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.

Windsor Star - - NP -

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.

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.

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.

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, 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?”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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

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.

THOMAS CHENG / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES FILES

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.

DAVID LU­CAS / STR / CP FILES

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