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Canadians react with delight as eclipse moves across the country

Stars twinkled in the afternoon sky in parts of the country where the clouds parted for rare event
A total solar eclipse is set to fall over parts of Canada, gathering massive crowds in its path who hope to catch a glimpse of the rare celestial event. A blue sky shines below the sun as a person walks with an infant along the shores of Lake Ontario, a day before a total solar eclipse will be visible in Kingston, Ont., Sunday, April 7, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Earth-bound audiences turned skyward as the sun moved directly behind the moon on Monday, plunging parts of Canada into the darkness of a total solar eclipse and a moment of shared celestial awe.

The first total solar eclipse since 1979 to cast its shadow on Canadian soil crossed into southwestern Ontario shortly before 3:15 p.m. and charted a path into Quebec and Atlantic Canada before exiting Newfoundland about half an hour later.

Temperatures dipped, animals quieted, and rapturous crowds watched as the sun’s corona came into view behind the black disc of the moon. For a moment, stars twinkled in darkened afternoon skies.

Hilding Neilson was emotional and struggling for words as the sun reappeared and soaked Gander, N.L., in its light.

“It was just remarkable, just an amazing experience,” said Neilson, a Memorial University astrophysicist who made the trip from St. John’s with some students.

“Just before totality, feeling it get darker, we felt the temperature drop … it was just amazing to see the darkness.”

While the next total solar eclipse in Canada is expected to pass through western provinces in 20 years, the phenomenon only happens in any given location roughly once every 360 years by some estimates.

Some areas have waited even longer.

Crowds in Kingston, Ont., which last fell under a total solar eclipse almost 700 years ago, cheered and howled as totality moved in. Volunteers hastily told people to put their eclipse glasses back on as the sun reemerged.

“You feel like you’re part of the universe in motion,” said Carole Giangrande. “There’s no human experience that can match it.”

Giangrande and Brian Gibson have been chasing solar eclipses for 45 years, their first dating back to Gimli, Man., in 1979. But the Toronto couple said the chance to capture a solar eclipse never goes out of style.

“So much in the world right now is so rotten, it gives you such a feeling of positivity and people enjoying themselves, and wonder,” Giangrande said of watching an eclipse. “It’s beautiful.”

Grey and cloudy skies broke momentarily as crowds in Niagara Falls, Ont., caught a fleeting view of the total eclipse framed by the iconic waterfalls. Norma Rois, 58, was met with cheers when she yelled that it was her birthday during a moment of the totality.

“I felt like I was with family members the whole time. I don’t know their names, but we were cheering together,” she said.

Iyalie Russell and Gabby Gregor said their own path to watching the eclipse in Niagara Falls started in a history of astronomy course last year at York University. There, they sparked a friendship and laid their plans to eventually watch the solar eclipse together.

“We’ve watched lunar eclipses before together and so it’s like, we just have to keep doing this and keep with the trend,” said Gregor, who drove down with Russell from Toronto to Niagara Falls early Monday morning.

This celestial dance, in which the moon, the sun and the Earth align, is possible thanks to some miraculous stage setting. The moon is about 400 times smaller than the sun, but it’s also about 400 times closer to the Earth – making both appear to be the same size in the sky.

Astronaut David Saint-Jacques said it’s one of the rare times we have a “direct connection with what’s going on in space.”

“It’s a very direct reminder of the reality of the cosmic ballet, if you want, that’s constantly going on,” said Saint-Jacques, who was part of a 204-day mission to the International Space Station starting in 2018, the longest Canadian mission to date.

“I think that’s the magic of it – it’s the connection with the cosmos.”

In Fredericton, six-year-old Temperance Martin held a tiny clay model of Earth, the moon and the sun in her hands as she excitedly talked with her three-year-old sister about the stars they might see.

Some cheered, others clapped, several swore and yet others screamed as a piece of cloud blocking the sun moved away just in time for the moment of totality. Jupiter and Venus dangled to either side of the eclipsed sun.

“It was so cool and awesome. It was amazing,” said five-year-old Lucy Hall.

Kathy Eller of O’Leary, P.E.I., had no regrets after waiting outside for six hours to take in the total eclipse near the province’s northwestern tip.

“It was better than fireworks,” she said. “I forgot about everybody around, and was just concentrating on the sun and the moon. It was kind of like magic.”

Cities and towns in the path of totality watched saw their populations swell with eclipse watchers from near and far.

Len Seals, a NASA optical engineer, said he travelled to Montreal from Washington, D.C., for a chance to see the rare cosmic phenomenon with his wife and two children.

“I’m used to looking at things through a computer screen and seeing images, but not with my own eyes, that’s always a different experience,” said Seals, who works on telescopes, including the James Webb space telescope.

Jugglers from Cirque de Soleil performed for expectant crowds in one of the city’s waterfront parks. As the light faded, streetlights came on and a string of restaurant lights turned on across the streets from the Old Port.

As the sun disappeared behind the moon, crowds cheered and a ship sounded its horn from the St. Lawrence River.

“It was truly magnificent, an awe-inspiring experience,” said Gabrielle Gauthier, there with her seven-year-old daughter Alyssa.

“It’s a learning opportunity for children, it’s important for them to see things like this, because it goes a bit beyond what they can learn in books, or in school, to experience an event like this, I think it will stay with us,” she said.

One in six people live in Canada’s path of totality for Monday’s eclipse, or about 6.1 million people based on 2021 census data, said Statistics Canada, noting the number is likely higher given rapid population growth.

Those outside the path of totality still took in the partial eclipse.

Office workers flooded Toronto sidewalks lit by streetlights and at least one criminal trial taking place in a downtown courthouse took a pause as the skies darkened. In Ottawa, some parliamentary business came to a halt as people exchanged eclipse glasses outside the Library and Archives building.

Total solar eclipses have been central to some major scientific breakthroughs.

Helium was detected for the first time during an 1868 eclipse, and observations made during one in 1919 helped establish broad support for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Astronomy educator Julie Bolduc-Duval said the celestial phenomenon offered people the chance to set aside divisions for a moment together under the shadow of the moon.

“It really makes you realize where you are in the universe,” said Bolduc-Duval, director of Discover the Universe, offered in part by the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

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