That time Toronto called the military to battle snow: An eternity of mockery

Jan.14, 1999--A Canadian Forces Bison armoured personnel carrier drives into the Toronto downtown core Friday morning. …

A gentle morning snowstorm that dusted Toronto streets was the talk of the city on Friday, and snickers and outright guffaws could be heard from the rest of Canada.

Residents of the country’s biggest city are seen as a bunch of softies when it comes to winter weather. And just where does that reputation come from? Mel Lastman and the winter of 1999.

One winter of clean streets, an eternity of mockery.

That was the year Toronto was hit with days of snowfall so heavy that it filled already-congested city streets, sent the transit line into chaos and prompted mayor Mel Lastman to call for support.

Oh, you already know how this ends, don't you? Because every Canadian knows how this ends. Something about an army...

Winter blasts from the past

Here's an excerpt from a CBC News post, originally from Jan. 14, 1999, that may jog your memory:

The Canadian army has arrived in Toronto to do battle against an enemy it can never defeat - the weather.

Four hundred soldiers, backed by armoured vehicles, have taken up posts in Canada's largest city, ready to help get the crippled metropolis moving again.

But that is not how it ends, not really. Because the teasing will go on for eternity.

[ Related: Storm hitting southern Ontario causes closures and accidents ]

Mel Lastman didn't just call in the army to get Toronto moving again, he called for generations of mockery from the rest of Canada. The hard-done-by East, which sloughs through dreary weather year-round, and B.C., where ski bunnies dream about such a snowfall and yogis are too busy downwarding dogs to notice it before it melts (in, like, an hour).

And, most of all, from the Prairies, where hearty folk survive improbable weather throughout their extensive winters and where they would never deign to seek help from the military. Unless there was flooding, of course.

It should be noted that this writer comes from such hearty stock. He grew up on the wind-swept plains of Manitoba and recalls (secretly, quite fondly) clomping to school through mountains of snow because there was rarely such a thing as a snow day.

This writer doesn't remember the day Lastman called the army, but recalls the years following, as we guffawed at Toronto and came up with pointed jokes that comedy writers would still die to get their hands on.

We would have jeered this zinger, which This Hour Has 22 Minutes had 14 years to craft, for its unoriginality.

Major snowstorm headed to southern Ontario, but don't worry -- Toronto city hall has the military on speed dial.

— ThisHourHas22Minutes (@22_Minutes) February 7, 2013

Now, as a Toronto resident, I understand a little better what happened that fateful January day. Why Lastman called for help, and why the federal government agreed it was necessary.

And why Lastman still thinks it was the right decision. Let's do a quick refresher. Why not? You will no doubt find joy in the details.

The City of Toronto received 118 centimetres of snowfall in January 1999, highlighted by the Jan. 14 overnight dump of some 40 centimetres, which prompted the fateful call.

By then city crews had already been stretched to the limit, subway tracks were buried and every empty square of land was overflowing with snow dug off of roads and sidewalks.

When Environment Canada warned of further snowfall on Jan. 14, Lastman called the troops. Some 400 soldiers were dispatched from CFB Petawawa, and another 800 were put on standby.

Some cleared snow, others brought supplies to stranded residents. Others yet drove massive trucks acting as heavy-duty ambulances. They responded to 35 medical emergencies that day.

Volunteers came from as far away as Prince Edward Island also came to help — and according to this Toronto Star article, they were punished by being sent to a Maple Leafs game.

Laugh all you want, but the amount of snow Toronto faced in 1999 would have been devastating under any circumstance. It would cripple any city, even those prairie metropolises where dense downtown cores are three blocks wide, and where there is a nearly-infinite amount of space to dump cleared snow. (Snow mountain, Winnipeg? I'm looking at you.)

I don't begrudge the rest of Canada for mocking Toronto — it is a habit that unites the country — but I now know it didn't happen because accountants and ad execs were worried about getting their shoes wet.

They had their pants to worry about as well.

Here are a few of the better Toronto snow jokes posted on Twitter. Enjoy them. Revel in the mockery.