MONTREAL - A powerful mix of snow, ice pellets and freezing rain was descending on Eastern Canada on Saturday, causing flight delays and highway accidents on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
Environment Canada issued weather warnings for an area stretching from southern Ontario to Prince Edward Island.
Already, difficult conditions may have played a role in three deaths in three separate highway accidents in Quebec on Saturday, along with a fourth in Ontario.
Freezing rain began falling in the early hours of Saturday morning in parts of Quebec and Ontario, with more forecast to arrive by late evening.
The conditions caused dozens of cancellations and delays through midnight Saturday at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport and Toronto's Pearson International and Billy Bishop airports.
Katarina Komesarovic, from London, Ont., was trying to stay optimistic that her Saturday night flight from Toronto to Timmins in northeastern Ontario wouldn't be cancelled, and throw a wrench into her Christmas plans.
"It would be the first year that I have not returned in the nine years that I've been away from home, so it would be a big deal — especially for my parents. But I'm hoping... that we do make the flight tonight and I will be able to see them for the holidays," she said Saturday afternoon as she was boarding a shuttle bus for Bishop.
But forecasters predicted the worst was yet to come.
Environment Canada said a "major ice storm" was expected across a large swath of southern Ontario late Saturday as part of a "potent" system from the southern United States.
Talk of a heavy dose of freezing rain even had some people on social media recalling the infamous ice storm of 1998, though meteorologists said this weekend's system was unlikely to compare.
In that earlier storm, parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes were battered by three successive waves of freezing rain without interruption, leaving millions without power — in some cases for more than a month.
This time around, the forecast was for two waves of freezing rain with a break in between, the first hitting eastern Ontario and southern Quebec early Saturday morning, said Mitch Meredith, a meteorologist with Environment Canada.
Even if the current storm doesn't stack up to the 1998 version, Meredith said it should be taken seriously.
He said it will gradually make its way eastward, causing flight delays and poor driving conditions through Sunday.
"We're thinking that things could get a little worse tonight as the cold air is entrenched," he said.
"Slowly as the ice builds up the impact will increase."
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the carrier is doing what it can to minimize any disruptions.
"Our aim is to carry as many customers as we can and operate as many flights as conditions permit, and for those whose flights are cancelled we are looking for capacity, including by adding flights when possible," he said in an email.
The airline is advising passengers check their flight status before heading to the airport, and check in online to speed things up.
The weekend before Christmas is traditionally one of the busiest for travelling in Canada.
Among the trouble spots Saturday afternoon was Kingston and other nearby communities in eastern Ontario, where tree branches became encased in ice and city streets were made slick from freezing rain the night before.
With the street in front of his home transformed by ice, Kingston resident Derek Ochej turned the roadway hazard into a "stereotypically Canadian" moment by lacing up his skates and going for a spin.
"It wasn't too bad. I've played on worse rinks before," Ochej said, with his Saturday morning jaunt captured on video and shared online by his wife.
"An ice storm like this can be a little scary, a little dangerous, but I figured we can have some fun with it too."
An additional 30 mm of freezing rain could fall on southern Ontario, while parts of the province may see snow and ice pellets totalling up to 15 cm.
Roughly 28,000 customers were without power in southern Ontario with the biggest concentrations in the Kingston-area and the Greater Toronto Area, according to Ontario's Hydro One.
Utility spokeswoman Marylena Stea said crews will be on stand-by all weekend.
"We were anticipating some major weather this weekend, and it's starting to hit in a lot of areas in the province," she said.
Toronto Hydro was reporting some sporadic outages affecting several thousand customers.
In the Montreal area, a total of 15 to 30 cm of snow mixed with ice pellets was expected, with between 15 and 40 mm of freezing rain forecast in several areas south of the St. Lawrence River.
Further east, extended periods of freezing rain were expected Saturday evening and persist until late Sunday in New Brunswick and P.E.I.
Andy Firth, an Environment Canada meteorologist for the Maritimes, said the freezing rain was expected to change to snow overnight in central New Brunswick and P.E.I., with up to 25 centimetres in the forecast.
Up to 40 mm of freezing rain and rain was predicted over southwestern and central parts of Nova Scotia, beginning overnight and lasting more than 12 hours, Firth said.
— with files from Aly Thomson in Halifax and Will Campbell in Toronto