Snow brings memories of 1997 storm

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While most Winnipeggers wished they were elsewhere when a massive blizzard struck in April 1997, two people were battling to get here.

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While most Winnipeggers wished they were elsewhere when a massive blizzard struck in April 1997, two people were battling to get here.

Then-premier Gary Filmon and wife Janice (now the province’s lieutenant governor) had left Winnipeg on the Friday to spend a relaxing weekend with friends at their cottage in Minaki, Ont.

The storm rolled into southern Manitoba the next day and began dumping snow. Lots of snow.

“When the storm came, it was much greater than anticipated,” Filmon recalled Wednesday.

“I had to be back at question period on Monday at 1:30 p.m. I knew if I could get to the Trans-Canada Highway, I could get there.”

The couple waited until early Monday to get on the road. Despite getting stuck in a couple of snowdrifts — and needing help from others to push their vehicle out — they finally made it to the Trans-Canada and started driving west.

A few hours later, they were in Winnipeg, but snow problems were still in front of them.

“We lived in Charleswood and my street hadn’t been plowed yet,” Filmon said. “I was just in sweats and casual clothes and I had to change to suit and tie. So I parked on Roblin (Boulevard) and walked to my house. The snow was up to my thighs.

“I went in, changed, tried to follow my footsteps back out, and started driving again. I got to the legislature with just minutes to spare.”

Filmon recalled the consistency of the 1997 storm snow.

“I remember how heavy it was,” he said. “It took people in good shape to do the shovelling.”

Before the storm was done that Monday in April, highways had been closed, flights in and out at the Winnipeg airport were cancelled, shopping centres were shuttered, and almost 50 centimetres of snow blanketed the city.

The storm easily bested records for most snow in a 24-hour period — and helped fuel the “Flood of the Century” a few weeks later.

The snow melted and ran into streams and rivers, enough to push water levels on the Red River up by four feet, resulting in a scramble by government and ordinary Manitobans to raise dikes even higher to hold back the flood waters.

Perhaps it was fitting with the effort to clear the blizzard the No. 1 song that weekend in the nearby U.S. was Puff Daddy’s Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.

Then-mayor Susan Thompson was also out of town when the blizzard hit, at a meeting of the Mid-Continent Trade Corridor in Mexico. Her return flight was the first to touch down after the airport reopened, she recalled.

KYLE DARBYSON / THE BRANDON SUN Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon recalled the consistency of the 1997 storm snow. “I remember how heavy it was,” he said. “It took people in good shape to do the shovelling.”

“Actually seeing the volume of snow from the blizzard made us shift even more so in our critical preparations for the rising water,” she said.

“I lived on Dorchester (Avenue), and Wilton (Street) and Grosvenor (Avenue) had one set of tracks that my front-wheel (drive) car could get into and I was able to make it to city hall. I got to the office very early and just started to answer the phones until other staff arrived,” Thompson said.

“The phone calls were a combination of people being polite and just wanting information to those who were very rude demanding their back lane be cleared — now,” she said.

“So, like everything else, we simply tried to do our best.”

The storm stuck in the lead-up to the April 26 dissolution of Parliament, and a federal election call as Manitoba battled an epic flood.

When the blizzard hit, then-MP Jon Gerrard (now longtime MLA) was trapped at home by snow drifts. He ended up losing the former Selkirk—Interlake seat to the Reform Party’s Howard Hilstrom by only 66 votes in June.

“We were living in an apartment in Stonewall at the time,” Gerrard said.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS “Actually seeing the volume of snow from the blizzard made us shift even more so in our critical preparations for the rising water,” said then-Mayor Susan Thompson.

“There were piles of snow nine- to 10-feet high. There was a lot of drifting, but also people clearing it had to put the snow somewhere. I ended up being stuck at home for a couple of days and there weren’t any Zoom calls then. It was phone calls and trying to stay in touch.”

Laurie Cerqueti, chief executive officer of Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre, was a front-line nurse at Deer Lodge when the blizzard hit.

“I remember working during it,” Cerqueti said. “I also remember the city’s residential streets weren’t plowed, so I walked to Pembina Highway to get a bus. It was a little bit of a trek.

“Once I got to work… I worked an extra shift.”

Municipality of Ritchot councillor Curtis Claydon was in his 20s and renting an apartment in Winnipeg when the blizzard hit.

“I just remember feeling defeated,” Claydon said. “It just felt like the longest winter on record. It melted, it felt like spring, and then it all came back.

“I just thought we were never going to feel summer.”

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

CHELSEA KEMP / THE BRANDON SUN When the blizzard hit, then-MP Jon Gerrard (now longtime MLA) was trapped at home by snow drifts. He ended up losing the former Selkirk—Interlake seat to the Reform Party’s Howard Hilstrom by only 66 votes in June.
WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Blizzard of 1997. The April 5-6 snowfall was not merely deep, it was lead-heavy. It would melt into millions of cubic feet of water.
Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

History

Updated on Wednesday, April 13, 2022 10:32 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

Updated on Thursday, April 14, 2022 9:06 AM CDT: Changes headline

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