It’s that time of the year again — the period after the initial excitement of snow and the new year have worn off, leaving us with grey sludge and sub-zero temperatures. Personally, I’m ready for winter to be over so I can feel less like a walking snowball. 

Luckily, we’re approaching February 2, also known as Groundhog Day, when the titular small mammal will come out of hibernation to tell us when spring will come again. But for Wiarton Willie, the famous Ontarian prognostic groundhog, spring will not come this year. In fact, it hasn’t come for some time — because Willie has been dead since at least last Groundhog Day.

Every year, the town of South Bruce Peninsula in Ontario hosts the Wiarton Willie Festival. It began with a large group of friends who had a party on Groundhog Day to combat the winter blues. When a reporter heard of their gathering and came in search of the advertised groundhog, the organizer responded by throwing a fur hat into the snow. As the years went on, the party of 100 grew into the full-blown festival it is now.

Now, every February 2, Wiarton Willie — an actual albino groundhog — is brought out for Prediction Morning. The story is the same: If he sees his shadow, winter will continue for another six weeks. If not, spring will come early. According to local legend, Willie, the powerful albino groundhog, has been given the ability to accurately predict the arrival of spring.

Last November, the mayor of South Bruce Peninsula announced that Wiarton Willie would not be in attendance at the 2022 Groundhog Day ceremony, as he had sadly passed away from a tooth abscess. But, perhaps somewhat scandalously, at the time of the announcement, the prophetic groundhog had already been dead for months — even before Groundhog Day 2021. The passing of this local celebrity was covered up for almost an entire year before it was formally announced.

South Bruce Peninsula held a virtual event last year in place of their usual live festival — an unsurprising pivot given the pandemic. A prerecorded three-minute video briefly summarized the history of the festival, and then it was time for Willie’s prediction.

Except Willie never made an appearance. The prognosis was delivered by a white fur cap tossed into the snow that was declared by the mayor a sign of an early spring. This sparked speculation that Willie was dead, a rumour that would only be confirmed over nine months later.

Although the exact date of Willie’s death remains a mystery to the public, the town has confirmed that it was before his usual hibernation period in 2020. And since albinism in groundhogs is a rare trait, a brown groundhog will have to be used for 2022’s ceremony until a worthy successor for Willie can be found.

After doing a deep dive on this, because I was both extremely fascinated and confused by the idea of a groundhog death scandal, I was left with one burning question: Why now? Why, after many months have passed and so close to the next Groundhog Day, did the town leaders choose to reveal Wiarton Willie’s death? Was their conscience haunted by the deceased, or could they just not keep the fact a secret any longer without a replacement or an explanation?

The mayor claimed that keeping Willie’s death a secret was to protect the “Wiarton Willie brand,” as the groundhog is one of the town’s key attractions. 

As history has clearly shown, though, the groundhog’s lack of physical well-being would not necessarily undermine the event’s continued existence. Over the nearly 66 years of the festival, this isn’t the first time a Willie has died and left event organizers unprepared. In 1999, the Willie at the time was found frozen to death. Without a replacement, the ‘groundhog committee’ turned the festival into a funeral, unveiling an old stuffed groundhog in a casket and startling audiences.

Personally, I would take a fur hat or a brown groundhog over a stuffed albino one any day, because holding a public funeral just seems to slightly undermine the celebratory spirit to me. Even if the new groundhog doesn’t have the same prognostic powers foretold by legend, I don’t think it matters to festival-goers who just want to have a good time, early spring or not.

According to meteorological evidence from the Canadian Encyclopedia, the groundhogs’ weather predictions have an accuracy rate of under 40 per cent, so it’s not as if we really take their prognosis as a weather forecast. Just like its original organizers intended, the festival on Groundhog Day is used as a way to bring joy to people during the harsh Canadian winter, well after the effects of the holiday season have faded away — and with or without Willie.