Hiver en nous: Creating new narratives around urban Nordicity

Particularly for city dwellers, this period customarily generates groans of protest. But in a context of climate change and increasingly extreme weather conditions, isn’t it time to redefine and strengthen our relationship with winter? With Hiver en nous—a winning project of the Civic Incubator‘s 2022 cohort—Marie-Hélène Roch explores our feelings about Nordicity and seeks to democratize the experience of winter in an urban environment by collectively reimagining it.

Nordicity, or the art of everyday living in winter

The concept of Nordicity was first developed in the early 1960s by Québec geographer and linguist Louis-Edmond Hamelin. A celebrated explorer of Canada’s Far North, he sought to appropriate the term “Nordic,” which was typically used to describe the frigid countries of northern Europe, such as Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. Determined to define this abstract, unknown entity that was the North, he took a global look at the relationship and adaptation of human societies to cold zones, characterizing them using the invented word “Nordicity.” With this neologism, the researcher made reference to “a perceived state, real, lived, and even imagined, of the cold zone within the boreal hemisphere.” ¹

Whatever else we may say about this relationship with Nordicity, it’s complex. Witness the number of trips from Québec to sunny destinations during the cold season. In a November 2022 survey, 27 percent of travelers said they envisioned heading south during the winter of 2023. A quest for warmth or an escape from the snow? In any case, these holidays reinforce the mental perception of winter as an excessively prolonged season that we seek to flee.

Incubateur civique, cohorte 2022 - Hiver en nous : créer de nouveaux récits autour de la nordicité en milieu urbain

Marie-Hélène Roch

But Marie-Hélène Roch perceived an entirely different dynamic during her stay in Finland a few years ago. In this snowy landscape, she was surprised to discover activities such as winter biking—encouraged by democratization, adapted urban planning, and, above all, a calmer relationship with winter in which it is no longer dreaded, but rather cherished.

Indeed, to cope with the cold and lack of light typical of winter conditions, Northern European countries have developed stories and lifestyles in harmony with Nordicity. We’re referring to active winter mobility here, but also to abstract notions such as the 19th-century Norwegian concept of “friluftsliv.” In Norwegian culture, friluftsliv (literally, “life in the open air”) is the belief that spending time in remote locales nourishes one’s physical and spiritual well-being. Although the concept has evolved over time, it still inspires Scandinavian culture today.2

If these words can’t quite be translated into French and English, it’s probably because the optimistic state they refer to isn’t a part of Canadian culture during the winter months. Though cultural activities here tend to develop outdoors to complement sporting activities such as tobogganing or skating, for Marie-Hélène, our relationship with Nordicity remains ambivalent:
Festivals like Montréal en Lumière have the capacity to bring us together in February, outside, during the coldest period. It’s festive and convivial! But at the same time, anxiety-inducing elements are also part of the landscape. Think of the signs warning of the dangers of falling ice, for example. Coupled with the gloomy vocabulary used to characterize the weather and traffic disruptions, they provoke negative emotions, like apprehension and irritation.

In this context, it’s hard to look forward—whether it’s to the next flurry of snow, an invitation to dinner, or a new cultural event—when the perception of winter is that it slows us down and complicates daily life. But transforming winter into an added value for culture, living together, and city life fits precisely into a climate-resilience strategy, even as extreme weather phenomena are intensifying and we need to rethink our ecocidal behaviours.

Photo credit: Sophie Bertrand courtesy of Hiver en nous

Developing new narratives

Marie-Hélène’s experience of winter cycling in Finland inspired her to participate in the International Winter Cycling Congress in Montréal the following year. Sensitized to storytelling by her background in event design and her various artistic activities, she had the idea of creating and distributing an events calendar for cold-season cyclists.

Given that the practice of winter cycling is often approached from the point of view of infrastructure usage and safety, she wanted to collect impressions, sentiments, and views on the spaces traversed by cyclists. The testimonials she gathered built a narrative that ran counter to the dominant discourse, which sometimes refers to “intrepid riders braving the slush on their two-wheelers.” On the contrary, cyclists describe their daily winter commutes as “the feeling of being in another world,” “a bubble of relaxation,” or “a city adventure.” Through this poetic lens, winter cycling suddenly takes on an entirely new imaginative dimension. By focusing less on its negative aspects and more on its positive ones, another story is written in our minds, one that inspires change. The winter cycling experience has just awakened our curiosity.

Out of the academic box

Through this analysis, the theme of Nordicity in an urban environment became an increasingly obvious research subject for Marie-Hélène. She created the Hiver en nous project, defining it as “a research and creation site for knowledge and experiences—lived, perceived, imagined and transformed—of urban winter.” Structured as an action-research laboratory, it aims to mobilize experiential and perceptive knowledge in an interactive logbook. The objective is to construct a collective narrative and thus to strengthen the sense of ownership of winter as it’s experienced in the city.

In January 2021, the artist-researcher created the Instagram account Hiver en nous and took advantage of this particular period of pandemic-related physical distancing to capture, in images, the behaviours of Montréalers in the great outdoors: “Given that we could meet outdoors only, and given that people were eager to get out of their homes, parks and streets became ideal arenas of experimentation and observation on the appropriation of urban space in times of extreme cold.

Though this project adheres to a social R&D approach, Marie-Hélène nevertheless envisioned it as immersive, interactive and, above all, collaborative with the public. But how could she take it out of an academic framework and bring it into contact with the general public, while also distinguishing it from other organizations’ initiatives? Marie-Hélène felt the need to challenge her ideas alongside other social innovators. She joined the Civic Incubator’s 2022 Cohort.

Targeting different audiences for greater impact

While the researcher’s dissertation used winter cyclists as a lens to consider Nordicity as experienced in the city, the Civic Incubator program suggested other audiences. What about the winter experiences of the elderly, for example? Or those who have recently immigrated to the country? The Québec winter conveys a number of myths into the world beyond it: bitter cold, travel made more complex by snow, the underground city. Before we’ve even lived it, winter’s harshness has already left its mark on our imaginations and has led us to withdraw into ourselves.

“There’s a whole narrative to redefine for different communities. Activities for each of them may eventually be considered for the longer term. For the time being, I’ve chosen to focus on children. As the mother of two young children, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how multi-sensory their experiences are, and how play is at the heart of their behavioural development. Their observations are particularly enlightening in my quest to express the humanity of the urban winter.” — Marie-Hélène

Representing 15 percent of the population according to the latest Statistics Canada census, children 14 years of age and under have a front-row seat to the adoption of behaviours that may be new to previous generations, but are perfectly normal for them. In being made aware of positive stories about winter, these adults-in-the-making are a powerful lever for change in their environments.

To reach this young audience, Marie-Hélène entered a winter art residency at the Campus de la Transition Écologique after completing the Civic Incubator program. Strengthened by what she learned during her time at MIS, she conceived a number of activities in Montréal’s Parc Jean Drapeau, among them the Mitaine perdue. In collaboration with the Metalude organization, a parking space in the park was reinvented as a pop-up adventure playground and revealed the potential of purposes, imagination, and narratives. Through this experience, young and old launched themselves together into the possibilities and the future of an inclusive and resilient winter city. Practical tools and resources for day-care centres, schools, and community organizations have also been developed, including two articles available (in French only) at 100° (centdegres.ca): “A fully aware approach to winter, in all our living environments” and “Active transport to school: how to promote a year-round cycling culture“?

Photo credit: Sophie Bertrand, courtesy of Hiver en nous

If you’d like to participate and to explore your own relationship with winter in the city, keep up to date on Hiver en nous via its social networks. Other activities are in the works, for every season!

¹ Louis-Edmond Hamelin. (1975) Nordicité canadienne. Hurtubise HMH

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