HALIFAX — As an immense arctic air mass expanded over the eastern half of the country on Friday, Environment Canada issued an unusually long list of extreme cold warnings that covered six provinces — from Ontario to Newfoundland and Labrador.
In scores of cities and towns, government and private agencies scrambled to provide shelter for vulnerable people as the wind was expected to make the temperature feel like -40 C to -50 C in many areas.
"These temperatures are certainly the coldest that I can remember," said Geoffrey Downey, spokesman for New Brunswick's Emergency Measures Organization. "They're calling for -43 C to -47 C across the province with the wind chill. That just creates all kinds of problems."
Downey said he had one message for the public: "Stay home … No one should be outside."
In Quebec City, where the temperature was expected to drop to -27 C Friday afternoon with a wind chill index of -45, it was too cold for the Quebec Winter Carnival. Organizers announced Thursday that the opening of the annual celebration, set for Friday, would be postponed until Saturday.
Meanwhile, Hydro-Québec issued a list of tips to help reduce the demand for electricity, which the utility said could exceed historic highs.
"Across the province, extremely low temperatures will put buildings’ capacity to retain heat to the test," the utility said, adding that residents and businesses should turn down the heat by one or two degrees, use less hot water and reduce the use of major appliances.
In Ontario, the extreme cold that gripped the northern half of the province through the week had reached the south by Friday. Environment Canada said wind chill indexes could read -30 C in the Greater Toronto Area, while in Ottawa it could feel closer to -40 C. And around Hudson Bay, the forecast called for a bone-jarring wind chill of -50.
In Nova Scotia, Environment Canada meteorologist Ian Hubbard said residents in Halifax should brace for icy gusts that will make it feel like -43 C, which could set a record for an area that hasn't had an extreme cold warning since 2015.
"Some of these values are actually going to be coming close to some of the all-time wind chills we've seen," Hubbard said in an interview from Dartmouth, N.S. "Some people may never have experienced wind chills this cold before."
Residents of Prince Edward Island were also being warned about bitterly cold conditions, with the wind making it feel as cold -41 C overnight — and Hubbard said wind chill values will be even lower in New Brunswick, where it could feel like -45 C across the province.
In these conditions, frostbite can develop in minutes on exposed skin, which has set off alarm bells for those who offer services to people without housing.
Rev. Kyle Wagner at Christ Church in downtown Dartmouth said the men's shelter has been packed in recent weeks, which is why plans are in the works to make more room for those who don't normally come inside.
"We're already at capacity most nights," Wagner said in an interview. "People can't afford their bills. At our food bank, we get about 250 a week, and prior to COVID it was around 70 or 80 .... And there's lots of challenges with mental health and addictions. It's all connected."
As well, economic challenges have been compounded by a lack of affordable housing in the Halifax area, which is now one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.
"We have people coming every day asking us to help them fill out applications for housing," Wagner said. "There needs to be more affordable housing. But what's considered affordable now is not really affordable."
Wagner said the latest forecast is dire enough that he's afraid of what may happen.
"With the temperatures they're forecasting, it's common sense that someone might not be able to survive .... From my understanding, the city and the province are working together, and I'm hoping people will be looked after.
Denice LeVangie, director of the North Park Street emergency shelter in Halifax, said beds are being added and opening hours have been extended. She’s also arranged a shuttle service to move people once church shelters close in the morning.
Temporary beds were also being added in daycare centres and church halls, and the province has committed to paying for hotel rooms if the shelters run out of room.
"Police are going to be going around … and there is a rescue truck that’s been going around to make sure there’s nobody on the street,” LeVangie said in an interview. “The more people we can get out of the cold, the safer it will be."
Across the island of Newfoundland, the wind will make it feel like -30 C, but snow squalls are also in the forecast for almost every region.
In Labrador, where extreme cold is a regular occurrence, warnings aren't issued until the wind chill factor reaches -45 C. Still, blizzard warnings are in effect for the region's north coast, and up to 25 centimetres of snow is expected farther south and across the interior.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press