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Winter storm causing school closures, transportation disruptions in parts of Ontario

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A winter storm of rare proportions blanketed much of southern Ontario with heavy snow Monday, causing widespread school closures and travel disruptions, leaving some stuck on a major highway for hours on end. 

Environment Canada issued snowfall, winter storm or blizzard warnings for a stretch of the province spanning from the Cornwall area to the east, the Algonquin region to the west, and the Niagara and London regions to the south.

As much as 50 centimetres of snow was expected in some areas, and the weather agency warned residents to be cautious given the risk of reduced visibility on the road.

"It's probably true that this is a once-in-a-decade kind of event, especially the scale of it," said Steven Flisfeder, lead meteorologist with Environment Canada.

"Certainly places along the Lake Huron shores and Georgian Bay shores have seen fairly significant lake effect snow events that could give them similar snowfall totals, but for such a widespread area to receive such large amounts of snow is fairly rare."

It's also rare to see a blizzard warning issued for the Toronto region, he said. 

"(In) Toronto, as far as I know, we haven't seen a blizzard warning in at least a few decades," Flisfeder said. The Toronto area was later downgraded to a winter storm warning.

A blizzard warning means the agency expects at least four hours with 400 metres or less of visibility, with winds of at least 40 kilometres per hour, he said.

In comparison, a winter storm warning means a forecast of more than 25 centimetres of snow within 24 hours, along with other criteria such as blowing snow and reduced visibility, he said.

Newmarket, Ont., resident Alireza Firoozi got up Monday morning with a mission to head to his office in downtown Toronto. But soon after he started driving, he said he was filled with regret.  

“I saw the snow and I couldn’t move, but I pushed myself. I think I could’ve worked from home, but I didn’t do that,” he said. 

Firoozi later decided to seek refuge at his girlfriend’s home in the north end of Toronto, but as he tried to pull up to her condo building, his car got stuck in snow. 

“I read the news last night and they announced today there’s going to be a storm and bad weather, and I thought, ‘I can make it, I can do it,’ but I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle, before making another attempt to push his car out of the snow.

By Monday afternoon, the storm's intensity had already decreased, and that should continue until the system moves east, Flisfeder said. There could still be lingering road closures Tuesday as municipalities work to clear the snow, he said.

The weather prompted many school boards to cancel school bus service and in-person classes Monday just as schools were set to reopen following two weeks of online learning.

Several boards announced that schools will also be closed Tuesday. Some, like the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and the York Region District School Board, said classes will continue remotely through online learning. But the Toronto District School Board said there would be no live remote or virtual learning, either.

Mail delivery was also put on hold in areas grappling with the storm. Canada Post said it was issuing a "red delivery service alert" for eastern and southern Ontario, meaning delivery would be suspended and agents wouldn't be sent out.

Dozens of flights to and from Toronto's Pearson airport were delayed or cancelled Monday morning, according to the airport's website.

Toronto police temporarily shut down two of the city's major highways, the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, due to safety concerns. Both fully reopened by the afternoon. 

Another key Toronto-area highway was largely "barren" Monday morning because of the snow, Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said.

Schmidt posted several videos of the Toronto portion of Highway 401, showing a handful of vehicles stopped in the snow. "The only traffic that I see is vehicles that are stuck," he said, adding even some tow trucks were stopped.

"This is the day you should've stayed home," he said.

Airport taxi driver Sukhi Sidhu was one of the many drivers stuck on the 401 Monday afternoon. Speaking from inside his vehicle, he said his car had been in park and stuck on the highway for eight hours and counting. 

“It hasn’t moved a single centimetre since 7:30 a.m.,” Sidhu said. 

"No food, no water. It's pretty terrible. There (are) kids in cars here, there (are) some elderly folks, there (are) some people who were working overnight shifts and they're just trying to get home." 

Firefighter Lindsay Parry, who was making his way home from a 24-hour shift, was similarly been stuck on the 401 since 8:30 a.m., and said there hadn't been any movement. 

“I’ve been turning my truck on and off every so often just to warm it up and to conserve the fuel because I have no idea how long I’ll be here for,” Parry said in a phone interview Monday afternoon, adding he was "very frustrated." 

Premier Doug Ford attempted to help drivers stranded by the snow in Toronto. In an interview from his vehicle, Ford told TV news channel CP24 that he was driving around to check on people and offer rides home.

“Cars are stuck all over the place,” Ford said. “You just do what you have to do. Everyone's doing it, I’m no different. Premier or no premier … there to help your neighbours right now.”

Public transit in the Toronto area was also affected by the weather, with the regional GO Transit network saying a number of its bus routes would be temporarily suspended or adjusted for safety.

The Toronto Transit Commission said customers should also expect longer-than-normal wait and travel times as the snow affects all its bus and streetcar routes.

A number of communities also called off COVID-19 vaccination clinics for the day in light of the weather. Clinics were cancelled in Toronto, Niagara Falls, Stratford, Oshawa and across the Simcoe-Muskoka and Leeds, Grenville and Lanark health units.

Environment Canada also issued winter storm warnings for most parts of Quebec, with 25 centimetres of snow expected in the areas of Montreal and for the provincial capital, while the Gatineau region, close to Ottawa, could see up to 40 centimetres of snow before the end of the day.

For Montrealer Olivier Lecomte and his three children, the snowy conditions didn’t stop them from enjoying a day outside. 

“A snowball fight, building a snow castle and shopping around,” Lecomte said, describing what Monday’s storm had in store for the family. 

While elementary and high school students had been expected to resume in-person learning on Monday across Quebec, most institutions remained closed due to the weather. Lecomte children’s school was no exception. 

“We were expecting to finally have them back in school after online classes, but we adapted once again today because of the storm,” Lecomte said.  

The streets of the city's Plateau-Mont-Royal borough were empty Monday afternoon, but 71-year-old Louise Paul was out, already shoveling her car. She said she was hoping to take the road by the end of the day to run some errands.  

“We are used to this here in Quebec, I was expecting it to be much more intense than this,” Paul said, pausing to contemplate the amount of work she was facing. “Although, maybe I’ll wait (for) tomorrow.”

Driving conditions deteriorated rapidly Monday afternoon across Quebec. 

The provincial police reported multi-car pileups, closing parts of three major highways around Montreal. Police said in a statement some people suffered injuries, but “none appear to be life-threatening at this time.” Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel issued several tweets, asking people to remain vigilant.

“Once again, I'm asking people to avoid travel,” Bonnardel said Monday.

Winter storm and wind warnings were also in place for much of Alberta, including Edmonton. In parts of the province, Environment Canada said temperature drops of 10 to 15 C were possible in a short period of time. 

In northern Manitoba, the weather agency issued extreme cold weather warnings, saying temperatures in the -30s combined with wind speeds of 10 to 20 km/h would produce an "extended period of extreme wind chill values over the next few days." Parts of southern Manitoba were expected to see heavy snowfall Monday evening. 

Winter storm, snowfall and freezing rain warnings were issued in parts of Saskatchewan as well. 

— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Noushin Ziafati in Toronto and Virginie Ann in Montreal

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2022.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press