(published in the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday, December 8, 2013) 

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The recent record snowfall of December 27 last has prompted a great deal of debate about the approach used by Montreal and its numerous boroughs to remove the unwanted wintery matter from congested city streets and sidewalks. Indeed, a cursory glance at Gazette Letters to the Editor (Saturday, January 5, 2012) clearly illustrates that while some are satisfied with the efforts made by the local authorities, many others are anything but. Discrepancies from one community to another in the rapidity of taking the estimated 46 centimetres of snow away do not help the state of affairs either.

Snow has always fascinated Montrealers. When I was a child, now many years ago, my friends and I were thoroughly captivated with the whole mechanical operation of snow removal. We would, from all angles, follow snow blowers for hour after hour – much to the annoyance of those assigned to assure that the whole raucous business was accomplished without any unfortunate accidents. Consequently, our lively, mischievous presence was never fully appreciated. Nevertheless, despite it all, the snow was taken away in those days with essentially the same methods with which we are more or less familiar today.

That obviously was not always the case. In the early years of the last century, the handling of snow removal was considerably different, with the end result being that even fewer people were happy with its conduct than now.

For instance, as late as the middle of the Edwardian Period, the onus was on each and every citizen not only to keep their own property clear of snow but the public pathway as well. In a word, individuals were also legally bound to uphold their portion of the public footway clear of snow. City Hall changed that regulation in 1905 when it assumed responsibility for clearing the sidewalks located in most of the civic wards of the burgeoning town. However, as is the case today, many people were not satisfied with the job the municipal administration was doing in that regard, particularly with the length of time it was taking to get the work done.

    (below, pitching into help on St. Catherine Street, at Phillip’s Square, 1901)


Perhaps one of the biggest differences between snow removal today with the approach a century or so ago was in the nature of the labour force itself. Back in the day, a snowstorm was an opportunity in fact for the many who were out of work to find, albeit temporarily, a remunerable undertaking. Whenever flurries started to fall, hordes of unemployed men would show up at City Hall on Notre Dame Street hoping to be chosen for a job that, in 1908 for example, paid twenty cents an hour. Interestingly, the selection of the lucky men was a major source of aldermanic patronage at the time.

Once signed up, gangs of men would report to the city’s streets with shovels in hands in order to clear the white stuff away. Accompanying them was normally a small horse drawn sled, disparagingly known as a ‘pill-box sleigh’ because of its diminutive size. The cart held a maximum of about sixty cubic feet of snow. Consequently, the amazingly antiquated process was agonizingly slow, particularly after a major blizzard when the avenues of the town were covered in spectacular snowdrifts. One frustrated 1907 letter writer angrily referred to the overall procedure as ‘dinky’.

Like today, Montrealers expressed their irritation in various ways. Unlike today, however, citizens were occasionally willing in Edwardian times to take matters into  their own hands. For instance, in February of 1905, the snow banks, or ‘hog-backs’ as they were then known, were so incredibly high on Mackay Street that residents organized themselves to have them removed at their own expense. It was neither the first nor the last time that this was done.

It would seem, therefore, that the adept removal of snow from our urban thoroughfares has a long and contentious history in Montreal. When, however, it’s put into a chronicled context, it seems very much a part of our municipal mores, or, as is said so correctly in French, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

(below, snow removal, Millar Street, City of St. Laurent, January 1961)