A person makes their way through the Sandy Hill neighbourhood of Ottawa, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Storms, extreme weather shut down power and strand holiday travellers across Canada

Flights were cancelled at major airports in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

Ferocious winter weather grounded flights and stranded nine Via Rail trains between Ontario and Quebec on Saturday as snow, freezing rain, high winds and rain hammered much of the country and plunged holiday travel plans into chaos.

The only provinces or territories not affected by an Environment Canada weather warning or statement as of mid-afternoon were Nunavut and Nova Scotia.

Vee Grunda was one of many passengers stranded without food or water aboard a Via Rail train in Cobourg, Ont. She said the train came to a halt around 11 p.m. on Friday, and by noon the next day many were still on board and seeking answers about what to do next.

“We’ve had some panic attacks and then we have some people with diabetes. We have a two-month-old baby, we have a bunch of elderly people,” Grunda said in a telephone interview. “They haven’t turned the lights off… so no one slept. Everything’s just tense.”

Some passengers jumped off the train and ventured into the snow, climbing through backyards in search of a main road, she said.

A replacement train eventually arrived to take Grunda and her fellow passengers on to their destination.

She said firefighters helped transfer passengers from one train to the next and provided medical support in a few cases. Grunda herself said she was offered one oat bar, a small water bottle and a choice between coffee or tea on the replacement train after going without food and water for hours.

Killa Atencio said her sister and four-year-old nephew were stuck on another unmoving Via Rail train in Montreal for 13 hours, beginning around 7 p.m. on Friday. The train didn’t start moving toward its destination in New Brunswick until 8 a.m. the next day, she said in an interview.

Via staff arranged for her sister and nephew to have a cabin on the train so he could sleep, she added.

“This is my nephew’s first train ride, and I know he was pretty excited about this,” Atencio said. “From the pictures my sister’s sending he still looks pretty excited, which I’m so happy for because I was freaking out.”

Via Rail said nine trains running between Quebec City and Windsor were halted by weather-related power outages or downed trees. Seven more trains were cancelled entirely on Saturday morning, the rail company said in a statement.

“Throughout the night, our efforts have been focused on keeping our customers as comfortable as possible in the current circumstances and on bringing them to their final destinations as quickly and as safely as possible,” the statement said. The company said it was working to get the frozen trains moving, or to bring new trains that could safely transport passengers.

But federal Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra issued an afternoon tweet describing the situation with the national rail carrier as “unacceptable.”

“We are in contact with them to resolve all issues safely and efficiently,” he wrote. “The unprecedented weather has caused delays in our transportation system and the safety of passengers and crew is our top priority.”

Meanwhile, Environment Canada said snow squalls, winter storms and blizzards would persist in Ontario and Quebec throughout the day.

“The center of the storm right now is just south of James Bay, the bulk of it is over for Montreal, as well as Toronto, these big centers, but it’s still generating some very strong winds,” meteorologist Gerald Cheng said in an interview, noting that winds were as high as 80 kilometres per hour in some areas. “So that freshly fallen snow in this cold airmass could still be whipped up and cause local blowing snow.”

Parts of southern Ontario near the Great Lakes were seeing blizzard conditions caused by lake-effect snow, which could continue until Wednesday, Cheng said.

The storm is now heading northeast, he said, but it remains a “very large system” that has affected six provinces, he added.

Hydro One said more than 63,600 customers in Ontario were without power as of mid-afternoon, adding electricity had already been restored for 230,000 customers who went without during the first 24 hours of the storm.

Hydro-Québec, meanwhile, reported 234,038 customers in the dark.

Flights were cancelled at major airports in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., and police closed sections of provincial highways due to hazardous driving conditions. A company statement said WestJet cancelled 60 of its 500 scheduled flights on Saturday. The airline has cancelled 1,307 flights since Dec. 18.

In Ontario, staff at a pet boarding service in the Oro-Medonte township near Barrie were fielding calls from owners sidelined by weather delays who couldn’t get home to retrieve their furry family members.

“We have some owners who aren’t going to make it back, but they’re happy their pets are safe here for Christmas with us,” said Tallis Kostuik, operations manager at Royal Pets Hotel and Enrichment.

Rain and high winds were also forecasted through Christmas Eve in the Maritimes, with the storm projected to move into Newfoundland and Labrador on Saturday night.

More than 33,000 customers in the Maritimes were without power early Saturday afternoon, down from more than 90,000 earlier in the day.

In southwestern Newfoundland, a town still recovering from post-tropical storm Fiona was grappling with flooding caused by storm surge. Brian Button, the mayor of Port aux Basques, said roads, playgrounds and a community park were all under water after high tide on Saturday morning.

“The water today, it’s just unbelievable,” said Button said in an interview.

Water was also a problem on the other side of the country, where most of southern British Columbia was under a rainfall warning. Environment Canada called for rainfall accumulations between 25 and 50 millimetres in the Metro Vancouver area, with more expected near the North Shore Mountains.

Vancouver Island could see up to 125 millimetres and parts of the island were under a flood watch.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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