From Pakistan to Wiarton — My Family’s Journey to Groundhog Day

In memory of Wiarton Willie (2004–2017)

For as long as I can remember, my mother has loved the 1993 Bill Murray movie ‘Groundhog Day’. I’m not sure when or how she first watched it, but the excitement and joy she would experience whenever the movie would air was something else. The themes of love, happiness, and accepting one’s lot in life were not just poignant, but also relevant to my mother. Growing up in Pakistan, life isn’t always easy or fair, and for my mother, the movie and its message were timeless and motivated her to always think of the possibility of a better tomorrow.

Unsurprisingly, my siblings and I also grew up with a deep connection with the film and it’s titular character, and world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. We thought Groundhog Day was just an American thing, but after we immigrated to Canada in 2005, my mother somehow found out that Canada had it’s own famous, psychic groundhog, Wiarton Willie. Each year in February, my family and I would all get together, make chai (Pakistani tea), huddle around the TV and watch Groundhog Day, which was normally playing in a loop all day on some movie channel in homage to how the film unfolds as well. We’d laugh, cry and hug one another and make a promise to someday attend Groundhog Day in person. It was our collective dream, and on February 2nd, 2009, that dream came true.

One very cold winter morning in January that year, my mother called me as I was walking to class. I had moved away to attend the University of Waterloo and the rest of my family was back in Mississauga.

“Hina, let’s go to Groundhog Day this year! I looked at the route, it’s only 2 hours away from Waterloo. If you don’t mind missing school on Monday, we can all drive together and finally see Wiarton Willie!”

The thrill and delight in her voice was unmistakeable and I couldn’t say no. I agreed, and on January 31st, my mother, brother and sister all drove to Waterloo, picked me up, and headed towards Bruce Peninsula, a part of Ontario we hadn’t traveled to before. The drive there was full of anticipation, laughter and joy. We saw the snowbanks get progressively higher the closer we got to our destination. We saw people in Wiarton, not driving, but riding on snowmobiles on the road, like something out a movie. It was our first foray into Canadian living outside of a big city or town, and we loved it.

At one point our GPS stopped working and we ended up lost driving through a narrow path in the woods, completely alone, with not a single person or car in sight. It was surreal. Everything was covered in snow and it felt like a world straight out of a fantasy novel.

“Narnia,” my brother called it, and we all agreed.

The next day we drove around the little town of Wiarton and explored all its groundhog themed attractions. We were still relatively new Canadians and hadn’t traveled much outside of the GTA. The opportunity to explore our new home and meet fellow Canadians from different walks of life was the most exciting aspect of it all. We visited the Wiarton Willie Statue, talking to the lifesize sculpture as though it were a real person. We had a snow fight and my mom made snow angels in the snow, her first time doing so. Thinking back on it now, this was probably the moment we all realized how much our lives had changed and the extraordinary journey we had made from Lahore, Pakistan to the frozen shores of Colpoy’s Bay, Ontario. The life we had imagined we could have was now our reality. We might not have shared these words out loud, but our smiles indicated that we all understood this deep down.

On February 2nd, Groundhog Day, we woke up before dawn and headed to town for the pancake breakfast that would kick off the day’s festivities. People were there from all across Canada, and as the crowd gathered outside, my family and I felt as though we would burst from excitement. Wiarton Willie was brought out, the albino prognosticator looking cute as ever. As we watched the town’s mayor read out Willie’s prediction for spring (we had six more weeks to go), I couldn’t help but look around and feel the possibilities that lay ahead of me in my life. We had been welcomed with open arms to our new home and had embraced it back. The journey to attend Groundhog Day was a journey to ourselves, to realize our dreams had come true, and that we no longer had to imagine living another life while watching a film that transported us to the kind of world we aspired to be in.

I looked over at my mother as she was trying to get a view of Willie, standing on her toes. I hugged her and told her I loved her, thanking her for making this trip.

“I needed to make this trip,” she replied. “I’m so happy we came.”