Canadians nurse winter wounds as cities grapple with icy sidewalks

By Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

All it took was one foul step, and Ahsher Zeldin was in for at least a week of pain.

Last Thursday, Zeldin was taking his two dogs out for an early morning stroll in north Toronto when a patch of black ice flipped him over on his back. Staring up at the dark winter sky, he tried to process what had just happened, his head pulsing and pain radiating in his shoulders.

The 22-year-old nursing student decided to walk it off and head to the hospital for his shift. It wasn’t long before he found himself waiting in the emergency room for four and a half hours for an X-ray that revealed he had separated a joint in his shoulders, which could take weeks to heal even with physiotherapy.

“This caught me completely off guard, and that’s why it was such a terrible fall,” Zeldin said. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping. And I’m home alone, so I have duties I have to do for my family and my dog, and it’s been an inconvenience.”

He’s one of many Canadians nursing winter wounds as sheets of ice send pedestrians skidding across the country.

In Toronto, the city’s winter operations tweeted it was mobilizing a brigade of salters Wednesday morning to get ahead of the snowy forecast, warning it would be a “day of extreme patience.”

In Ottawa, ice-clogged streets are making ordinary tasks like grabbing a coffee or getting groceries a risky endeavour.

There were nearly 9,000 hospitalizations due to falls on ice in Canada in 2016-2017, making them the number-one cause of sport or winter injuries, according to the latest stats from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Quebec accounted for more of these hospital visits than any other province or territory. And according to one Montreal health-care network, this winter has been particularly hazardous.

The McGill University Health Centre has seen an uptick in the number of patients being admitted due to falls on ice this season, a spokesman said, with a notable surge at the end of January due to the varying climate.

Dr. Jean-Marc Troquet, chief of the emergency medicine department, said after a bout of bad weather, ice-related admissions to the hospital often triple.

While the emergency department is built to handle the volume, Troquet said the influx of slip-and-fallers can lead to delays and backlogs for certain treatments.

The most common ice-related injuries he sees are wrist and ankle fractures and head trauma. But Troquet said some people are more vulnerable to being hurt by a fall on ice, particularly those who use mobility devices and the elderly.

Mary Stark, executive director of Contactivity Centre, a seniors’ program for social and physical activities, says the sharp changes in weather this winter have forced it to close its doors on at least three occasions — a record.

“It’s been difficult for everyone, but it has been difficult for seniors in particular,” Stark said. “Some of the things we’ve recommended in the past in countering that kind of situation just don’t cut it.”  

Meanwhile, cities across the country are struggling to defrost streets and sidewalks in what has proved to be an unusually icy winter.

Since the beginning of January, Montreal has seen 191 centimetres of snowfall and collected 12 million cubic meters of snow — the equivalent of an average full winter, according to a city spokeswoman. This has coincided with heavy rains and wide oscillations in temperature, creating a freeze-and-thaw cycle that has posed obstacles for snow and ice removal.

The massive accumulations of ice have also contributed to an increase in equipment failures, forcing the city to rent machines from external providers to keep operations running. 

Toronto’s transportation division has received 1,744 service requests about icy sidewalks between Dec. 1, 2018 and Monday of this week — a nearly 120-per-cent increase compared to the same period last winter, according to numbers provided by the city.

Crews in Ottawa have been chipping away at the ice buildup, but some citizens say swaths of the city are still frozen under.

One resident decided to take advantage of the slippery season in a viral video that shows him skating down his residential street while stick-handling a hockey puck.

But it isn’t all fun and games for Alison Thomas, whose 14-year-old son fell three times while walking home from school in an east-end Ottawa suburb after his bus was immobilized by a run-in with a snowbank.

“We’ve lived in this house for the last 14 years, and the street has never been like this,” said Thomas. “I feel like all the side streets are being neglected.”

While citizens can often file claims against cities alleging they’ve suffered injuries as a result of an icy sidewalk, numbers suggest the chances of a financial compensation may be slim.

In 2017, 147 claims about icy sidewalks and slip and falls were filed against the City of Toronto, according to an August 2018 disclosure report. Of the 24 claims resolved, only two were paid out.

In January 2019, 70 claims were filed against the City of Montreal. The previous year, 173 claims were filed against the city over ice-related injuries, and only three were granted.

Brian Goldfinger, a Toronto-based personal injury lawyer, said according to Ontario law, a plaintiff has to establish “gross negligence” to win a slip-and-fall case against a municipality. This is a higher standard than negligence claims against private property owners, said Goldfinger, and one that’s incredibly difficult to overcome.

“They’re not going not going to be held to a standard of perfection. The city or the municipality — they are afforded generous protections,” said Goldfinger. “It’s kind of impossible for (the municipality) to get every single speck of ice off the ground when they’re covering so much area.

“It’s Canada, you’re not going to stop winter.”


—With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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