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Goodbye, winter.

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Wiarton Willie predicted an early spring Wednesday morning with crisp resolution as the famous festival went virtual again amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Janice Jackson joined Willie on stage to translate the 66th annual Groundhog Prediction. Bill Walker, MPP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Mike Rencheck, CEO of Bruce Power, Veronica Smith, Chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, and Regan McKenzie, daughter of festival founder Mac McKenzie, attached to Jackson.

Prior to Willie’s Weather Forecast, volunteer Jeff Brown received the Mac McKenzie Award for his volunteerism.

The scene was played live on the city’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Purple capes and stark white vestments adorned the dignitaries and contrasted sharply with the falling snow.

The livestream lasted less than 20 minutes.

Willie was not seen during the proceedings. A pair of town criers tried to wake the whistle pig, but it was buried deep in the straw lining the plexiglass prediction capsule, which could spark conspiracies and innuendo as the groundhog’s murky story predicting Wiarton’s time made international headlines.

Recently, the Canadian Press, Canadaland and The Guardian dug deep into Wiarton’s groundhog’s day burrow in hopes of uncovering its secrets.

Willie’s conspicuous absence from virtual Groundhog Day festivities in 2021, and the city’s subsequent decision to shroud his disappearance in mystery before finally announcing his death from a tooth abscess some nine months later, was the latest in a strange, tangled story involving pine coffins, live funerals, taxidermy and trickery.

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Jackson said she had no doubt Willie’s decision to stay in hiding would fan the flames of the conspiracy, but immediately after the proceedings the city sent photos of the groundhog with the mayor.

“We took some pictures after Willie and I. I know, it’s too bad he was buried in the straw, but I could still hear him,” Jackson said. “We were trying to avoid a second mystery.”

(web)Willie

Jackson said she doesn’t mind the extra attention, though it has led some to wonder how the groundhogs the city cares for are being treated. To that end, Jackson said they lead a pampered life in an enclosure designed by the Toronto Zoo and are fed twice a day.

“I guess any publicity is great publicity. It’s kind of weird how people have taken this mystery and twisted it into all kinds of interesting theories,” Jackson said.

Willie’s wisdom went against the grain in 2022.

Shubenacadie Sam from Nova Scotia saw his shadow and predicted a long winter. Lucy the Lobster mirrored her provincial partner’s prediction for an extended winter season, as did Fred the groundhog from Quebec and famed Punxsutawney Phil from Pennsylvania.

West of Willie, Manitoba, Merv predicted another six weeks of winter after seeing his shadow at the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Center north of Winnipeg, as did Albertan Balzac Billy, a human imposter dressed in a fur suit.

Canadian meteorologist Cindy Day previously pegged Willie’s success rate at just 25% over the years, although the term “early spring” does leave some wiggle room.

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Jackson said Willie’s prediction record is flawless, but sometimes the message is lost in translation, resulting in an incorrect reading.

In Wiarton, prediction isn’t just about seeing shadows, it’s about whispers. Wiarton Willie predicts the weather in “groundhog”, which is then translated into English by the mayor of the day.

“Willie is always right, it’s about whether or not I understand what he’s telling me, because of course he’s talking in a groundhog so if the prediction is wrong, it’s my fault, not Willie’s,” Jackson said.

Willie made another prediction on Wednesday: a return to “normal” in 2023.

“He said early spring and back to normal next year,” Jackson relayed by phone Wednesday morning.

Normal, including the return of an albino groundhog if the city can find one in time, the “cute” brown replacement will return if not, Jackson said.

“It went today pretty much as usual when we would have a crowd on a regular prediction matinee, but of course without the 1,000 people in attendance, the entertainment, the fireworks” , Jackson said.

If Willie’s second prediction comes true, one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions will once again see the light of day.

If not, rest assured, Willie was never wrong.

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