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I caught the radio news at 1 p.m. while on the Queen Elizabeth Driveway in Ottawa, alongside the Rideau Canal.

Local news on Feb. 24 said the Rideau Canal Skateway would remain closed this year for the first time since the 7.8-kilometre outdoor skating rink opened in 1971.

In international news, there was record rare snow in California.

These are climate change stories, connected and utterly mismatched, near and far.

On a scale of climate disasters, in which our collective attention necessarily focuses on the uneven impacts of wildfires, floods and a range of other losses, one missed season on the Rideau Canal Skateway can register as a footnote for the history books.

Is this just an inevitable harbinger of what is to come?

Or can the skateway’s closure instead be a call to action?

Is there something necessary — even community-building — about mourning this year’s loss and talking explicitly and collectively about the effects of climate change?

‘A space for people to share and connect’

Alice Irene Whittaker is the executive director of Ecology Ottawa, a local environmental organization. If the canal had opened, she would have been on it with her children, “getting BeaverTails and just being there in the sunshine, out in nature with fellow citizens.”

Whittaker said there was a striking emptiness of the canal this winter.

“You can see the absence, what is normally there and something you take for granted. But then when it’s not there, it’s so stark and it brings to mind for me other absences.”

Alongside Heart Land, a group that says it offers "wholistic health support for the impacts of climate change," and the community group Community Deathcare Ottawa, Ecology Ottawa is co-hosting a vigil for the skateway today at Patterson Creek, a waterway that stretches from the canal into a neighbourhood park.

The day the vigil was announced, Whittaker said, 50 people signed up.

The @NCC_Skateway remained closed for the first time since the world's largest skating rink opened in 1971. Trish Audette-Longo @taudette explains why local groups are having a vigil for the iconic centrepiece of Ottawa winters # #RideauCanal #ottawa

“The idea for the community vigil for the Rideau Canal came from a desire to bring (the) community together and give a space for people to share and connect over the loss and uncertainty and climate grief that residents are feeling,” Whittaker said.

“I feel like getting off of our phones and doom-scrolling about climate change, and being together with other people (who) care, is one of the great antidotes to feeling despair about it.”

Heart Land’s Robin Macdonald plans for the event to include four stages of community engagement, including sharing gratitude, pain, “imagin(ing) a world that is better for the larger whole than what we have right now,” and inviting participants to decide if they would like to take action.

“I feel like typically emotion has no seat at the table in climate change discussion,” Macdonald said.

“There’s an essential role for tools and practices to welcome the wisdom of the body and really skillful acknowledgment of emotions as tools for the climate crisis, as well as other social and environmental challenges of our times.”

Weighing the emotional stakes of climate change

The challenge of balancing the weight of climate change emotions and information — and questions about what can motivate action instead of apathy — emerges in A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety written by Sarah Jaquette Ray and published in 2020.

The California-based university professor writes about how hyper-emphasis on “eco-apocalypse” can, at worst, derail the potential for people to imagine alternative futures.

There needs to be attention, Ray writes, to embracing more than fear for the future.

A goal of Ottawa’s community vigil, Macdonald said, is for people to leave with new tools, new ways of “being with emotions that are hard to feel without turning away or without taking them away.”

Like Whittaker, Macdonald described the impact of seeing the canal empty of people this winter.

“The absence of something I care about is kind of a weight-in-the-centre-of-my-chest feeling. I (sometimes feel) some guilt for being complicit in what’s led to the rise in temperature that’s created this situation,” Macdonald said.

“And I feel a responsibility to this world that I love to act on what I’m feeling.”

The canal has a rich history

When the skateway is open, it can feel full, exciting and noisy with blades and sleds on ice, people laughing and chatting. Used to get to work or school, to connect with friends and family, the sprawling historic outdoor rink is also a tourist draw.

Before the pandemic, the National Capital Commission counted nearly 1.5 million visits in 2018-19, a record.

Some learn to skate on the canal, others are so fast and so sure. I am, at best, tentative on skates, at first surprised to remember how to stand up, pick up speed, slow down.

Last winter, I skated on the canal only once, setting off from Patterson Creek with a friend. I remember it as a blue-sky, cool-air, perfect day. The kind that, once in the books, you want to repeat — tomorrow, next week, next year.

Whittaker cautioned the fate of the canal, “as with all things climate change,” is not linear.

“Maybe next year there is skating, the year after that, maybe there isn’t,” Whittaker said.

“And that uncertainty is something that we want to acknowledge with this vigil.”

Trish Audette-Longo is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. Previously, Trish reported, edited and managed digital engagement with Canada's National Observer, and she covered politics and the environment for The Edmonton Journal.

Keep reading

The thing about climate change is that the change is not linear, a little worse next year, a little worse the following year. Instead, there will be exponential change, domino effects, where seemingly unrelated events combine to produce massive climate shifts. This phenomenon has been best articulated by American journalist David Wallace-Wells.

In local areas, there are ups and downs. But overall, there has been record change every year for far too many years.