IT’S SNOWING? CALL IN THE ARMY!
(and will never stop hearing about it)
It’s been 20 years, but nobody is ready to let Toronto forget that time the army was called in to dig the city out after a series of snowstorms.
In February 2013, Jason Kenney, then a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet and the future founding leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, looked through a car window at snow falling on the streets of Toronto and saw the makings of a joke.
“I expect to see the Army called in at any moment,” he wrote on Twitter.
In February 2007, CBC’s Rick Mercer Report aired a segment that brought viewers inside a “terrible tragedy” that had recently united Canadians in sorrow: it had snowed in Toronto. Lexuses had been snowed on as they sat in driveways overnight, recalled Mercer, playing the part of a turtlenecked resident. The city’s children had been late for class at their Montessori schools. Torontonians hadn’t known what to do.
“When I saw the snow, I started screaming,” said actress Sonja Smits, playing the role of a welldressed Torontonian. “Where is the army?”
Twenty years ago this weekend, former mayor Mel Lastman enlisted the aid of the military as a series of blizzards battered his city. Scenes of soldiers shovelling sidewalks and steering armoured personnel carriers through downtown intersections drew scorn from hardier parts of the country, eager for any opportunity to shame Toronto.
Lastman had his reasons for calling on the army. A record 118cm of snow blanketed Toronto in the first two weeks of January 1999, immobilizing the subway system, forcing schools and businesses to close and on Jan. 13, prompting him to phone federal defence minister Art Eggleton, himself a former Toronto mayor, to plead for help. More than 300 local reservists answered the call, as did 438 troops dispatched from Petawawa, Ont.
As the soldiers got to work, the rest of Canada looked on with bemusement and snark. “Mayor Mel dials 911,” jeered a headline in Vancouver’s The Province. “Toronto crippled — again — by snow,” sneered another in Saskatoon’s The StarPhoenix. “Embarrassed Toronto struggles while rest of country hides a smile,” the Ottawa Citizen declared on its front page on Jan. 14, the day the Petawawa contingent arrived.
It seems unlikely the city will ever be allowed to forget this moment of infamy, so to mark its 20th anniversary, the National Post spoke to Lastman, Eggleton and a dozen other officials, soldiers and spectators from around the country about their memories of the snowstorm — and their thoughts on the ridicule that ensues to this day. (The job titles cited below are those the interviewees held in January 1999.)
Mel Lastman, mayor of Toronto Look, you don’t know how much snow there was.
Mast.-Cpl. Duncan Nyberg, army reservist in Toronto The city was dead. There were basically no vehicles moving.
Mark Robinson, Torontonian and future TV storm chaser All I remember is getting the car stuck almost constantly trying to get anywhere. At one point, I had to drive up on a sidewalk to get around everybody. There was so much snow everywhere that no one could get down these little side streets — and where I lived, the side street’s not that small.
Lastman I took a drive with my driver through the residential streets in downtown Toronto. You couldn’t get an ambulance down there. You couldn’t get a fire truck through there. They were saying on the radio there was going to be another 50cm of snow or something.
Art Eggleton, Minister of National Defence The military — the reserve military, particularly — had been called out on many emergency circumstances right across the country: floods, ice storms, forest fires. It’s not uncommon for the military to be brought in to support and supplement what the first responders and local citizens are doing.
Lastman It wasn’t me who came up with it. It was my wife. When I told her what the heck was going on, she said, “Call in the army!” I would have been kicking myself in the ass if I hadn’t.
Eggleton Snowfall, Toronto was used to, but this was snowfall after snowfall after snowfall.
Lastman I called Art Eggleton about 11 in the morning.
Eggleton He called me and indicated that he thought the situation was getting dire. After I talked with the mayor, I consulted with the Toronto base commander as to how they saw the circumstances and what they were able to do to help. They came back to me and indicated that if things got much worse — if there was still more of a dump of snow — that it could be quite a critical circumstance.
Nyberg There were two groups of soldiers that responded. The chain of command thought it was prudent to deploy Regular Force soldiers from Petawawa and reservists who were already here.
Warrant Officer Murray Charlton, reservist in Aurora, Ont. We were put on notice that we may have to be used for this imminent huge snowstorm. It started on a Thursday night. I came home from work, had dinner, packed my gear up, threw it in the car and headed down to Fort York.
Lt.-Col. Peter Atkinson, commanding officer of Royal Canadian Dragoons in Petawawa We were the designated immediate reaction unit for any emergency that came up, both domestic or international, at the time of that phone call — or, as I like to call it, the series of phone calls. It was the call from Mel to Art to the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Commander of the Army to my brigade commander to me.
Atkinson We were used to doing things overseas. We’d been to Somalia. We’d been to the Balkans. We were all kinds of other places, helping other people around the world, and this was a case where we could actually do something and help Canadians out at home: first the Winnipeg floods (in 1997), then that ice storm in Ottawa (in 1998), and now we didn’t know what was going to unfold in Toronto, except that in three short hours we packed all the vehicles up and sent off two road convoys. My task was to get to Toronto by first light tomorrow morning.
Lastman They called me back at midnight: “We’re here.” “Who’s here?” “The army’s here.”
Meanwhile, in Prince Edward Island, a convoy of volunteers prepared to travel to Toronto with snowblowers and trucks in tow.
Mike Currie, P.E.I. Minister of Transportation I saw on CTV just the extent of the snow that Toronto had received in five or six days. They had nowhere to put it. Everything just came to a gridlock. The mayor was on TV saying, “We can’t get fire trucks going. We can’t get ambulances to go anywhere.” That was during the day. I had discussions with some staff here, and by the evening I contacted Toronto and said, “If you want, we’ll put together a team.” They said, “Please, because we don’t have anything.” Henry Wooldridge, Charlottetownbased snow plow operator I was going to bed — I was actually just in bed. My boss phoned and said, “Do you want to go to Toronto?”
Currie We put together a group of over 100 people here overnight and gathered up enough equipment between the private contractors and government machinery to float up there in probably 21 hours.
Wooldridge What they had done is chartered a bus and loaded a lot of the operators on that. Me and two other guys, Harry Beaton and Danny Duffy, we drove up in (our boss’) rig. Basically a crap trip all the way up: there was snow, freezing rain, you name it. We drove through the night.
Currie The streets were plugged right to the top of roofs of cars. What the city wanted clear was your main thoroughfare downtown, your financial district. They wanted the snow removed. If it starts to melt, then you have flooding problems. They had places for us to haul it and we had a lot of trucks. They supplied us with trucks, too — probably 900 trucks or 1,000.
Wooldridge I thought I’d be on the truck, because I’d never operated a blower before. Anyway, I ended up on a blower.
Currie While we were blowing snow, they were hauling it away. We couldn’t put it in the lake, so we put it under overpasses and places like that. We went from the centre out — we had one crew going east and one crew going west. They worked 12-hour shifts right around the clock.
Wooldridge You’re going down the street and you’re blowing into the back of a truck. If you overshoot and there are people on the other side, you could knock them down or hurt them, or put a windshield out of a car, or a window out of a house. We plowed out on the outskirts (in P.E.I.) — I ran a heavy truck and a loader, but had never operated a blower before. It comes to you, but the first couple hours I was sweating bullets.
Elsewhere in Toronto, the army had taken to the streets.
Charlton There was a gentleman who had a heart attack. The (Royal Canadian Dragoons) deployed their Bison ambulance and they were able to get him out to a hospital.
Atkinson These vehicles were very capable, and we had put chains on them. We put these great big EMS stickers on the side of them and a medic in the back, and off they went in support of EMS Toronto, picking up people and transporting them to emergency rooms across the city.
Nyberg I got a phone call on the army cellphone that I had. It was our adjutant. He said, “Do you have a unit MasterCard?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I need you to go to Canadian Tire and buy as many shovels and snow removal things as your credit card can allow.” I took the army truck, went to Canadian Tire and spent my whole limit on as much stuff as I could. I got back to Fort York Armoury and the few of us that were in were mobilizing other soldiers to come into work.
Charlton We had a map company drop off all kinds of maps so that we could set up a command post. We’d map out areas where people were going to go shovel the sidewalks. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, they would go out and shovel as required.
Lastman Every bit of snow equipment we could get, we got.
Nyberg Once we broke down into smaller units, they assigned us to City of Toronto workers who had vans or trucks. We flew around the city clearing snow around bus shelters, fire hydrants that were completely buried, sidewalks at major intersections and elderly peoples’ homes.
Christie Blatchford, National Post
columnist I was living right in the heart of Seaton Village. My neighbours were lovely people, but they were just incredibly conventional small-l liberal. It was a sock-andBirkenstock-wearing kind of crowd, generally peaceful and dedicated to non-violence and doing good everywhere — and sort of, therefore, not particularly keen, philosophically speaking, on the military. On the morning of the snowstorm, I get up with my dog to go out for a walk, and what do I see, but soldiers everywhere shovelling the sidewalks of my neighbours, all of whom were looking out their windows. It’s tremendously insulting to me that soldiers would be deployed to help a bunch of effete urban pussies clear their sidewalks. It was only after the soldiers finished clearing the sidewalks that you began to hear the murmurs of, “Kind of a heavy armed presence.” The antipathy to the military came out after the f—ing sidewalks were shovelled.
Charlton I remember some civilians not being overly keen on it because they figured we could have been used somewhere better. They thought it was a waste of our resources. But when you’re a soldier, you do what you’re told. I don’t know what else we could have been doing at that particular time.
Nyberg The job we did might not have seemed like we were saving the world, but there was lots of work to be done. If you had two City of Toronto workers go around the city clearing the snow that eight soldiers did, their backs would have been broken. It would have taken months for them to clear that snow.
Charlton That’s one of our jobs as soldiers: to come in and help out where the civilian population needs us, like the ice storm up in eastern Ontario and into Quebec — to go help out the people, to get them back up on their feet.
In January 1998, that ice storm felled millions of trees and thousands of power lines from the Ottawa Valley through Montreal and into Atlantic Canada. More than 15,000 soldiers responded to the disaster in the biggest peacetime deployment of troops Canada had ever seen. When the army arrived in Toronto a year later and the climactic barrage of snow Lastman had feared failed to materialize, conditions were ripe for people to start making jokes.
Charlton It didn’t snow as much as it was forecasted. I think we were supposed to get — the word was the “Megageddon,” or something like that, of snow. It was a good snowstorm, but it wasn’t a crippling snowstorm.
Blatchford I grew up in northern Quebec, so this was just the height of ridiculousness to me. It wasn’t even that much snow.
Terry Mosher (aka Aislin), editorial
cartoonist at The Gazette In Montreal, we found it particularly hilarious. We’d suffered through that ice storm a year before. It seemed particularly ridiculous to call in the army for what to us suddenly seemed like a bit of snow. It really did make Lastman and Toronto look like a lot of wimps.
Andy Wells, Mayor of St. John’s, Nfld. I think it was a national joke. Lastman was a national joke.
Stockwell Day, Alberta Minister of
Finance The first day, I was actually in Red Deer. You’re listening with genuine concern: have there been any fatalities or human tragedies? But I have to admit, in a day when Albertans don’t feel a lot of sympathy from central Canada — and given that Albertans are pretty accustomed to some severe winters — there was a bit of a rolling of the eyes, of saying, “Get yourselves together, grab some shovels and go and do what the rest of us do.” It probably was a tad uncharitable, but that was the feeling at the time.
Blatchford (It made us look) exactly as we are: as a bunch of effete urbanites who couldn’t survive for 10 minutes an Alberta snowstorm or even an Ottawa snowstorm without a lot of whining.
Robinson Wherever I travel for storm chasing, I get anywhere in Canada and I talk about the snow and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but you guys had to have the army, ha ha.’ The only thing you can do as a Torontonian is make fun of yourself for that.
Despite the quips and criticism, the impulse to rag on Toronto wasn’t universal.
Claude Elliott, Mayor of Gander, N.L.
I’ve been to Toronto quite a few times. When you look at the congestion, it’s not easy to get rid of quite a lot of snow, not like Gander. We have a lot of open space: 80-foot lawns where the snowblowers can push snow. In Toronto, you don’t have that luxury.
Robinson The big thing we always run into when we’re talking about where storms hit is that it doesn’t matter how much snow comes down. It matters where it hits. You get 30 cm in snow in Toronto three times, or 40, 50, 60 cm of snow in Toronto over a week, that’s going to shut this city down. But put 60 cm of snow in the mountains of B.C. and it’s, like, a Monday for them.
Elliott A couple years ago I was in New York. They got two inches of snow and they declared a state of emergency. I had more on my patio at that time then what was in New York. But when I look at the congestion, there’s nowhere to put the snow. They have to carry it away, and that makes it a little bit more difficult.
Eggleton Toronto became the brunt of a lot of jokes. But if the additional storm had occurred, there would have been hell to pay for not being there and not doing something to help keep the city moving. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
Lastman I thought (calling the army) was funny, too, but I knew it was essential. I’d rather make a mistake than be sorry that I didn’t do it.
Eggleton People wouldn’t have been joking if things had gone much worse. What if this additional storm had happened, and emergency vehicles couldn’t move, and lives were in jeopardy? We would have sure heard about that.
Nyberg For the people of Toronto, seeing soldiers on the streets helping probably gave them a sense of ease. A lot of people during that time were trapped in their homes. There might have been a little bit of panic in the air.
Lastman We didn’t have one wet basement — not one flooded basement from it. The sewer grates, they were pumping the snow out of them. They put paths in for people to get onto the bus, onto the streetcar. Do you know Toronto didn’t have a problem with that snowstorm? Everything went on as predicted — or as I predicted.
While most soldiers who were deployed to Toronto went back to Petawawa after a few days, the reservists and volunteers from P.E.I. stuck around for two weeks to continue removing all the snow that had accumulated. Praised for their efforts, the out-of-towners eventually returned home with fond memories.
Wooldridge We were treated really
well. People came out of their homes when we were doing streets. They came out and offered us food, drinks, whatever we wanted.
Currie It was a great gift for P.E.I. For years to come, a lot of people from Toronto and Ontario patronized our tourism industry, our seafood industry. We benefitted from it for a long time after, and still do.
Wooldridge They had a great banquet for us up on top of the hotel. Molson gave us a six-pack of beer with our names on it. I’ve still got that somewhere down in the basement — never opened one yet.
The army sent Lastman a souvenir.
Lastman I had a golf tournament for charity that was coming up (later in 1999). I don’t know how they heard about it. They sent me a Bison as a caddy. There was a guy driving me in it. There was a picture in one of the papers.
Nyberg A lot of people shook our hand and thanked us for our service. People do that a lot now — we get a lot of thanks, especially because of what happened in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia. But at the time, the military wasn’t as popular. I think most people in the city of Toronto liked seeing the military in an aid-to-civil-power role. We definitely got a warm reception.
Atkinson It was a boost to public confidence in that if something was going wrong, you could call on Canada’s military to help out at home. When you call, they’re going to be there.
And no one, for that matter, will ever stop bringing it up.
Lastman I was in a taxi the other day. The taxi driver says, “I came the year you brought in the army!” It was really funny. It happens to me all the time now.
Canadian Army officer John Dunn patrols downtown Toronto in an armoured personnel carrier on Jan. 15, 1999, after the city was inundated with snow, and later, scorn.
Claudia and Duncan Wood ski down a Toronto street after the city’s third major snowstorm in January of 1999. A few months later, then Mayor Mel Lastman at his golf tournament.