TORONTO -- A funny thing happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved: Canada was no longer officially the coldest country on Earth, but fell to second place behind Russia.

When Environment Canada announced the news, the reaction was far from national delight.

“It was like taking away our birthright,” recalled David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “People weren’t cheered by it -- they were dismayed that we were no longer the coldest.”

Canada has a complicated relationship with cold weather. We like to complain about the cold, but are sometimes quick to judge others’ interpretation of what constitutes nasty winter weather. In 1999, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman triggered plenty of eye-rolls when he called in the army after the city was pummelled with nearly 40 centimetres of snow.

“We were the laughing stock of the country,” said Phillips, who lives north of Toronto. “People said, ‘This is Canada, this is winter, suck it up’ … I don’t think Toronto ever lived that down.”

Memories of that national rebuke were dredged up Thursday when Toronto Public Health issued an extreme cold weather alert. Temperatures overnight are expected to drop to -12 C, without wind chill.

Toronto issues such alerts when temperatures drop to approximately -15 C or colder, or when wind chill is expected to reach -20 C or colder. The alert also activates additional public services, including a warming centre downtown, which provides a safe place for the city’s homeless and other vulnerable populations.

Despite those concerns, more than 140 Twitter users responded to a tweet about the alert, with many suggesting that the city needed to toughen up.

“Toronto is the least Canadian city in the country,” one user tweeted. Others called the city “soft” and “a joke” and suggested that -12 C in places like Edmonton and Montreal would be considered balmy.

But how Canadians respond to the cold varies dramatically from province to province. Wearing long-johns under your clothes may be the norm in a city like Winnipeg, but someone living in the Greater Toronto Area could get away with not owning snow pants.

Phillips said these sorts of regional differences make all the difference in how Environment and Climate Change Canada issues its warnings.

“It comes down to the fact that people are better conditioned, better equipped, have better garments for handling those situations in Western Canada,” he said. “Westerners think if winter can begin after Halloween, they’ve won. We wait until December or January and think, ‘OK, winter can start now.’”

In fact, Environment and Climate Change Canada has different thresholds for when it will issue its own extreme cold weather warnings. To issue such a warning, temperatures must be expected to fall below a certain mark for at least two hours.

Those thresholds include:

  • -30 C in Toronto, Ottawa and southern Ontario
  • -35 C for Atlantic Canada
  • -38 C for parts of Quebec, including Montreal
  • -40 C for north Ontario and the southern Prairies
  • -45 C for northernmost regions of Ontario, northern Manitoba and northern British Columbia
  • -50 C for Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and parts of Nunavut
  • -55 C for Canada’s northernmost regions, including the northern tip of Baffin Island and other Arctic communities

If Environment Canada were to issue warnings based on a unified national threshold, those living in colder regions would likely stop listening, Phillips said.

“People are just going to tune you out. So you have to be careful how frequently you issue these,” he said. “You want people to listen to it and make a personal adjustment.”

In a country where winter temperatures can range by 50 C from one region to the next, defining “cold” can be tricky. But it may be helpful to reconsider how we talk about cold weather, says Phillips, who believes we’re all happier when it’s warmer.

“I have the feeling that we like to brag about how hardy we are -- that pioneer spirit still burns -- we can scoff at blizzards and sneer at frostbite,” he said. “We go around saying, ‘Is it cold enough for you?’ People in other parts of the world don’t go around saying, ‘Is it hot enough for you? Is it wet enough for you?'”