating as a very classic Canadian experience. So we’re curious to take that a step further and ask what it means to experience winter in Toronto for the first time,” said Rand, programming manager of the Bentway.

“How can we celebrate this time together and bring people around to focus on the warmth and community and connection?”

Visitors skate along the Bentway Skate Trail under the Gardiner in Toronto

The event series runs until Feb. 20 and includes a display of first winter stories by immigrants, newcomer skating lessons, communal dining prepared by immigrant women, a winter clothing drive and a public art installation by artist Shellie Zhang.

Coming from a country where there’s no season like Canada’s winter, Morales said she didn’t know how to dress properly.

“You wake up and it’s grey. You look out the window. It’s nice but there’s no people out. It feels like the world stopped,” said the singer and songwriter, who shared her winter story with the Bentway.

Morales had a tight budget and couldn’t afford to do a lot of fun things. In addition to long walks in her neighbourhood, she would play music in the staircase of her school dormitory to pass the time.

On her first Canadian Christmas holiday, she was invited to spend a week at her hallmate’s family home.

“They’re doing their routine and you’re trying to fit in. They tell you that you can do whatever you want, but at the same time, you don’t feel free to do whatever you want,” Morales recalled. “It’s like a mix of gratefulness with loneliness, with awkwardness and melancholy.”

But, slowly, she has acclimatized to the Canadian winter and taken to sledding, hiking and enjoying the nature in cold weather with her new friends.

“Now when I think of winter, what comes to mind is a sense of renewal and a little bit of reconnecting with myself,” said Morales. “You don’t want to let winter take over and waste four months of your year staying inside.”

Zhang, an accomplished artist, moved to Canada in February with her family from China via the United States. While it’s cold in Beijing, the Canadian winter is much harsher and the snow lingers a lot longer.

When she was approached by the Bentway to do a public art installation for the First Winter series, the idea that came to her mind was the longing for togetherness and the work to welcome newcomers and make Canada a home.

“I wanted to break up this isolating feeling that folks might feel over their first Canadian winter and to draw people to this communal space of gathering,” said Zhang, who moved to the city from Windsor to do visual studies at the University of Toronto in 2009.

“In a city like Toronto, it’s harder and harder to find places where you can gather for free. That’s a big, crucial piece we lose in the winter as well.”

Titled “Beacons,” Zhang’s art installation includes five sculptures of metal and light around the bents — the official name of the concrete columns supporting the elevated roadway — and the metal components are cut out into fire and flamelike elements. The light extension illuminates the details of the concrete structure under the expressway.

“I’m changing that sort of urban jungle, concrete grey into something a little bit more hopeful and bright,” Zhang said.

Pavneet Pal Singh settled in Canada from India in December 2020, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pavneet Pal Singh recalls the first Canadian winter he experienced upon arriving in Brampton from India in December 2020, at the peak of the pandemic when he struggled to land a job in his adopted country.

With all the health restrictions and lockdown, he found himself stuck in a house with four other newcomers in the suburbs. Together, they decided to chip in and buy a table tennis table to kill time.

Singh, an architect turned art-exhibition producer, soon found a job as a deliveryman at a warehouse. The outdoor job taught him about how to bundle up in winter — and to always watch out for the weather so he could get up early enough to dig his car out of the snow so he wouldn’t be late for work.

The cold temperatures did not stop him from exploring his new home on his own, though. He began outdoor running, too, and joined a winter volleyball league. Last year, he also started skating.

“I thought I was getting better with winter in Canada last year. I’m looking forward to winter more. This season, I have planned to go skiing as well and do some other things on my bucket list,” said Singh.

Morales said feeling a sense of community can certainly lift up everyone’s spirit, newcomer or not.

“It’s important to reach out to others and be compassionate about what others are going through. Winter can feel way better and warmer if we all come together.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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