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.


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.


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