On a brisk weekend morning, a handful of hearty Canadians gathered atop Murray’s Mountain in Orangeville, Ont., to defend their right to hurtle face-first down an icy slope on a wooden sled.
“Tobogganing is as Canadian as maple syrup, and it’s a thing that pretty much every kid I know who could do, did,” said Rob Stewart, who organized a protest “Sled In” on Sunday. “It’s a fun, clean, healthy activity. You get out, do your tobogganing and then have a bit of hot chocolate to warm up.”
But it was not just fun and games: this was an act of defiance.
Mr. Stewart was among a small but growing cadre of freedom sliders, who insist on the right to participate in this long-loved Canadian pastime.
As more cities in Canada and the U.S. become concerned with liability costs and catastrophic injuries, they are passing by-laws, posting signs, restricting access and even outright banning tobogganing. The crackdown has inspired pro-sledding protests, music videos and petitions.
Tobogganing has been banned on Murray’s Mountain, which was moulded into an irresistibly slippery set of curves from a pile of waste material decades ago.
“It’s silly. It’s one of those absurd things that often happens in the modern world we live in,” said Orangeville Mayor Jeremy Williams.
The city banned tobogganing on the hill shortly after it purchased the land in 2009 due to insurance issues. But when residents caught wind of a newly replaced sign about four weeks ago, they decided to gather in defiance of the end of winter fun.
“I was quite surprised and I was quite upset at the fact that somebody would post a ‘No Toboggan’ sign on a toboggan hill. It just doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Stewart said.
“The south side of the hill is actually fairly gentle; the slope is great for smaller kids.”
The mayor concurs, noting that the town council met on Monday evening to discuss obtaining insurance clauses so kids would be able to continue enjoying a toboggan hill that had been in use for generations.
“The hill was built as a toboggan hill. It was designed as a toboggan hill. It will be used as a toboggan hill, and just putting a sign up … tobogganing is going to be something people are still going to do, short of putting up a concrete barrier.”
Mr. Stewart said about 50 people showed up for the Sled In on Sunday. No one was chastised or fined; in fact, the mayor himself attended with a thermos of hot chocolate.
In Hamilton, Ont., meanwhile, musician Laura Cole is fighting the power of city council with a petition and a music video, which features her singing and defiantly slipping down a hill — despite the fact that the city has implemented an all out sledding ban on most of its hills.
“It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a law against one of our national pastimes!” she said. “Especially in Hamilton it should still be part of our culture. This is a working class town and not everyone can afford to go skiing or snowboarding or pay for figure skating or hockey lessons,” she said, noting that at 25 years old she still maintains a preference for the classic wooden toboggan.
She purchased hers at Canadian Tire. In Hamilton. Despite the fact that sledding is not permitted there.
“The by-law has never been enforced. So do you support tobogganing or do you not support tobogganing? Why make it seem like it’s OK for kids to disobey a by-law?” she asked. “It doesn’t make sense. There has got to be some kind of middle ground so that as a city we don’t lose a national pastime and the taxpayers can keep their dollars.”
Hamilton has been the site of one of the country’s largest toboggan-related lawsuits.
In 2013, after a protracted legal dispute, courts ordered Hamilton to pay a local lawyer $900,000 to compensate for a 2004 sledding injury.
Although many municipalities across Canada, including Ottawa and Calgary, maintain official tobogganing hills, Mr. Williams fears carefree sledding days of yore may be under threat unless the province changes legislation to ensure municipalities aren’t on the hook for huge liability payments.
Still, on Sunday Mr. Williams said he gave away 42 cups of hot chocolate to sledders who wore helmets. He also kept his first aid kit, and a representative from St. John’s Ambulance on hand. Just in case.
Mr. Stewart acknowledges tobogganing can present a serious risk. When he was 14, he broke his arm in a sledding mishap.
But that hasn’t prevented him from taking his three children to Murray’s Mountain.
“Most reasonable people would expect a sign saying ‘toboggan at your own risk,’” he said.