Military And Legion Respond To “Bosnia Without The Bullets”

March 1, 1998 by Legion Magazine


by Ray Dick

It started with a whimper, a dark omen on a weather radar screen that was tracking steadily from the southern U.S. towards the Canadian Great Lakes region, and ended with a crippling bang that caused half a billion dollars damage, at least 20 deaths and left more that a million people without heat, light and transportation in southeastern Ontario,Quebec and New Brunswick.

This is Bosnia without the bullets,” said one soldier, who recently returned from the former Yugoslavia, about the devastation he found in the Montreal area from the worst ice storm in recent history.

The soldier was quoted by Chief of Defence Staff Maurice Baril, on one of several trips he made to areas devastated by the storm that struck in early January.

More than 15,500 troops, including 3,700 reservists, were employed in Operation Recovery, the biggest ever Canadian deployment in peacetime. As they moved into the affected areas they found dark and silent streets in two of the country’s major cities, Ottawa and Montreal, makeshift rescue centres and soup kitchens and rural and urban landscapes strewn with fallen trees and branches and thousands of downed power poles. Shorted-out power lines and collapsing transformers brightened the sky with lightning-like fireworks at the height of the storm.

In Ontario the Forces provided personnel and equipment to support clean-up operations and transportation assistance to shelters in the areas of Ottawa-Carleton, Brockville, Lanark County, Hawkesbury, Perth, Smiths Falls and Kingston.

In Quebec the Forces provided housing and hospital support, assisted Hydro-Quebec in reconstructing high-tension towers, conducted road maintenance and provided logistic support to the affected population and a 100-man military police contingent to patrol against looting in blacked-out Montreal. About 400 personnel from the Atlantic area helped in New Brunswick, mostly around the Saint John area with the main task of brush removal.

A civilian army of hydro workers in Ontario and Quebec toiled long hours, sometimes round the clock, along with the military troops from across the country to restore power as ice storm victims huddled in shelters or strived to survive in unlit and unheated communities with the aid of temperamental generators and donated food, cots and blankets. Hard hit were the maple syrup producers in both provinces who lost most of their maple trees to the relentless buildup of ice and the dairy and beef farmers who were unable to milk and water their livestock.

Three weeks later, as donations of money, food and equipment continued to flood in from across the country and military troops and emergency hydro crews from as far away as the southern United States started a gradual withdrawal to their home bases, there were still pockets of darkness in heavily hit areas south of Ottawa along the St. Lawrence and on the South Shore in Montreal. It was these people, among many others who then had their hydro power returned, whose spirits were lifted by the mere sight of the yellow-helmeted hydro crews in their neighborhoods, of military troops delivering help and comfort to their front doors and the welcoming sight of Royal Canadian Legion members who delivered hot food and opened their branch doors to provide shelter.

Grateful storm victims expressed their appreciation in the letters to the editor page in their local newspapers. Jack MacKinnon of Ottawa writes in the Ottawa Citizen: “After the unfortunate problems of the Somalia operation, the Canadian military has come through magnificently in two recent natural disasters; the Manitoba floods and now the Eastern Canada ice storm…. All this should be realized by those who object to the maintenance of our Armed Forces now that the other Cold War is over, and who have been successfully pressing to have expenditures on the military diverted to other fashionable causes.”

Liz Rohonczy of Kars, a community near Ottawa, writes in The Citizen, that “one can only have the highest praise for the (hydro) workers on the front line. When I see the miles of twisted lines and row upon row of shattered poles around my village, I consider it nothing short of a herculean task to have the power up in the estimated time frame. The flashing lights of the hydro trucks can be seen all across the countryside from dawn to dusk and deep into the night. The crews are working inch by inch, mile by mile, day by day.”

Brenda Otten of Aylmer, Que., writes in the Ottawa Sun: “My ice storm heroes are all the friendly, helpful people at Aylmer Branch. From the first day of the storm they opened their doors to everyone who was without power and needed hot meals, hot coffee and a place to warm up. They even provided take-out meals and coffee for the crews and residents who were not able to come to the Legion.”

In a letter to the editor of The Prescott Journal in Prescott, Ont., senior citizen Louise Mays adds her praise of Fort Wellington Branch: “What a marvelous job they have done providing shelter for all and sundry during the recent ice storm.” Hot food was served and cots were set up, and volunteers went from door to door encouraging the people to come to the Legion for shelter, warmth, hot food and drink. “There was a staff of voluntary drivers to take people wherever it was necessary. A movie was provided for children…and euchre tournaments were held to occupy adults who had taken refuge there.”

“This was a rewarding experience, for Canadian soldiers to help out a Canadian population in need,” commented Major Marc Rouleau, a Bosnia and Croatia veteran who was in charge of some 9,500 emergency military troops in Quebec. “Yes, in many ways it was like Bosnia, the collapsed power pylons and the thousands of people in emergency shelters.”

In Ontario, Maj. Rita LePage was also in the process almost three weeks after the crisis of sending some 5,000 troops back to their home bases in Petawawa and Borden and the hundreds of army reservists “from Windsor to Cornwall, and from Thunder Bay to Ottawa.” She had seen signs of major improvement in the Ontario region, “but there will be troops here to help the storm victims as long as they are required.”

The Legion, along with civic authorities and such organizations as the Salvation Army, was quick to react to the plight of the storm victims. Many branches in the areas affected in both Ontario and Quebec, many of them also without light and power, hooked up generators, provided hot meals and shelter space, and paying for it all from their own resources. As the crisis progressed, Dominion Command offered $25,000 contingency funds for use as called for by Ontario and Quebec commands to assist in relief efforts in the two provinces.

Quebec Command President Ray Thorne acknowledged in a letter the “generous” contribution from Dominion Command and said the money would go to The Royal Canadian Legion Quebec Disaster Relief Fund, “primarily to aid our veterans and members who are in distress (and) also to financially aid those branches that operated shelters, provided meals and generally depleted their own funds in doing so. Many of our branches were successful in doing this and…the Legions in these communities will long be remembered for their generosity and community spirit.”

In Ontario Command an early decision was made to donate $20,000 from the provincial poppy fund to provide relief for victims of the ice storm. The donation was made to the disaster response fund of the Canadian Red Cross, which was working with the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate the relief effort. Ontario Command Secretary Marlene Lambros told branches in a letter: “For this occasion, Ontario Command branches are authorized to donate up to $1,000 from poppy funds for ice storm disaster relief without the prior approval of provincial command. Sufficient funds should be retained to meet future requests for assistance from veterans and their dependants.”

But it was the swiftness of the branches in both Ontario and Quebec to react to the needs of their communities that will long be remembered by the ice storm victims: branches such as Mallorytown that used a generator to provide about 200 hot meals a day and sleeping accommodation for 100, and the Legionnaires in Prescott and other hard-hit towns and cities between Ottawa and the St. Lawrence and in the villages and towns across the river in Quebec. Even the branches that did not lose their hydro during the crisis, such as the Ottawa suburban branch of Strathcona with about 310 members, contributed to the relief effort. The cook at Strathcona cooked up several roasts and Second Vice Gord Helmer delivered the hot meals to a shelter in Russell.

As usual in a disaster situation, some businesses and individuals made a lasting impression on the long-suffering ice storm victims. At St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu in Quebec a big yellow chicken sign in front of Le Coq Rapide restaurant became a beacon of hope to residents in the otherwise blacked-out town. Using a gas-powered generator, the restaurant sold about 3,000 roast chicken dinners daily to victims tired of the cafeteria-like food in the shelter.

But there is one business, Amber’s Cafe in Hallville south of Ottawa, that will never be forgotten by residents of this farming community. Sue Armstrong, who purchased Amber’s about five years ago and operates the business with her young son, was without power for 12 days but continued to operate the cafe and gave out hundreds of meals free to the storm victims in the community.

“We all needed each other,” said Armstrong. “I had just got in a shipment of bread before the storm. People in the community gave me food that would have spoiled in their refrigerators and freezers. These people in their cold and dark homes needed somewhere to come for a hot meal and companionship. I had a propane stove, grill and pizza oven, and lots of candles for light.” She even sent out food in care packages, delivered by the military troops, to storm-bound residents who couldn’t make it into her cafe.

“The military men deserve the biggest pat on the shoulder ever,” said Armstrong. “They really came through for us, and once they got here they didn’t leave until the power was restored and the crisis was over.”

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