EMERGENCY, PUNCHLINE OR BOTH
NICK FARIS COMPILES AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE TIME, 20 YEARS AGO, THAT TORONTO CALLED IN THE ARMY TO DIG IT OUT AFTER A SERIES OF SNOWSTORMS. THE CITY HASN’T BEEN ABLE TO LIVE IT DOWN SINCE.
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 118 centimetres 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Charlottetown-based 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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-and-Birkenstock-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 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.
Terry Mosher (a.k.a. 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.
(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.
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.
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 of 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.
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 than 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.
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.
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.
But no one 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.
Claudia and Duncan Wood ski down a Toronto street after the city’s third major snowstorm in January of 1999. Right: Canadian Army officer John Dunn patrols downtown Toronto in an armoured personnel carrier after the storm.