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1999: Toronto calls in troops to shovel out massive snowfall

The Story

A series of record snowstorms plagues Toronto, blanketing the region and disrupting the lifeline of Canada's largest metropolis. With no end to the snowfall in sight, Mayor Mel Lastman requests military assistance to help the city shovel out from beneath the white mass. In response to Lastman's plea, over 400 troops from CFB Petawawa, backed by armoured vehicles, descend upon the paralyzed city, helping bring it back onto its frozen feet.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Jan. 13, 1999
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Adrienne Arsenault
Duration: 4:23

Did You know?

• The city was hit with the first and worst storm of the year on Jan. 2 when a large portion of Southern Ontario -- from Windsor to Kingston -- received between 20 and 40 cm of snow. More than five million people were affected by the storm with an estimated 11 people losing their lives. Thousands of travellers spent one of the busiest travel days of the year stranded at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

• An additional four storms hit the city, with the snowfall finally tapering off after Jan. 15. Toronto usually receives 125 cm of snow every year. However, in January of 1999, the multiple snowstorms dumped a record snowfall of 118.4 cm in less than two weeks. And, at 65 cm, Toronto had seen the greatest snow on the ground at any one time. In fact, Toronto witnessed the snowiest two-week period since 1846.

• The largest city in Canada spends $32.2 million annually on snow removal. By the end of January 1999, though, the efforts to dig Toronto out of its snowy chaos had cost the city $70 million. During that period, Toronto also lost nearly $2 million in parking ticket revenue.

• Lastman's request for military assistance was mocked by many across Canada as cowardly and excessive. On Friday, Jan. 15, the headlines of the Winnipeg Free Press, the newspaper of a city known for its harsh winters, read, "Honest, Toronto ... we (Ha!) feel your pain."

• Named Operation Preamble, the snowy campaign was fought by troops from Petawawa as well as from other regions of Ontario and Quebec and was headed by Lt.-Col. Julian Chapman, commanding officer of the Toronto Scottish Regiment. Some of the tasks the troops performed included transforming their 14-tonne Bisons (eight-wheeled armoured vehicles) into onsite emergency rooms and ambulances, transporting patients from accident scenes to hospitals and clearing inaccessible streets.

• Born in 1933, Mayor Mel Lastman, a former furniture and appliance salesman, was the mayor of the City of North York from 1972 until 1997 and then mayor of post-amalgamation Toronto until 2003.

• Mayor Lastman's Jan. 13 request for help was actually the second time in two years that the military had been called in to help Canada's urban regions deal with weather-related crises. In 1998, soldiers waged war against ice in Quebec and eastern Ontario during the ice storm. 

• Aside from the military, approximately 80 residents of Prince Edward Island joined in the relief efforts, spending more than two weeks hauling away one million tonnes of snow from the downtown core. The smallest province in Canada would again display acts of national brotherhood four years later when it donated 9,000 kilograms of mussels, helping Toronto recuperate during the SARS crisis. These efforts were rewarded by Lastman's declaration in 2003 that July 28 be Prince Edward Island Day.

Also on January 13:
1837: Fire destroys much of the Saint John, New Brunswick, business district.
1849: The Hudson's Bay Company signs a lease with the British government acquiring control of Vancouver Island -- for seven shillings a year.
1947: Britain's Privy Council rules that Ottawa is within its rights to make the Supreme Court of Canada the country's final court of appeal. Previously, Canadians had to take their cases to the Privy Council in London, England.
1982: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appoints Toronto social worker Ann Cools, Canada's first black senator.



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