Red River flooding wouldn't keep these candidates away

In both 1979 and 1997, the flooding Red River threatened much of southern Manitoba. But that didn't keep politicians from campaigning in the region.

Manitobans were too busy saving their homes to pay attention to campaigns in 1979 and 1997

A Canadian Forces Griffin helicopter with Prime Minister Jean Chretien aboard tours the flooded area of southern Manitoba. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

In both 1979 and 1997, the Red River threatened much of southern Manitoba as it overflowed its banks and spread across farmland, highways and rail lines.

Residents in flood-prone regions south of Winnipeg were consumed with keeping their homes dry and their livestock safe. 

That didn't keep politicians from visiting the region — and Manitobans weren't always pleased to see them.

High river, indeed

The Progressive Conservative leader campaigns as the Red River overflows its banks in 1979. 0:37

In 1979, with two weeks before the election, Morris, Man., was underwater. 

"This is all conservative country, but no one seems to care right now about politics," said reporter Peter Mansbridge, showing an aerial view of the lake that was normally a river.

Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark, who would go on to win the election, stood atop a built-up barrier with residents to get briefed on the situation.

"The only people who stayed in Morris are the people who are here to man the dikes," said Clark, who was originally from High River, Alta., a town that has itself been flooded. "Essential services."

Mansbridge said Clark didn't campaign, except to promise that he would continue a conversation between Ottawa and the province "over funding for new flood control."

Sandbags all around

Prime Minister Jean Chretien visits Manitoba in a crisis as he's about to call an election. 1:25

The Red was once again on the rampage in 1997, and by the last week in April the river had spread so much it resembled a lake once again.

The day before calling the 1997 election, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien visited Manitoba and tossed a sandbag to help volunteers building a flood barrier. (The National/CBC Archives)

An election call was expected imminently when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien visited volunteers working feverishly to build a barrier to stave off the water.

"I came to show that the Canadian people, I want to be with them in these difficult times," Chrétien said.   

But as they heaved sandbags, an election was the last thing on their minds.

"I'd hold it off for about six weeks," said one woman.

"Here in Manitoba, people can't worry about the election right now," said another.

Chrétien was presented with an empty signed souvenir sandbag before contributing to the anti-flood effort himself by heaving a filled bag into the waiting arms of a volunteer.

But when a bystander asked point-blank if he'd postpone an election call, he demurred.

"I'm not here for that," he replied in a crush of media.

Crisis over, Chrétien returns

Manitoba residents aren't impressed by Jean Chrétien's campaign during a flood threat. 1:16

After the flood's crest had passed, Chrétien was in the thick of the campaign and back in Manitoba.

"In my estimation [Jean Chrétien] went down quite a bit," said a woman cleaning up on her farm after the flood. (The National/CBC Archives)

He came "bearing gifts" and met with municipal officials as a "bridge-builder" instead of a "dike-builder," said reporter Saša Petricic.

But voters hadn't forgotten what Petricic described as the "photo opportunity" that marked his previous visit.

"I was very disappointed in our prime minister," said a woman cleaning up her farmhouse after the flood. "I always admired him, but when he came to Winnipeg..." 

She shook her head and wrinkled her nose.

Petricic added that some voters were planning to decline their ballots on Election Day. 

Chrétien and the Liberals won a razor-thin majority in the election less than two weeks later.