It is one of the most iconic images in Toronto history – Mayor Mel Lastman with his first pumping towards the sky, riding in a tank with the Canadian army, not long after he called in the troops to fight one of the worst winter snow storms in the city’s history (left).
It was an impressive sight that has also proven to be one of the GTA’s most embarrassing moments in the national spotlight. It happened ten years ago this week, on January 12, 1999, after the city was hit with a disastrous dumping that was unprecedented in its scope.
Toronto was paralyzed by snow banks so high, they reached the second storey of some houses, covered bus shelters and brought outdoor sections of the subway to a frigid halt. Mayor Mel Lastman felt his only option was to ask for help and the army, in the days before 911 and Afghanistan, rushed to the rescue.
At least 438 soldiers arrived in an array of impressive machinery, bringing 128 military vehicles with them on their long journey from CFB Petawawa to the old Downsview base. Another 110 reservists were on standby.
They came ready to do just about anything that was necessary, including helping stranded travellers, transporting the sick to hospital because ambulances couldn’t get through, clearing catch basins to prevent future flooding and even the mundane task of clearing away those endless piles of flakes.
“We are equipped with shovels,” confirmed Brigadier General Walter Holmes of the Canadian Armed Forces. “We’ve learned from our experience of the ice storm of last year (1998 in Quebec) and we’re come equipped to do whatever we’re asked to do, whether it’s in the form of chainsaws, generators or whatever we’re asked to do.”
One of the biggest problems came on side streets, where there was so much snow the wide plows couldn’t get down them. The army brought eight Bisons, special mini-vehicles that could traverse a narrow path and clear the snow away. “We have so much better traction and capability to get them where some of the civilian ambulances can’t get,” outlined Master Cpl. Dean Duguay.
And in a scene rarely played out in Toronto before, snowmobiles were also dispatched down some streets to get personnel into place.
Lastman’s move took the entire country by storm and warmed the hearts of Toronto-haters nationwide, with many calling us winter weather wimps. But the mayor was unmoved. “If things are bad, I don’t want to take any chances,” he averred. “I will not risk the lives of people in Toronto.”
But those called on to serve didn’t seem to mind the unusual turn in their tour of duty. “Scenes like this here are basically part of our job to help anybody out who requires any help and it makes me really, really proud to be a Canadian,” maintained Master Cpl. David Pynn.
As for the weather wimp title? The city received 118 centimetres during that brutal January. But the following year, St. John’s Newfoundland got an eye popping 648 cm for the winter – and the army stayed home.
Now a decade later, many are wondering if it was really necessary at all.
“I don’t see a point in calling in the military to clear snow,” muses one local resident. “Kind of a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“I know that everybody else in the country thought Toronto was a bit lame for it,” adds another.
Many try to approach the historic decision with humour. “I don’t know if we really needed it. But it’s comical to look back as folklore,” one man agrees.
But some remain surprised by just how long the legend has lasted. “We were just away in Jamaica. And people on the beach said, ‘oh, you guys are from Toronto, you guys had the army come in for the snow.’ And I go, ‘oh yeah, we did.'”
Still, some would welcome the Canadian cavalry as they cope with this year’s snowfall.
“Oh, would I love the army,” one woman complains as she shovels her driveway again. “I need tanks. I need heavy-duty shovels. I need [the] United Nations!”
But Lastman continues to insist he did the right thing and offers his undying thanks – not to mention tanks – to the military for what some detractors still call the greatest snow job in the history of winter.
To see our original video on this story from 1999, click the links above.