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Groundhog Day: Fred is dead in Quebec, Willie and Sam at odds over spring's arrival

South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Garry Michi looks at Wiarton Willie in a Plexiglas box during the annual Groundhog Day event in Wiarton, Ont., Thursday, Feb.2, 2023. Ontario's Wiarton Willie has called for an early spring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Doug Ball

The death of a prognosticating rodent in Quebec cast a shadow over Groundhog Day festivities on Thursday, while the notable furry forecasters who made their predictions were split over spring’s arrival.

Fred la Marmotte is dead, organizers in Val D’Espoir, Que., told the crowd that had gathered in anticipation of the rodent's annual prediction. 

The announcement came after most of the event, including a dance break with a large Fred mascot, had taken place without indication of the animal's death. 

"In life, the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain,” Roberto Blondin, an organizer, eventually told the crowd. 

Blondin explained that Fred did not have vital signs when efforts were made to wake the animal from a winter slumber. He said the nine-year-old groundhog likely passed away in the late fall or early December. 

In Fred's place, organizers pulled a stuffed toy groundhog from Fred's miniature wooded cabin, handed it to a young boy and then lifted the child in the air. The boy later convened with other kids on a stage before calling for six more weeks of winter.

According to folklore, if a groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog Day, winter will drag on. However, if it doesn't spot its shadow, spring-like weather will soon arrive.

Among the famous Canadian groundhogs who made it to sunrise, predictions were divided. 

Ontario's Wiarton Willie called for an early spring while Shubenacadie Sam, Nova Scotia's most famous groundhog, apparently saw her shadow Thursday morning as she emerged from a snow-covered enclosure at a wildlife park north of Halifax.

The turn of events in Quebec recalls Groundhog Days gone by. 

On Groundhog Day 1999, children burst into tears when Wiarton Willie's handlers announced the groundhog had died two days before. In his place, a white groundhog they claimed to be Willie was brought out in a tiny pine coffin, holding a carrot.

The scene made international headlines but the mayor of the Town of South Bruce Peninsula had to later admit the stuffed groundhog in the casket was not, in fact, Willie, but a stand-in. 

On Groundhog Day 2021, there was more Willie controversy. 

The groundhog was nowhere to be seen for the virtual festivities on the decisive morning – the town released a video that showed the mayor tossing a fur hat and making the annual prediction. There was no in-person event due to the pandemic.

It took nine months before the town acknowledged the white-furred albino rodent had died.

Willie's handlers in South Bruce Peninsula brought in an understudy last year, but that animal was the usual brown colour — a break from a decades-old tradition.

This year's replacement — another white groundhog — was recruited last summer from Cleveland, Ohio, said town spokesperson Danielle Edwards. 

That Willie was brought out on stage in a Plexiglas box on Thursday and South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Garry Michi put an ear to the box and declared the rodent had heralded spring's arrival. Local legend has it the mayor is the only person who can speak "Groundhogese".  

Just after 8 a.m. local time in Shubenacadie, N.S., the door to Sam's pint-sized barn was opened, and she slowly backed out into the cold, and then scurried over the snow towards a fence.

The annual tradition at the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park, broadcast live on Facebook, has been closed to visitors for the past two years because of COVID-19 gathering restrictions – and the in-person festivities were cancelled in 2020 because of a storm.

But a small crowd, including a group of children, braved the -20 C weather Thursday.

As expected, Sam was the first groundhog in North America to make a prediction — thanks to the Atlantic time zone. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, Punxsutawney Phil agreed with Sam, predicting six more weeks of winter. Phil's prediction came during a week when ice, sleet and snow has lingered across much of the southern U.S.

Folklorists say the Groundhog Day ritual may have something to do with Feb. 2 landing midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but no one knows for sure. In medieval Europe, farmers believed that if hedgehogs emerged from their burrows to catch insects, that was a sure sign of an early spring.

However, when Europeans settled in eastern North America, the groundhog was substituted for the hedgehog.

In a playful, peer-reviewed study published by the American Meteorological Society, researchers at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., concluded that groundhogs are "beyond a shadow of a doubt" no better at predicting spring's arrival than flipping a coin.

- with files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Michael MacDonald in Halifax. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023. 

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press

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