Skating on thin ice: a Canadian tradition

by Andrew Caddell

The Hill Times
December 20, 2017

When I first arrived in Ottawa as a student in 1972, I logged a couple hundred kilometres skating the Rideau Canal with my then-girlfriend from December to March. Each night at 10, we would head out with our forbidden hockey sticks and pass the puck from the National Arts Centre to Carleton University and back.

At the time, I heard a wonderful story about how the canal rink came to be. Douglas Fullerton, the innovative head of the National Capital Commission, suggested it would be a great idea to have a skating rink on the canal. After all, generations of Ottawans had skated on the canal in the past.

He was told by his staff it simply was not possible. Why not? They dutifully arranged for a snowplow to be loaded onto the canal, and when it began to sink, they pointed out the equipment was far too heavy for the ice.

“Then why not get lighter equipment?” Fullerton asked. After a certain amount of grumbling by his bureaucrats, lightweight sweepers and plows were acquired and the canal was opened for skating.

Over the years, Fullerton’s original suggestion seems to have faded with the times. The equipment on the canal is getting heavier and larger, and consequently, the length of time the canal is open has been reduced. In 1972, the trucks used were small Toyota models, weighing just over 2,000 lbs, and the plows and sweepers were also lightweight. The current pickups weigh 4,500 lbs, and the new plows dwarf the old-style brushes.

I consulted the NCC’s website, which refers to its monitoring “the thickness and composition of the ice” because “the weight of crowds, snow and snow removal equipment must be dispersed for the ice to remain safe.” No matter how many people are skating at one time, none of them displaces as much weight as a truck or a snowplow.

This has to affect the length of time the canal is open. The longest continuous period, 59 days was recently, in 2015. But the longest number of days, 90, was set in 1971-72, which also had the latest closing date. Recent years pale in comparison.

For the past 15 years, I have been cycling to work along Colonel By Drive and observed the canal. I have been astonished to see it well frozen, but not open, even after the requisite 10 days of below -10 C weather.

Last year I noticed a group of NCC officials standing on the ice and asked when the rink would be open. I was told the ice had to be thick enough to carry heavy equipment to clean the ice more “efficiently.”

Of course, this is the same bureaucratic bafflegab Fullerton had to overcome to open the canal in the first place. While there may be some differences in season length due to global warming, I think the failure to heed Fullerton’s original direction is the main cause.

In my book, The Goal, I dedicate a chapter to my experience with backyard rinks since I was 10 years old. My first rink in Ottawa opened in December 2000 and closed in March. I did not use heavy equipment to clear the rink, but I had ice for almost 100 days.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is one of the great generators of tourist dollars for Ottawa, and attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the National Capital each year. When it is empty, concessions are closed, students don’t have jobs and tourists and residents alike are disappointed.

As well, the failure of the canal to be open in December was one of the rationales for the building of the rink on Parliament Hill, whose $5.6-million price tag is the cause of great resentment for those outside of Ottawa.

In my own hometown of Montreal West, a proposal to rebuild the 1967 arena was refused even a penny of federal support. I am sure there are hundreds of similar cases across the country.

Meanwhile, the mercury hit -22 C on Sunday after a week-long cold snap, and there is no sign of life on “the world’s largest skating rink.”

I wonder what Doug Fullerton would think.

Meanwhile, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I hope Hill Times readers will join me and other Scots at the Hogmanay celebrations at Lansdowne Park on New Year’s Eve.

Andrew Caddell retired July 11 from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as a broadcast reporter and as an adviser to Liberal governments in Ottawa, St. John’s, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Andrew Meade

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