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Film / First Winter

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First Winter is a 1981 short film (27 minutes) directed by John N. Smith, produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

The time setting is 1830. A family of Irish immigrants, fleeing starvation and poverty in Ireland, have planted roots in an isolated area of the Ottawa River valley. As the film starts, the father is absent, having traveled downriver to earn cash working in a logging camp. The mother and the children—teenaged Máire and considerably younger Tomás—struggle to make it through the winter, eating their stored food and chopping up the trees that the father felled for firewood. It's a hard, perilous life that gets even harder when the mother falls ill.



  • An Immigrant's Tale: A family of Irish immigrants, struggling to survive their first winter in the frozen Canadian wilderness. They insist on holding on to their traditions despite being alone in a new land. When the mother dies, Máire forces Tomás to smoke tobacco, because that's traditional mourning for men, and there are no other men around to smoke.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The family still pray and sing in Irish, and address their parents as a Mhamaí and a Dhaidí.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The children survive the winter and with the spring their father returns. But their mother is obviously still dead, and they're still strangers in a lonely, isolated land. See Title Drop below.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Tomás. At first he's just lazy, singing and playing while his mother and sister are chopping wood. After the mother dies he retreats farther into this persona, refusing to help when Máire asks him, saying that they're all going to die. After she tells him their story as a fairy tale where he's the hero, he snaps out of it, determinedly chopping trees.
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  • Determined Homesteader's Wife: The mother, hacking firewood and forcing Tomás to choke down the salted pork that's part of their meagre winter stores. Máire becomes the Determined Homesteader's Daughter after her mother dies.
  • Disappeared Dad: The father, off somewhere downriver working in a logging camp while his family struggles to survive the winter. It's understandable, as a family looking to build a farm in the wilderness would need seed and livestock and tools and that would require cash. It was still pretty darn risky, though, as the family has no one to turn to if things go bad, which they do.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Not hard to guess from the coughing and wheezing that the mother does in the first scene that she's in for a bad fate.
  • Narrator: Máire, who recounts the story of her family's very difficult first winter in frontier Canada.
  • Shown Their Work: Máire says the family fled famine in Ireland, despite the year being 1830, and the Great Famine not happening until 1845-49. (IMDB even lists this as a "Goof".) There were actually a number of lesser-known famines earlier on, including a particularly bad local famine in Connacht and Munster in the summer of 1830. By the characters' accents (in English and Irish) it's obvious they're from Munster, so they must have fled this famine.
  • Snowed-In: And they narrowly escape Snow Means Death. Máire tries to take Tomás overland and down the river to the logging town, but eventually gives up and goes back to the cabin. In narration she says it's a miracle from Saint Anthony that they made it back to the cabin rather than getting lost and freezing to death.
  • Title Drop: The last lines as delivered by Máire the narrator, marking the Bittersweet Ending.
    "That first winter had ended, but an emptiness remained. The winter had taken our mother, and a bit of ourselves."