Former PM Jean Chrétien looks back on the 1998 ice storm

Today on Ottawa Morning, former prime minister Jean Chrétien reflects on the 1998 ice storm — and his decision to call in the Canadian military.

He made the decision to deploy military after touring devastated communities near Ottawa

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien steps off a helicopter and onto Wolfe Island on Jan. 13, 1998. Wolfe Island residents were without power for days after the brunt of the ice storm passed through. (John Lehmann/The Canadian Press)

The response to the 1998 ice storm saw the largest peacetime deployment of Canada's military — and former prime minister Jean Chrétien was the one who made that call.

Twenty years ago today, the federal government declared a state of emergency and called in nearly 16,000 soldiers to deal with the aftermath of the devastating storm in Ontario and Quebec.

Before making that decision, Chrétien had toured the devastation, travelling by helicopter to eastern Ontario communities like Vankleek Hill, about 80 kilometres east of Ottawa, and Wolfe Island near Kingston.

Chrétien reminisced about the ice storm with Hallie Cotnam, the host of CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning .

Some of his replies have been edited for length and clarity.

A military convoy on its way to Ottawa from CFB Petawawa passes a road crew working to repair downed lines on Jan. 9, 1998. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Do you remember touring those communities?

Oh, very much so. It was something. Everybody was affected. 

I was about to leave for a mission to South America, and I cancelled and I stayed in Canada for a few more days. And when everything was under control I flew to rejoin the delegation in Brazil.

It was ice everywhere. It was something that had never happened before. It was huge. But we came out of it all right. 

That decision to deploy the military — was it a difficult one?

No. We had to do it. It was evident that they were needed. And they obliged, as usual, in a very good way and a very disciplined way and very effectively.

They don't mind to be called upon when there's a disaster. It's part of their duty, and they always do it very well.

Do any images stand out for you from the ice storm?

It was shocking to see everything broken, the trees broken, some houses completely crushed, and so on. Even at 24 Sussex Drive, part of the roof had been damaged to the point that they had to put a new roof on.

In a way, we were kind of happy because the roof had to be repaired anyway! And nobody could blame the prime minister for spending money on 24 Sussex. It was the storm that caused the damage.

Clayton Rubec runs two extension cords across his street to his neighbours' houses after a fallen tree branch knocked out power out to his house in Ottawa on Jan. 8, 1998. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Did you hear stories of people helping each other?

People reacted very maturely. It was affecting people for many weeks, but people took it in good grace. In reality, you have no choice.

It was painful for a lot of people. But you know, they faced it very courageously. - Jean Chrétien

It was very desperate for a lot of people — having lost their house, having no place to live, moving in with the neighbours, no electricity.

There was a need for generators. We ran out of them — I think we bought some from the United States because there was not enough generators [in Canada] to replace electricity.

There were thousands of problems of that nature that people had to cope with. And it was painful for a lot of people. But you know, they faced it very courageously. There was a lot of solidarity in society. 

You later called it a 'great lesson in humility.'  Do you remember why you said that?

It showed that we are very small in relation to nature. When nature hits you like that, with all those sorts of problems, you realize how small you are.

We always learn lessons from situations like that. We know that, when we have a disaster, Canadians will react the best they can.

Did anyone play politics with the ice storm?

No, no, I don't remember anything of that nature. They cannot blame the prime minister because there's a storm.

I did my best. I visited many sites in eastern Ontario. Vankleek Hill was one. I went to Wolfe Island near Kingston, I stopped in many places, shaking hands and giving pats on the back.

General store owner Steve Fargo (left) talks with former prime minister Jean Chrétien on Wolfe Island, near Kingston, Ont., during the 1998 ice storm. (John Lehmann/The Canadian Press)

Why was that important?

It's a job. You're the prime minister, and you have to show that you care about the people. And they appreciate that.

They feel good when you show some compassion. And it's your duty to do that.

They're in despair, and you're there — you're the leader of the nation and you have to show moral support.

Would people be as resilient if another ice storm hit today?

I guess so. I hope so. I think so. We're still Canadian, you know.

With files from Ottawa Morning