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The Day the Great White North Was Defeated By Snow

Bob & Doug
User ID: 318755
01/11/2009 10:56 PM
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The Day the Great White North Was Defeated By Snow
ten years later, mel, the country's still laughing at ya. someone cracked a joke about this in my presence as recently as a year or two


10 years later, Mel Lastman proud he called in army

An military vehicle rolls down Bay St. after then-mayor Mel Lastman declared the second snow emergency in 10 days on Jan. 13, 1999.
Jaspreet Tambar
Staff Reporter

As Environment Canada predicts more snow this week and temperatures plunging to -22C, Mel Lastman is warmly recalling his decision 10 years ago to call in the military to fight a snowstorm.

It was January 1999, with the city buried under a metre of snow, when the then-mayor delighted the rest of the country by drafting Canadian soldiers to battle drifts and liberate buried bus shelters.

"We arranged it so that seniors citizens could go around the corner to get milk, so that people could get on the TTC," he recalls.

David Gunn, the former head of the city's transit commission, knew that Toronto would be mocked.

"People made fun of it, but on the other hand we used them," Gunn said.

When night fell on the first day of snowfall, 38 centimetres of snow had accumulated on the ground. The downtown core crippled, Lastman declared a snow emergency on Jan. 4, which declared a ban on cars parking on designated snow routes.

Snow fell in small increments over the next few days, adding layers of frustration to the already clogged streets.

When Mother Nature swept another 21 cm of snow onto the city landscape, Lastman says that his driver took him out to survey the cumulative damage.

The already narrow roads were made tighter with vehicles parked on both sides and mountainous ruts down the centre.

"How is an ambulance supposed to get through this?" Lastman asked in wonder.

When Environment Canada warned of another major snowfall for Jan. 14, Lastman decided to call in the troops.

Art Eggleton, then defence minister, said "the conclusion was that yes, if...this additional heavy snowfall came there could be an untenable situation in terms of the movement of emergency vehicles."

So, on Jan. 13, when the streets of Toronto were blanketed with snow and subways came to a halt, Lastman declared another snow emergency.

The next day, some 400 soldiers from CFB Petawawa, Ontario came driving colossal armoured vehicles known as Bisons-plough-trucks that have the capability to carry a driver, two paramedics and a patient.

"That day, there were 35 emergencies, and there was no way the ambulance could get in."

An additional 27 cm of snow fell the following Thursday, but the white pillows of snow that choked city streets were all cleared by Friday.

Similarly, Torontonians can take comfort in the fact that the temperature this week will begin to rise on Friday, with a high of -9C, well into the weekend.

While we can expect slight periods of snow on Tuesday this week, the rest of the week is relatively sunny and devoid of precipitation. This is in stark contrast to January of 1999, which received about 118 cm of snowfall. "There's only a storm like that every 100 years," says Lastman.

Perhaps most fondly, Lastman recalls the 100 trucks and volunteers that came in from Prince Edward Island to free the congestion that plagued the city. Lastman says in between chuckles, "Let me tell you, they worked like hell."

When he asked how he could repay them for their services, Lastman remembers: "Out of the 100, 99 said they wanted to go to a hockey game." He called his good friend Steve Stavros, then owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and demanded 100 tickets.

"I said to him, Steve it's not my problem that you think it's unreasonable; these people are making it possible for you to have a hockey game on Saturday night, and for people to get there... and let me tell you, these guys had the time of their lives."

As the weather for this Thursday is expected to drop to a low of -22C-which will necessitate an extreme cold alert-Lastman speculates if he would reconsider his actions if such inclement weather were to ever again hit the City of Toronto.

He pauses for a moment, and replies: "Would I do it again? You're darn right I would!"

-With files from The Canadian Press

Take Off (To the Great White North) - featuring Geddy Lee & Bob & Doug

Comments on this story are now closed| Commenting Guidelines

What's the big deal?
Poor Mel will never live this one down. Give it a rest, you guys! He did what he felt was right and he used the resources available to him. I could never understand why people were so upset about it. Are we Torontonians so smug that we think we could never need extra help? Anyone who thinks it was a waste of time or money is obviously not physically challenged and didn't need an ambulance or fire truck. Our armed forces are there to help Canadians too, not just go overseas to kill or keep the peace in other countries. Remember, this was before 9/11. Before Afghanistan, the Canadian military's role was that of peacekeepers, not aggressors. Have we become so conditioned from 9/11 that we now think aggression and war are all our forces are good for? How sad. Anyway, thanks Mel! I, for one, appreciated it.

Submitted by JG at 10:27 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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View from Calgary, your Mayor is better than Bronco
Good or bad, at least Mayor Lastman, knew that he was in over his head, and asked for help. We smug Calgarians always make fun or hate the 'Centre of Universe' but Calgary received a series of major snowstorm in December 2008, along with -40 C windchill. Our Mayor, the illustrious Dave Bronconier, REFUSES to remove the snow. The ice and snow still remains on our freeways and streets. Hundreds of accidents occured, along with view a fatalities. Instead, Calgary Mayor Bronconier is ramming through a European designed $50,000,000 foot bridge across the Bow River, and is trying ban plastic bags. So be proud Toronto, whilst Mayor Lastman may act foolish in the eyes of self-righteous, Harper loving Calgarians, at least he had the horse sense to do what he felt was best for your City. We will trade you ANYTIME.

Submitted by JamesEarl at 9:52 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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When Toronto Got A Cold
Only 10-years? The rest of Canada has had at least two decades of giggles over this. "T'wonto gotta bidda snow, oh no! Les' call the army." Lastman should have been ashamed the city was so poorly managed that it had to call in the army for that amount of snow. How does everyone else cope?

Submitted by Shabby at 9:46 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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To Joe in East York
I have encountered this problem with icy sidewalks in several parts of Toronto this year, including areas that were cleared in past winters. The areas that have caused me problems are not the property of private homeowners. They are sidewalks in front of plazas and car dealerships, factories and apartment buildings. It seems to me that these places would have maintenance staff that should be clearing the snow. Should the city not have inspectors checking on the state of the streets and sidewalks? It seems like nobody cares unless a complaint is made. I work very long hours and don't have time to double as sidewalk inspector. Even the TTC, which used to clear their bus stops so people could board the bus without falling, has not been doing so this year. If I fall boarding a bus I will sue. I have complained to the TTC many times about many problems, but their response is less than satisfactory. I have no reason to think the city would be more responsive.

Submitted by TigerLily at 9:31 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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What a waste
Wouldn't it be better to use the armed forces for a REAL emergency and not a SNOW emergency? It seems kind of a waste of money, don't you think? It may have been useful, but it would make more sense to get plowers to work overtime. I'm not pro-war or anything like that, but if something with deadly weapons happened, would you have a guns versus shovels battle?

Submitted by just one person at 9:30 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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I remember it too well
For those who think Toronto was being a wimp for calling in the army, I'm from Nova Scotia and I know snow. lol It got to the point I didn't even know where to put the snow anymore. I had to carry it to the backyard, shovel by shovel. I didn't live in Toronto then, but a short 5 minute walk to the city limits. My town didn't clear the side streets at all! The snow was more than knee deep. My 5 minute walk to the Toronto city limits took a half hr! Mel did the right thing. I remember before he called in the army, no buses could get through and the subways were unable to run, not to mention emergency vehicles.

Submitted by d_c at 9:21 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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Quelle surprise!!
He shook hands with the Hell's Angels (and couldn't understand the reaction), he expressed concern about going to a country where people have bones in their noses (and couldn't understand the reaction) and called in the Army to handle a problem he helped create (and couldn't understand the reaction). Clearly, he was the poster child for the "Not Enough Medication" program

Submitted by Bluesguy at 9:14 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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One of my memories of that period was seeing an East York fire truck totally mired in deep snow on a side street near my home while responding to a local emergency. The fire fighters were trying to dig the fire truck out with the truck’s small supply of shovels. That was on Sunday Jan 3, the day BEFORE Lastman finally declared a snow emergency. The fact of the matter was that it was TWO WEEKS after that event that Lastman calls in the army. His inaction during the first snow storm, plus the fact that the city’s snow removal program was being run on a shoe string budget, meant that the snow crews were unable to keep ahead of the snow, leading to the crisis. All during last winter’s near record snow fall I never saw my local streets clogged with snow as they were during that period. Likewise then, East York was basically left to fend for itself, snow clearing wise, which has never happened under Miller. Lastman deserves no praise for the snow removal mess he himself created.

Submitted by Joe in East York at 9:01 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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Better than Afghanistan
Sending them to Toronto was certainly better than to Afghanistan. At least when they left, they still had their lives. They were heros doing humanity some good in Toronto. You don't need Afghanistan to build our heros. Charity begins at home.

Submitted by starcomment at 8:57 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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In Toronto it is the responsibility of home owners and property owners to clear sidewalks that are adjacent to their homes or property (which can include lots or buildings that they own, rent or lease). If they do not, then the city will do it for them using municipal work crews, those people will then be charged with the costs (which are added to their tax bill). These people can also be fined for not clearing their sidewalks of snow and ice. This has always been the practice regarding snow clearing of sidewalks, not just in Toronto, but in most municipalities. Yes, the city also does clear sidewalks using mechanical snowploughs, but I believe if you check this is mainly in areas where that service was provided before amalgamation (which was the case in East York). If you are encountering a place where people have not shovelled or cleared, call the city and tell them where so they can deal with it. The city will only work if people stop complaining and start helping to make it work.

Submitted by Joe in East York at 8:48 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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"Join the army and see the subway".
There are advantages and disadvantages in having the armed forces come to the megacity. We can all sleep soundly knowing that if Canada ever becomes a military dictatorship at least the snow will be cleared. That won't make the GO trains run on time, but it will be better than nothing. But if Toronto is ever attacked by a hostile power, it will be hard to defeat them with soliders who are armed with shovels. At least the enemy will have freshly ploughed streets on which to advance towards the megacity. Then the military left after a grand total of four days. Their short stay did illustrate one of our military's weaknesses. Despite having highly trained personnel, according to TTC head David Gunn, none of the troops had the skill required to remove the snow from the subway's third rail. Perhaps those who are trained in such snow removal would like to consider a career in the military. "Join the army and see the subway".

Submitted by R99 at 8:15 PM Sunday, January 11 2009

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Eagle Scream
My facts are correct and if you actually read the article you'll see that they are backed up. Indeed, scottmw backs up my comments by mentioning the fact that the snow came down particularly heavy on Friday evening, which was Jan 2. Lastman was warned that it was going to be a heavy snowfall and he put dollars before common sense, making shopping a priority over snow clearing. As scottmw also mentions, Lastman was also trying to save pennies by not using the road crews on a weekend. It finally Monday Jan 4 (as mention in the article) that Lastman finally declares the FIRST snow emergency. The problem is that “money saving” approach backfires and the snow crews are behind schedule when successive snow falls occur. His mismanagement of the situation puts the city into a crisis so that when the snow storm of the Jan 13 occurs, the situation is hopeless. He then panics and calls in the army because he’s in over his head and needs to get bailed out. Lastman's no hero.

Submitted by Joe in East York at 7:57 PM Sunday, January 11 2009