Groundhog Day, or February 2nd, is the day when woodchucks tell Canadians what awaits them in the months till the official start of Spring. Will it be a long winter or a short winter — as if waiting until early February wasn’t long enough. How long is that groundhog’s shadow?
For an almost uniquely North American celebration, Groundhog Day has its roots in Medieval Europe and the celebration of Candlemas, a festival in which candles were lit at churches to commemorate Jesus’s presentation at the temple. Candlemas also has much in common with pre-existing Pagan observances in Pagan times, when farmers would carry torches around their fields before sowing time. Candlemas falls 40 days after Christmas and in between the winter solstice and spring equinoxes.
Legend has it that, on February 2nd, if the groundhog emerges from its burrow, sees its shadow and then returns, winter will last for another six weeks. If it doesn’t see its shadow, winter will be shorter.
“Groundhog Day” is different depending on where in Canada you find yourself. Let’s run through Groundhog Day in each of the provinces that have some sort of celebrations to observe the day: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.
Groundhog Day Celebrations in Canada
Shubenacadie Sam is one of the most famous of Canadian groundhogs. It should be noted that Shubenacadie Sam is not a singular groundhog, rather there have been four groundhogs that have served as Shubenacadie Sam since the inception of the furry forecaster in 1987 at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. Shubenacadie Sam is such a phenomenon that Shubenacadie Wildlife Park has instituted the “Sam Cam”, a webcam which monitors Shubenacadie Sam, so that no matter where you are in Canada, you can get the forecast for an early spring (or not).
Shubenacadie Sam also gets his own procession before he makes his prediction, including a bagpiper and the town crier!
Shubenacadie Sam isn’t the only groundhog in Nova Scotia with an opinion on the length of winter, however! There’s also “Two Rivers Tunnel” at Two Rivers Wildlife Park in Huntington, Nova Scotia. He and Shubenacadie Sam are the two groundhogs that those in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rely upon for their weather forecasts on February 2nd.
Shubenacadie Sam – Early Spring
— Shubenacadie Sam (@ShubenacadieSam) February 2, 2021
Two Rivers Tunnel – Early Spring
Groundhog Day in New Brunswick
Groundhog Day in New Brunswick, ironically never really got off the ground. The province attempted to start a tradition in 2011, with the inception of “Oromocto Ollie” by the province’s Capital Commission. This attempt to begin a new tradition within New Brunswick meteorology fell flat on it’s face the following year, when Oromocto Ollie was still asleep come February 2nd, 2012 and nobody wished to wake him. Now, New Brunswickers look to Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia for our spring weather predictions.
Groundhog Day in Quebec
Groundhog Day in Quebec features “Fred la Marmotte”. Quebec’s prognosticating groundhog, Fred, or “Gros Fred” was predicting Quebec’s springtime from 2010 to 2017, after being replaced by his son, “Petit Fred” in 2018, but returned to predict in 2019. Fred is unique in being the only groundhog in North America to be making his prediction in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as his home is in Val D’Espoir on the Gaspesie tourist region in Quebec.
The town of Val D’Espoir’s local church hosts the prediction of Fred each and every year, complete with lunches and fun activities for visiting young children.
Fred the Groundhog – Early Spring
Groundhog Day in Ontario
Wiarton Willie, is another of Canada’s most well-known groundhogs, who, along with his successors (each named Willie), has been making prognostications since 1999. Wiarton Willie is also the world’s only albino prognosticator. Wiarton Willie of the Town of Wiarton in Southern Bruce Pensinsula is so famous there is a huge festival dedicated to the event with morning fireworks.
During the festival, visitors will be treated to a free festival including amusement rides and a wagon ride to downtown Wiarton where they can explore the local shops. On February 2nd, visitors are invited to gather at Bluewater Park to enjoy fireworks at 7:00 AM and Willie’s prediction at precisely 8:07AM.
Ontario has another rodent in Sarnia, who makes his prediction without that much of a fanfare – Oil Springs Ollie. City of Sarniahosts the annual prediction event at Cantara Park by the Animal Farm in Sarnia.
(FYI: According to the internet, Gary the Groundhog makes his home in Kleinburg (Vaughan). But when ToDoCanada.ca contacted the Kleinburg Village Association, they could not provide any information regarding the existence of Gary.)
Wiarton Willy: Early Spring
Oil Springs Ollie: Early Spring
Groundhog Day in Manitoba
Manitoba’s relationship with Groundhog Day has been a troubled one at times, from the inception of Manitoba Merv, providing a light-hearted look at winter in a usually cold and frigid place for months on end, to a complete fabrication, such as that of Brandon Bob.
Beginning with the truth, sort of, Manitoba Mervbegan his life as a puppet acting in shows some 25-plus years ago and has since evolved into a phenomenon in the province. Manitoba Merv is said to have an accuracy of 98% of predictions, which is pretty high for a puppet!
Manitoba Merv makes his home in a cardboard box at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre in Stonewall, Manitoba. Merv only comes out once a year on February 2nd, before returning to his boxed home in an office at Oak Hammock.
The stuffed nature of Manitoba Merv doesn’t stop Oak Hammock from making an entire day out of his existence, which also happens to coincide with World Wetlands Day,celebrating the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971 on the shores of Caspian Sea. The centre hosts a variety of games and activities aimed at education and fun, coinciding wonderfully with Manitoba Merv’s prediction!
Manitoba is also home to Winnipeg Wyn, who resides at FortWhyte Alive and is part of Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre’seducation team. Winnipeg Wyn’s prediction depends on the PWRC Staff’s observation of Wyn during winter and understanding her behaviours rather than relying on shadows. Wyn replaced Winnipeg Willow, a rescued woodchuck that died in 2016, as the centre’s Groundhog Day prognosticator.
Update: Winnipeg Wyn died in August of 2020.
2021 Prediction by Manitoba Merv: Early Spring
Groundhog Day in Alberta
Once again, Canada’s Western provinces produce no real groundhogs to be held to account for their predictions! Our next furry friend who’s not a real groundhog is Balzac Billy, a mascot from the town of Balzac, 24km north of Calgary. The origins of Balzac Billy can be traced to the 1970s, when Balzac’s then-mayor, Merle Osborne befriended a Richardson Ground Squirrel.
During the next several decades, Balzac Billywould disappear from public life following a number of inaccurate predictions. However, he has made a return in recent years as a mascot for the town, drawing in crowds in the hundreds every February 2nd. Balzac Business Community Association hosts a breakfast following the prediction at Blue Grass Nursery & Garden Centrefrom 7:00am – 11:00am.
Groundhog Day in the United States
Another very famous groundhog in North America resides in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and is aptly named Punxsutawney Phil. According to the folklore that surrounds Punxsutawney Phil, people who attend the Groundhog Day events participate in a willful suspension of disbelief and are told by organizers of the event — dressed in top hats and tuxedos — that Punxsutawney Phil has been making his predictions since 1886, sustained by the “elixir of life” or “groundhog punch”, though scientifically, the average groundhog lives for about six years.
Still, of course, unperturbed by science getting in the way of a little harmless fun, the organizers of the event maintain the legend. Adding more to the legend are the two scrolls placed on the stump of a tree during the ceremony, one telling of a long winter, the other of a coming Spring. These are written in Groundhog-ese and are only communicated by Phil to the President of the Groundhog Club — a language only the Groundhog Club President and Phil can understand.
An Escape from the crushing reality of long Canadian winters.
If this all seems a little bit ridiculous – that’s because it is, which is precisely the point. Despite the claims made by the organizers of these events across North America, meteorologists in Canada have squashed claims of accuracy, according to Canadian Encyclopedia: “However, Canadian meteorological data prove that the groundhogs’ success rate is quite low. Meteorological data from 13 Canadian cities over the past 30 to 40 years indicate that there have been an equal number of sunny and cloudy days on 2 February. During this period, the groundhogs’ predictions were correct only 37 per cent of the time, meaning that winters remained cold for several weeks after the groundhog sees its shadow on 2 February, or that temperatures became much milder than usual if that day was too cloudy for a shadow to be seen. However, the groundhogs’ predictions were incorrect about two-thirds of those years, either because they were the opposite of what they should have been, or because winter persisted naturally. Given that 33 per cent accuracy can occur by chance, a score of 37 percent is not considered significant.”
So, there you have it. Science. Though I think we should all participate in Groundhog Day if only to alleviate ourselves from the crushing reality of long Canadian winters.
By: Jack Hawkins
A travel writer and photographer from the East Coast of Canada.