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It’s been an atypical winter in the nation’s capital, where lingering balminess has replaced sub-zero temperatures and signature cold snaps. And it’s a winter Ottawans will remember: the first year they were robbed of skating on the Rideau Canal since the tradition began five decades ago.
In late February, the National Capital Commission, the Crown corporation charged with managing the ice, deemed it too thin and porous for skating due to higher than average temperatures, as well as snow and rain. Having launched Winterlude, the capital’s annual flagship winter festival, by redirecting crowds to other outdoor excursions, the Department of Canadian Heritage was forced to tell revelers that its usual focal point would stay behind locked gates.
“The latest ice tests show that the ice surface remains unsafe,” the commission tweeted. “Any further efforts are unlikely to yield a different result.”
Last week, National Capital Commission CEO Tobi Nussbaum wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that the commission has partnered with Carleton University to figure out how to adapt the Rideau Canal skateway to “warmer and shorter winters.” This year’s closure followed cautionary statistics in the commission’s past reports: a 2005 study found climate change would likely decrease the average skating season from roughly 61 days in 2005 to somewhere between 43 and 52 days by 2020.
A more recent analysis in 2021 found the average season length is now around 46 days, and by 2080, the most drastic global warming scenario projects that, on average, Ottawans will only have one week of skating.
Environmental groups have called the skateway’s closure a sure sign that climate change has come to Ottawa. And last week, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment began highlighting what it considers inappropriate sponsorship of Winterlude — the group is circulating a petition asking the federal Heritage department to drop longtime sponsor Enbridge Gas and refuse all fossil fuel funding.
“It’s wrong for companies that are driving climate change to be promoting winter recreation because what they’re doing is making it more difficult for us to enjoy the outdoors in the wintertime,” Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the physicians’ association, told The Narwhal. “There’s overwhelming evidence that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change and harming our health through air pollution. This is greenwashing.”
As the canal’s skateless winter came to a close, The Narwhal headed out to ask passersby whether they had missed the ice this year, and how they felt about a fossil fuel company sponsoring an ever-shrinking seasonal event.
On this mild Sunday in March, Ian Hunter didn’t hear the chatter or methodical scraping of blades from canal crowds as he ran along its paved perimeter. Instead, he saw the channel’s semi-frozen surface hosting nothing more than closed skate huts and food trucks.
“I guess it was only a matter of time that we saw this happen with the winters getting more compact,” the retired public servant said. “It’s very sad. There’s a special feeling of freedom that comes with gliding through the city, taking in the sights and being able to share that with people of all ages, all walks of life.”
The Rideau Canal is a landmark that grounds Ottawa in its regional and cultural identity year round. It’s a UNESCO heritage site, and the homes that overlook it are prized for their scenic view. For residents and tourists alike, it has long been a touch point for outdoor recreation — whether that be walking, running, biking, skating or kayaking into the heart of the city.
“It’s jarring,” Spencer Cuddington said, as he took a walk during the unseasonably warm weekend weather.
“One hundred per cent, I see the connection to climate change,” Cuddington said.
He has skated on the canal since childhood, making pit stops with his family for hot chocolate and Beavertails: the pastry is synonymous with Ottawa winters, but its proprietor told CBC he closed all but one of his canal kiosks by mid-February this year.
Enbridge produces natural gas, which is largely made up of methane — about 95 per cent, according to the company’s figures — the second biggest contributor to global warming. Much of it goes to heat buildings, which is the third highest source of emissions in Ontario, where Enbridge has 1.5 million customers. Impacts from natural gas extraction and processing carry significant environmental concerns, including methane leaks, and the controversial process of fracking. Last fall, The Narwhal reported that 32 Ontario municipalities have called for a natural gas phase-out.
In email correspondence with The Narwhal, Enbridge Gas said its sponsorship of Winterlude is part of a strategy to invest in the safety, sustainability and vibrancy of its communities. The company said that in 2020, it committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Enbridge said that natural gas ”provides residents and businesses with almost two times more energy than electricity” in Ontario, while Canada-wide, about 32 per cent of energy comes from natural gas, while 50.1 per cent is from crude oil and just 8.5 per cent from ”primary electricity.” According to the federal Energy Regulator, gas is the main source of home heating energy in western Canada and Ontario.
“A diversified energy pathway that leverages the existing pipeline infrastructure is the most cost-effective and resilient way to achieve net zero. Many North American jurisdictions have come to the same conclusion,” Enbridge continued.
Enbridge also said it has created programs to assist customers with energy reduction and is trying to advance clean technologies for transportation, building heat and industrial processes. These include “renewable natural gas” — also known as biogas, it’s captured from sources like compost and manure, then purified — as well as hydrogen (which is sometimes derived from methane), hybrid heating, geothermal and carbon capture.
“Enbridge has committed more than $8 billion in capital to renewable energy and power transmission projects currently in operation or under construction, and is one of the largest renewable energy companies in Canada,” it said.
Ottawa being a government town, the spectrum of responses from locals about Winterlude sponsorship indicated a nuanced perspective about funding, climate change and responsibility.
Travel agency owner Carol Paleczny worried about Winterlude becoming a financial burden on taxpayers. “If the sponsors don’t pay for it then who’s going to?” she asked. “If there are companies that are willing to, then I’m grateful for them.”
But the fact that events like Winterlude cost so much money is precisely “the regrettable,” aspect of the situation, said Ranjana Ghosh, another retired public servant, who has lived in Ottawa since 1989.
“These big energy companies have big pockets and can afford to dish out sponsorship money, but what are they actually doing for the environment?” she said. “I guess as consumers we have to wake up. We enjoy the benefits of the canal and Winterlude, but I think we should be willing to forgo that if we can bring to light that we shouldn’t have companies that promote fossil fuels sponsor these environmental-related things.”
In response to The Narwhal’s questions about how Canadian Heritage chooses sponsors and the campaign by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, department spokesperson Caroline Czajkowski said sponsorship agreements are reviewed regularly.
“Our goal at the Department of Canadian Heritage is to maintain or improve the quality of the offering provided to visitors at Winterlude,” Czajkowski wrote in an email. “We work with many partners to offer a positive, enriching and relevant experience to all, and the success of programs and activities such as this one depends on the support and contributions of sponsors.”
Pedestrian Denise Paquette, a resident of Ottawa since 2010, saw some justification for sponsorship from Enbridge or other fossil fuel companies.
“It’s not all bad and I think it’s maybe their way of giving back,” she says. “I know we can’t change the environment overnight, so we have to deal with it.”
But Lem said that such perceptions are what fossil fuel corporations are banking on, to distract from their emissions.
The concept of carbon heavy companies using winter sports to prop up their reputations is getting global attention. The European think tank New Weather Institute recently put out “The Snow Thieves,” a study documenting 107 instances of fossil fuel companies, carmakers or airlines sponsoring winter sporting events, organizations or athletes.
The report states that the world’s biggest cross-country ski race, the Vasaloppet in Sweden, is sponsored by energy company Preem and Volvo Cars, two companies that “combined are estimated to be responsible for the loss of 1,260 million tonnes of glacier ice each year, or 210 square kilometres of snow cover … this amounts to melting the equivalent of 233 Vasaloppet ski races.”
The paper notes the largest governing body in winter sports, the International Ski and Snowboard Federation, is sponsored by Audi — and that 90 per cent of the auto company’s vehicles produced in 2021 were petrol or diesel driven.
University of Ottawa students Haaruni Babu and Jasmine Wong were looking forward to canal skating during their last winter as undergrads. However, they had mixed feelings about the thin ice: while both believe the skateway’s closure is related to climate change, they said that from a business standpoint, taking action towards sustainability is not as easy as people might think.
“I’m not arguing for the status quo,” human resources student Babu said. “I think a lot of people using their voice to speak out against sponsorship like this are doing great because it’s putting more pressure on corporations and holding them accountable.”
“I just think we need to make sure we find the right balance between giving entertainment to the citizens here versus actually making sure that what they’re providing to us is appropriate for the environment,” finance student Wong added.
Others like Marc Mez weren’t aware of the company’s sponsorship — he said that the question of how badly Enbridge’s funds are needed is relevant.
“There are so many other companies you could ask for sponsorship, so I don’t know if there would be a shortage if you didn’t have someone like Petro Can or Enbridge Gas,” he said.
With one skateless season behind them, locals agreed on one thing: whatever happens in the months and years ahead, they are desperate for the chance to revive the tradition of canal skating. All felt it was unfathomable that a longstanding piece of the city’s winter culture could be lost forever.
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