Twenty years ago, I was cruising along St. Mary’s Road south of the Floodway. Not in a car heading south on the two-lane highway, but in an inflatable Zodiac watercraft with members of the Canadian Armed Forces — and with more than a couple of metres of water separating us from the pavement.

This article was published 6/5/2017 (1629 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Twenty years ago, I was cruising along St. Mary’s Road south of the Floodway.  Not in a car heading south on the two-lane highway, but in an inflatable Zodiac watercraft with members of the Canadian Armed Forces — and with more than a couple of metres of water separating us from the pavement.

The Red River had turned into a sea. There was muddy brown water for as far as the eye could see. Only trees, the tops of road signs and the roofs of houses and farm buildings — heavily fortified by sandbag dikes — were visible.

The military’s role that day was to conduct surveillance of the area. My role, as a reporter at the Free Press, was to help chronicle the Flood of the Century.

Convoy of military vehicles heads down Portage Avenue.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Convoy of military vehicles heads down Portage Avenue.

There was another sea in the Red River Valley that spring — a sea of military personnel. Operation Assistance became Canada’s biggest peacetime military campaign and also the country’s largest deployment of personnel since the Korean War.

Twenty years have gone by, but the soldiers who served here remember the operation as a turning point in both the government’s and the public’s perception of the military.

The military was at its lowest ebb, still reeling from what became known as the Somalia Affair.

Four years before the flood, a Somali teen caught sneaking onto a Canadian military compound was beaten to death by two paratroopers from the Canadian Airborne Regiment. A dozen others, who knew what had occurred, didn’t intervene. Later, dozens of officers were investigated for their role in the coverup.

The pair was charged, with one imprisoned for five years and the other left with brain damage after trying to commit suicide. A company commander was convicted of encouraging the ‘Rambo-like’ atmosphere in the unit.

The incident led to the Somalia Commission, which found other incidents of violence both in Somalia and back at the regiment’s base in Canada, and after 16 months of hearings produced a final report titled Dishonoured Legacy: The Lessons of the Somalia Affair.

For the military, the flood came at an opportune time.

While the Red River’s rise brought the military to Manitoba, it also began a surge in public support for the military, which remains unabated to this day.


Dan Rummery is now a safety, health and environmental professional in the private sector. But 20 years ago, his rank was sapper and he was serving with the Edmonton-based 1 Combat Engineer Regiment when they got the call to head to Winnipeg.

Rummery, then 23, said he was one of the first on the ground in Manitoba, just like the engineer’s motto of "First in, Last Out." They are the ones who, in times of conflict, move to the front to remove minefields or build bridges.

Rummery said most of the military personnel rushed to Manitoba were "doing things a little out of what they normally did. But, as combat engineers, we were trained to build dikes and fill up sandbags and we trained to use the inflatable boats."

Rummery had a special reason to come and help — he was a born-and-raised Winnipegger who had left three years earlier to join the military.

"I didn’t have anyone personally I was worried about, but I had an overall sense of the importance of this."

Until Rummery lost one of his eyes while changing a tire on the flood front, he spent almost two weeks driving around with a superior to find routes through the floodwater to get support to the military. He helped build dikes and assist with the launch of boats.

"We had to do reconnaissance to see where vehicles could go from Winnipeg to Emerson," he said. "We would drive in some areas where you couldn’t see the road and the water was coming up to the door.

"We had a Zodiac on the roof as a life raft for us just in case."

Rummery said he was still being treated for his injury that ended his military career when Winnipeggers flooded the streets to thank the soldiers during a parade May 14. But it remains a special moment.

"I felt proud that people from my hometown had that respect for the military," he said.

"It was nice to see it happen, because when I joined, the morale I came into was pretty low... With peacekeeping, Canadians didn’t see us in any big battles, but then came the flood. It showed Canadians we could do something.

"It was a big change."


Soldiers from Kingston, Ont. prepare for duty.

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Soldiers from Kingston, Ont. prepare for duty.

Walter Semianiw is retired now, but back then his rank was lieutenant-colonel and he was commander of the First Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

Semianiw and his troops were training at CFB Wainwright in Alberta when plans changed April 16.

"The soldiers had everything planned for shooting and throwing hand grenades. Then there was a call from (Brig-Gen.) Bob Meating (commander of the First Canadian Mechanized Group) saying in all likelihood the military was going to be needed to help people in southern Manitoba," Semianiw said.

"This, very few know. We ended up picking up without anyone hearing about it — not even the government knew about it. We sat on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border waiting. We had to wait until the provincial government asked the federal government for help. You can’t just go in there.

"We sat there for six or seven hours and then we got the go-ahead. We were in Altona and Morris just hours later and we began helping."

For the next few weeks, soldiers filled sandbags, built dikes, and helped people any way they could. 

"Even though it was water, we treated the water as the enemy. It’s the bad guy. If you take that approach, you treat it with respect — you had to.

"No one knew how big this was going to get."

Semianiw said he is conflicted about his memories from that time.

"You have mixed feelings," he said. "There was the sadness of all the water coming in and all the disruptions to peoples’ lives.

"But then it was also one of feeling great gratitude. We were treated well and warmly by the people.

"It was gratifying, as a soldier, we were able to help Canadians. So often we are overseas, but here we were helping our fellow Canadians."

Semianiw has no doubt about the importance of the Red River flood in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces.

"It began with the flood, rolled into Quebec with the ice storm (in January 1998) and has kept rolling along," he said. "Perhaps the Flood of the Century was the beginning of bringing the shine back to the Canadian Armed Forces... all the soldiers were gratified to be part of it."


In 1997, Maj.-Gen. Bruce Jeffries was the commander of Land Forces in Western Canada.

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In 1997, Maj.-Gen. Bruce Jeffries was the commander of Land Forces in Western Canada.

Bruce Jeffries has been retired since 2000, but three years earlier as a major-general, he was the commander of Land Forces in Western Canada.

Jeffries says he spent 35 years in the military and the flood was a career highlight. "The fact that so many soldiers were deployed and the different components that were there. It was pretty much a career high for me."

The flood came not long after a sad chapter in Canadian military history — "the Somali debacle," he said.

"We were still suffering for that. This was one of our first chances to rehabilitate our reputation."

Jeffries, who had nearly 8,500 soldiers, sailors and flyers under his command at the height of the crisis, said the main role of the soldiers wasn’t to fill sandbags and build dikes but "to prevent loss of life and try to keep people safe."

Aside from calling in more troops in the event of a wide-scale evacuation of Winnipeg, another tough decision was deciding when it was "time to get out of Dodge."

"It was an important decision, too. You didn’t want to pull down the tents with there still being work to be done. But the troops had been pulled away from training so when we were no longer required there, they have other things to do. We phased out."

Winnipeggers couldn’t let the military just quietly leave. More than 15,000 people lined the streets as a convoy of troops and military vehicles made its way along Osborne Street to Portage Avenue, down Portage to Main and then on to the CP Rail yards where the vehicles were loaded onto trains.

"The reaction of the people of Winnipeg, and other parts of Manitoba, to the entire deployment was very heartwarming... and very gratifying."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

 

 


Warren Magnusson of the Coast Guard on a barge outside the Morris dike.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Warren Magnusson of the Coast Guard on a barge outside the Morris dike.

The following is excerpted from Red Sea Rising: The Flood of the Century, a best-selling book produced by the Winnipeg Free Press in 1997. 


A bit of rain wasn't enough to stop thousands of Manitobans from turning out for a parade to thank the military for its contribution to the flood effort.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A bit of rain wasn't enough to stop thousands of Manitobans from turning out for a parade to thank the military for its contribution to the flood effort.

A Red Sea Rising

Chapter 6 - The Army

Operation Assistance, the armed forces’ response to the Red River crisis, was the biggest peacetime military operation Canada has mounted. Not since the Korean War had so many soldiers, sailors and flyers congregated. 

Just like the river they were fighting, the armed forces people trickled in at first and grew to become a mighty flood. In the beginning, the soldiers slipped quietly into Manitoba lest they upset an already nervous population.

A month later, when the military had saved the day and won the hearts of thousands, people thronged Portage Avenue and Main Street to wave a tearful goodbye to their troops.

It was a love-in on the streets and dikes, between private citizen and private soldier. Higher up and behind office doors, it was a stormier relationship between the generals on one side and the politicians and civil servants on the other. At times, the clash of personalities and philosophies threatened to drive a fatal wedge into the top of the floodfighting effort.

The armed forces’ involvement with the flood began shortly after the early April blizzard.

The first skirmishers were about 300 Manitoba-based infantrymen and reservists who helped sandbag around Ste. Agathe and St. Adolphe in the second week of April.

About the same time, on Friday, April 11, to be precise, two generals met at the Chateau Lacombe hotel in Edmonton.

One was Brig.-Gen. Robert Meating, the imposing, tough-talking commander of the First Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group. The other was Meating’s boss, Maj.-Gen. Bruce Jeffries, a Winnipeg native who was the commander of land forces in Western Canada.

There had as yet been no call to come to the aid of the civil authority, but the blizzard on top of the near-record winter snowfall told Jeffries he should get ready. He decided to get some soldiers on their way to Manitoba.

If the situation improved, they could be turned around and no harm would be done.

If there was an emergency, acting now would save precious hours down the road.

An amphibious armoured personnel carrier navigates the waters on its return to Winnipeg.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

An amphibious armoured personnel carrier navigates the waters on its return to Winnipeg.

Meating’s immediate reaction unit was the First Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The PPCLI regiment has three battalions. 2PPCLI, based at Kapyong Barracks in Winnipeg, was keeping the peace in Bosnia. 3PPCLI was at its home base in Calgary and 1PPCLI was at CFB Wainwright, in Alberta, for live-fire training.

On Wednesday, April 16, Meating ordered 1PPCLI to move to Manitoba. Walter Semianiw, the lieutenant-colonel who commanded the battalion, put his first units on the road right away.

By Friday, all 568 of his soldiers had made the road trip to CFB Shilo, a few miles east of Brandon. There they stopped and waited for orders that would send them back to Wainwright to fire their rifles, or on into the Red River Valley for the adventure of their lives.

The orders, on Monday, April 21, were to fight the flood. For Semianiw and his troops, the month ahead was to bear an uncanny resemblance to the kind of warfare they were trained to wage.

"The Red River constituted a dangerous, powerful and somewhat unpredictable mobile threat that posed a high risk to both property and life," Semianiw wrote in an after-action report. "As such, the flood water substituted well for an ‘enemy’."

As soon as he got to Shilo, Semianiw searched through his troops for any who had floodfighting experience. He found 10 of them, including one who had helped build dikes in Dominion City in 1979. Semianiw asked them what equipment would be needed and turned them into his training cadre.

For the two days after they got to Shilo, the battalion trained in the use of boats, rescue, dike-building and dike repair and a review of hazardous material threats. They reviewed first aid procedures for hypothermia, electrocution and near-drowning. They turned in their rifles to the quartermasters and drew, in their place, hip waders, rubber boots, waterproof combat gloves, immersion suits, heavy-duty flashlights and fluorescent vests and gloves for traffic control.

As the Patricias trained on Friday, (Premier Gary) Filmon and his cabinet put in their official request for military aid.

The next day, Grand Forks was destroyed.

The Red River was invading and it was time for the Patricias to go to war. At about 8 p.m. Monday, the 75 soldiers in 1PPCLI’s Charlie Company had just finished their training when Semianiw got the call from Meating.

In a way, the battalion and the emergency were made for each other. Four rural municipalities — Montcalm, Franklin, De Salaberry and Morris — bore the brunt of the flood. As it happened, 1PPCLI broke down into four rifle companies.

Company C for Charlie went to the RM of Franklin, raising the dike at Emerson. D Coy went to the RM of Montcalm, helping out in Letellier and St. Jean Baptiste; A Coy went to De Salaberry, where St. Pierre-Jolys was threatened by water backing up the Rat River from the Red. And E Coy went to Morris, which figured to be the most endangered town on the Red.

So each of Semianiw’s rifle companies had one and only one municipal government to deal with. Liaison with the civil authority was a problem solved.

Troops travel the province in the flood effort.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Troops travel the province in the flood effort.

Semianiw set up his headquarters in Altona. It was outside the flood zone, but close to the edge. It had Highway 30 and a paved airfield. It had a fully equipped hospital and it had the regional EMO radio station. It would be 1PPCLI’s home until May 17.

Cpl. Frank Guay and his wife Nancy give the thumbs up as he recuperates in the burn unit at the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton Friday afternoon. Guay was injured when he touched a submerged powerline near Emerson.

RAY GIGUERE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Cpl. Frank Guay and his wife Nancy give the thumbs up as he recuperates in the burn unit at the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton Friday afternoon. Guay was injured when he touched a submerged powerline near Emerson.

Just as though it was a shooting war, Semianiw did not try to micro-manage every detail. The situation changed too quickly for that. His company commanders knew his general intent and they had freedom of action, restricted only by an order that lives were not to be risked solely to save property.

In his summation, Semianiw said his troops had used all their combat training, all their combat vehicles and all their equipment except their weapons.

A military exercise of the size of Operation Assistance, even in the controlled conditions of a Canadian Forces base, is almost certain to mean some serious injuries. Deaths aren’t uncommon.

But even with the Red River doing a credible job of being the enemy — one that never slept as well as one that never shot back — there were no deaths among the floodfighters, military or civilian.

Two soldiers were badly hurt, though.

Spr. Dan Rummery, a 23-year-old Winnipegger with the Edmonton-based 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, lost his right eye while changing a tire in early May.

And Cpl. Frank Guay, 26, from the same regiment, was badly burned when his Zodiac inflatable boat ran into a live hydro wire near Emerson in late April. He later had to have his left hand amputated.

While Semianiw fought the river from Altona, Meating tilted with the city and provincial governments. The hottest and most public outburst came on the morning of Saturday, April 26.

Soldiers and politicians were at the military terminal of 17 Wing, on the west side of Winnipeg International Airport, to greet and brief Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

The Van Doos pull a Zodiac out of the water near Niverville as a storm gathers on April 29.

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The Van Doos pull a Zodiac out of the water near Niverville as a storm gathers on April 29.

Among the assembled cast were Filmon, Meating and David Iftody, the member of Parliament for Provencher riding. Iftody was the first of the three to arrive.

He was in the terminal when Filmon, looking shaken and angry, came in. He had just witnessed a clash between one of his top aides, cabinet clerk Don Leitch, and Meating. The trigger was the confused line of authority at the Roseau River Indian Reserve.

"You know it’s rarely that you see the premier upset," Iftody said later. "But he looked very visibly shaken and upset. And there was a bit of a confrontation in front of the media outside even before we went into the VIP room. And Meating was giving everyone hell and saying, ‘Look, I want this Indian reserve evacuated.’

"The media had heard this. There was a little bit of a confrontation. Not with the premier; it was with — what’s his spokesperson? — Leitch. Don Leitch. And Meating was standing in front of all the media people and saying, ‘Look, I want those people out of there.’

"And Meating was saying, ‘Why have you left the Roseau River Indian group in that community? They should be evacuated.’

And then when the premier came into the VIP room, the discussion carried on between Meating and the premier about that. And the general was saying, ‘Look, I want some answers to this’."

Meating and Filmon had this in common: too many worries and too little sleep. What set Meating off was a report that a dike at Roseau had breached the night before.

Meating knew the dike there had not been provincially inspected — that was a federal job. And he knew there had been nobody in the community mandated to give an order to evacuate. More politics.

Meating resented the way politics dogged him at every step. Neither he nor EMO could give direct orders to the civilians in the valley’s towns and farms; they had to go through the reeves of the municipalities along the river.

And the reeves were stiff-backed men, not accustomed to jumping just because a provincial bureaucrat or a brigadier-general said so.

Soldiers battle against nature as wind and water turned clay dikes at St. Jean Baptiste into mud pits.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Soldiers battle against nature as wind and water turned clay dikes at St. Jean Baptiste into mud pits.

Meating had been working 18 to 19 hours a day, and more often than not a phone call or his own worries interrupted his sleep in his little apartment at Kapyong Barracks.

What set Filmon off was being in the dark about any breach at Roseau. He should have been told. As it turned out, there had been no breach.

The alarm had come from someone who saw seepage being pumped back over the dike, a normal part of maintenance. Meating had shot from the lip.

In the VIP room where they were to meet Chretien, Meating was belligerent with Iftody and Filmon. "I’m not interested in the politics of either one of you guys," he snapped. "I’m interested in the lives of these people!"

Meating towered over the slightly built Filmon. But Filmon didn’t give an inch.

He and Meating sat side by side on a couch and Meating spread a map of the valley on a coffee table.

"And I also, I talked to him about the politics of the various communities up and down the river, too," the general said later. "About how people were staying in their ring-diked communities when it may be more prudent for them to reduce their numbers and to leave. That the emergency crews inside were very large, that I felt there was risk to the people that were inside. The ballooned numbers...

"And that they were putting themselves at risk but they were also putting potential rescuers at risk. So I raised that with the premier."

Politics was going to get somebody killed, he told the premier. There were too many people in the ring-diked communities, but the play of politics made it impossible to move them out.

If a dike broke, some of them could die and so could some soldiers, trying to rescue them. And he — Meating — would take the blame.

The general and the premier recall their meeting differently in some ways. Meating, for example, remembers there being tears in Filmon’s eyes. Filmon is certain there were not.

But they agree on what Filmon said when Meating complained about being the goat if disaster struck. Filmon said Meating was wrong. "At the end of the day, general, you’re not going to wear this," Filmon told Meating. "I am."

With 8,500 soldiers, sailors and flyers under command, Operation Assistance was the biggest peacetime operation Canada had ever mounted.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

With 8,500 soldiers, sailors and flyers under command, Operation Assistance was the biggest peacetime operation Canada had ever mounted.

Meating had deeper concerns than the irritation of dealing with too many political levels. He hadn’t voiced them to Filmon, but he had talked about them with Jeffries.

His responsibility was the area south of the city, but he was worried about Winnipeg, too. Its safety depended on the hastily built Z-dike. But, he told Jeffries, the city had no worst-case plan in place for the possibility — perhaps the probability — that the dike would burst.

Meating had met with Loren Reynolds, the city’s works commissioner, earlier in the week, on Wednesday, April 23. The meeting was cordial and the men had much in common.

Reynolds had been a military man for most of his adult life. He had been appointed commander of the Winnipeg Canadian Forces Base in 1986 and left the military to join the city hall staff in 1990 so he and his wife could stay put in a city they’d grown fond of.

But Meating thought the city wasn’t being properly informed. Some of the city’s information was 24 or 48 hours old. It looked to the general like EMO and the politicians were going to botch the operation and he would take the blame.

It appeared to Meating that this was the first Reynolds had heard about the possibility, uncovered by Ron Richardson, that the water might outflank the floodway dikes, or the desperate discussions about extending the floodway dike to stop the water.

Jeffries arrived in Winnipeg late the next day, Thursday, April 24. On Friday, he, Meating, Harold Clayton and Hugh Eliasson, the deputy minister of government services, met in Eliasson’s office. There were no about 3,000 armed forces personnel — soldiers and flyers — in the province.

Jeffries pointed out that all of them were fully committed in the "lake" south of Winnipeg. There would be a need for at least as many more soldiers, Jeffries persuaded Eliasson, if the Z-dike were to fail. That afternoon, the province put in the call for 4,500 more military personnel. The immediate reaction unit from Central Canada moved to Manitoba, led by Brig.-Gen. Rick Hillier.

Soldiers load boats with sandbags destined for threatened communities south of Winnipeg.

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Soldiers load boats with sandbags destined for threatened communities south of Winnipeg.

The Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal 22nd Regiment, the celebrated Van Doos, supplied the biggest numbers.

Jet Ranger helicopters from the flying school in Portage la Prairie and Sea King helicopters from Nova Scotia flew in to bolster the Griffins and Labradors already toiling in and over the valley.

Brittany Martens, 7, hangs on to her mom in a service line along with troops from 1PPCLI Calgary. The Martens were evacuated from their home in Emerson and are staying in Altona. About 650 people attended the dinner for evacuees, troops, and host families.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Brittany Martens, 7, hangs on to her mom in a service line along with troops from 1PPCLI Calgary. The Martens were evacuated from their home in Emerson and are staying in Altona. About 650 people attended the dinner for evacuees, troops, and host families.

The arrival of a second brigade group and its commanding brigadier-general meant it was time for Jeffries to move to Winnipeg and take command of the situation both in and south of Winnipeg.

At the height of the flood crisis, he would have nearly 8,500 soldiers, sailors and flyers under his command. His arrival meant that, for the first time, there would be a shock absorber between the civilian authorities and the abrasive Meating.

Among the first soldiers on the job and among the last to be relieved were the reserves, part-time civilian soldiers. They moved from crisis to crisis over four weeks, up and down both sides of the Red River from the American border to the Perimeter Highway around Winnipeg, first building the dikes, then maintaining them, and finally tearing them down.

It was back-breaking, painful work, spread out over 18-hour days and seven-day work weeks.

It was also, said Free Press reporter Doug Nairne, who spent the flood crisis working as a captain in the reserves, the opportunity of a lifetime.

"It was hard to go anywhere," he wrote later, "without getting a firm handshake and heartfelt thank-you from people who would cross the street just to be close to a soldier.

"At times, there were people literally lined up outside our improvised barracks with homemade soup, baking, farmer’s sausage and anything else we could ask for. We received letters from school children, visits from church groups and more invitations to visit than we could accept.

"People offered us their homes to live in and their schools to shower in. They asked if they could do our laundry and made us feel like their lifelong friends and neighbours. Which, in a sense, we now are."

It was the same for soldiers in the regular army.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces pull away from shore going house-to-house to deliver evacuation notices to residents along Highway 59.

BETH A. KEISER / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces pull away from shore going house-to-house to deliver evacuation notices to residents along Highway 59.

When Cpl. Quinton Hooker got to Winnipeg from Edmonton on April 23 with 1 Service Battalion, he was moved by the crayon drawings from a Grade 1 class that decorated the walls at Kapyong Barracks.

Bdr. John Horan of the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery was among the soldiers who called La Salle School home during the flood.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bdr. John Horan of the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery was among the soldiers who called La Salle School home during the flood.

"After a three-day road move, the next morning I was so tired, but when I got up and saw the pictures, I don’t know how to describe the feeling. It was a feeling of warmth like being with my own kids," Hooker said. So he went to Ralph Maybank School to express his appreciation in person.

"My kids made some beautiful posters thanking all the military," said teacher Cora Campbell. "Cpl. Hooker phoned and wanted to come down and thank the class personally. That thrilled the kids to no end."

Hooker said the letter of thanks he got from the first-graders after his visit is his most prized memory of fighting the flood of ‘97, and he planned to keep writing the class even after his regiment left for Bosnia in late July.

At the other end of the chain of command, Jeffries felt the same warmth. Up to 1997, the most excitement Jeffries had seen was in Bosnia, in 1996, where he commanded a multinational UN force keeping the fragile Dayton peace accord in effect.

"It was a career experience for me," he said. "And then to turn around and do this (lead Operation Assistance) less than a year later. With more soldiers involved. With an emergency of epic proportions.

"For Canada, a natural disaster on the verge of happening and impacting on a major Canadian population centre. To be put into that position of responsibility, I think even the Bosnia experience now slips into second place. And then the reaction of the citizens of Manitoba to our involvement made it much more gratifying."

"It’s not so much we were surprised by it," said Cpl. Shayne Demeria of the Royal Canadian Regiment. "It’s just that we weren’t expecting so much of it and the number of people offering thanks."

"We need this at the moment," said Master Cpl. David Wilkinson, from the same regiment. "We’ve had a lot of bad publicity. We’re not used to this." What they weren’t used to was children clambering on their equipment, families bringing their kids to nicer soldiers, young women offering their phone numbers.

It was exactly what Canada’s military needed, said military historian David Bercuson. "They’re getting a chance to show they’re not all a bunch of murdering bastards who kill people in Somalia or who shred paper at the Department of Defence headquarters," he said.

The Kenny family credits the military with saving their St. Mary's Road home from ruin. The land has belonged to the family since 1879.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Kenny family credits the military with saving their St. Mary's Road home from ruin. The land has belonged to the family since 1879.

By the last week of April, the Red was so high, it was backing up the Assiniboine and Seine rivers. In apartment blocks along Roslyn Road and Wellington Crescent, water pushed through the sandbags and poured into the basements.

That made the buildings unlivable because it knocked out the electrical system, stopping the elevators and, more importantly, the air exchange systems.

The city prepared evacuation notices to 10,000 homes, every residence on the banks of any of Winnipeg’s three rivers — the Red, Assiniboine and Seine.

These were not orders to clear out, such as went to St. Norbert and Kingston Crescent. They were written notices to be ready to leave on 24 hours notice.

Meating kept arguing for preparations to go far beyond a riverside evacuation. And when it seemed to him the civilians weren’t catching on to how dangerous the situation had become, he made some moves on his own.

He asked for the immediate response units in Ontario and Quebec to be committed, to be ready to fly out on short notice. He asked for medical assistance and doctors, though not the mobile field hospital that headquarters sent.

He told everyone who came out to bring a life preserver.

He ordered up mobile water purification units, though not out of concern for the city’s water, which comes by aqueduct from distant Shoal Lake.

It was for people in southern Manitoba, which Clayton thought might be in the same fix as Grand Forks, or the Ancient Mariner of poetic fame — water everywhere, but none of it fit to drink.

"I just don’t believe the amount of responsibility that I face here," Meating said. "It wasn’t until the forecast of bad weather came along that I really think the people ... really took seriously the threat."

Cpl. Ed Capulong from Calgary drives a boat full of sandbags past a 10-ton military truck that was washed off the road moments earlier.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Cpl. Ed Capulong from Calgary drives a boat full of sandbags past a 10-ton military truck that was washed off the road moments earlier.

After his Friday, April 25 conference with Eliasson and Meating, Jeffries flew on to Edmonton with a copy of an operational plan written by another general — former Free Press publisher Richard Malone.

Princess Patrica's Canadian Light Infantry Pte. Peter Chan, centre, hoists a sandbag to his shoulder in Emerson, Man.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Princess Patrica's Canadian Light Infantry Pte. Peter Chan, centre, hoists a sandbag to his shoulder in Emerson, Man.

Malone, then a brigadier-general, had written it in 1950, but time had not lessened its impact on Jeffries.

The Canadian Army’s overall operation was known as Red Ramp, but within it was a plan, written by a committee led by Malone and code-named Operation Blackboy, for the emergency evacuation of Winnipeg. It was time, Meating had impressed upon Jeffries, for the city to update Blackboy.

The city’s state of preparedness turned out not as bad as Meating and Jeffries had feared. Filmon pointed out to Jeffries that there was a huge difference between 1950 and now — Duff’s Ditch. Even the worst case would not mean clearing out all of Winnipeg.

As well, there had been no Emergency Management Organization or civil defence operation in 1950. In fact, creating civil defence organizations across Canada was the major recommendation in the army’s after-action report on the 1950 flood.

And the city did have a planning framework, with its responsibilities spelled out in the province’s emergency plan. One of Meating’s staff had told him there was no plan, Meating said, and that’s what he had believed.

Later, he had to admit there had been some excellent planning. The medical plan, for example, was detailed in its timetable for which hospital wards would be emptied in what order, and where the patients would go.

What was missing was co-ordinated detailed planning, and he was concerned about the ability of the city and the province to put all the pieces of their plans together, in a hurry, if an emergency struck.

Jeffries came back to Winnipeg on Sunday, April 27, to take up command for the duration of the crisis. The weather forecast was about as bad as it could be — high winds that would churn up dike-destroying waves on the lake that the Red had formed.

It was a sombre group of city, provincial and military people who met the next evening at 8 p.m. in a conference room in the Woodsworth Building.

Among those present were Clayton, Eliasson, Leitch, chief city commissioner Rick Frost and the three generals — Jeffries in overall command, Meating in charge of the effort south of Winnipeg and the newly arrived Rick Hillier in charge of military operations inside Winnipeg.

Engine trouble had this member of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, temporarily grounded.

TOM HANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Engine trouble had this member of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, temporarily grounded.

First on the agenda was the province’s plan for dealing with a major breach in the Brunkild dike. Such a breach seemed likely, even probable, with the storm forecast.

The province had hired an engineering firm to draft the contingency plan, and the engineers took the floor for the next 40 minutes. Their idea was to use helicopters to lift car hulks and school buses the derelicts that made up the breakwater that deputy highways minister Andy Horosko had devised — and drop them into the gap in the dike.

Then they would be shored up with truckloads of limestone and giant sandbags.

Jeffries, ever the diplomat, pointed out the flaw in the proposal — there weren’t enough heavy helicopters to do the job. There aren’t, Bob Meating thought to himself, enough heavy helicopters in the world to carry out that scheme.

"It was my impression that you couldn’t depend upon that plan," Jeffries said later. "It was, in my view, not a practical plan."

Meating, in his blunt manner, recalled the presentation this way: "It’s a waste of money. I mean, I’ve never heard more — anyway, I’m not an engineer. But I understand time and space and people and getting your ducks all lined up to make sure you’ve got the stuff in the right place at the right time.

"The plan to close a hole in the Brunkild dike was so far-fetched it wasn’t worth the money the province paid the contracting engineer."

Canadian Forces soldiers help a homeowner build a sandbag dike in Grand Pointe.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Canadian Forces soldiers help a homeowner build a sandbag dike in Grand Pointe.

But at the Monday conference, Meating kept quiet and let Jeffries explain, politely and patiently, that the plan was a non-starter.

"Once I made that point," Jeffries said later, "then the whole thrust of the conversation turned to how, then, should we prepare the city of Winnipeg to deal with that kind of scenario. That’s when we decided that a plan for a mass evacuation was a prudent thing to do.

"And I offered — in fact, I had foreseen that requirement — and I had Rick Hillier stand up and give them a thumbnail sketch of the kinds of considerations that needed to be embedded in that kind of plan."

Jeffries offered his staff to help draft a new Blackboy plan. He felt he had to tread carefully with the civil servants. Meating’s bulldozer approach to disagreements gave provincial politicians and bureaucrats the fear that they were going to be elbowed aside.

"And I understood that," Jeffries said later. "So my game plan was to offer them assistance in a non-threatening way at every step to ensure that they understood that they were maintaining control of this process."

The provincial and city officials asked for time to talk it over. They excused themselves and went to another office, leaving the generals behind. Half an hour later, as the generals had hoped, the civil servants returned. They agreed with Jeffries that it was time to draw up a single master plan for the worst.

Jeffries offered working space at 17 Wing, and the evacuation committee met there at 8 a.m. Tuesday - oh eight hundred, in Meating’s parlance. The meeting went on, for some of the participants, to 4 a.m. Wednesday. It picked up again at 9 a.m.

And a ray of sunlight appeared.

Members of Calgary's First Battalion, PPCLI battled 80 km/h winds in St Jean Baptist as they scrambled to reinforce the town's protective earthen dike. At risk of erosion from the pounding waves, the soldiers pushed logs and sandbags into the swollen Red River to act as a breakwater and a means of a protection for the structure. Moisture from the waves turned the mostly clay dikes into a mud pit, making the work nearly impossible.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Members of Calgary's First Battalion, PPCLI battled 80 km/h winds in St Jean Baptist as they scrambled to reinforce the town's protective earthen dike. At risk of erosion from the pounding waves, the soldiers pushed logs and sandbags into the swollen Red River to act as a breakwater and a means of a protection for the structure. Moisture from the waves turned the mostly clay dikes into a mud pit, making the work nearly impossible.

"During the course of the first day," said Jeffries, "the engineers continued to do their number-crunching. By the end of the first day, it was clear the flood forecast was nowhere near as severe as was believed on the evening of the 28th." At Morris, the water had been two feet lower than feared.

More number-crunching persuaded the city that a breach, even a major one, of the Z-dike would not mean catastrophe. As fast as the water would flow, there would still be time to push more water into the floodway to compensate.

The city, which had put 10,000 households on notice to be ready for evacuation, cancelled the warnings.

But the generals and the bureaucrats continued their work, to Meating’s delight. He found civilians on his own wavelength, particularly the provincial Highways Department’s Don Kuryk, who would get a medal for his work on the Brunkild dike, and Rick Frost, the chief city commissioner.

Frost proposed going ahead with a plan to evacuate up to 100,000 Winnipeggers, not because the threat was imminent, but to have "in our hip pocket."

It never became necessary to implement the plan. The Brunkild dike held out and the crest of the river arrived at slightly less than the forecast level. For the first time since the blizzard struck nearly a month before, the river had begun to let up.

With the arrival of Hillier and the second wave of soldiers, Winnipeg got to know the military the way their neighbours up the valley had done earlier. 

"When the military came in, they became part of our staff," said Loren Reynolds, the city’s works commissioner. "They were great.... Hillier was a real class act. I would say the military saved 120 to 150 houses, and that’s a conservative guess."

Sapper Matthew VanErp does his best to keep dogs fro the Roseau River First Nation from hitching a ride in his Zodiac.

Sapper Matthew VanErp does his best to keep dogs fro the Roseau River First Nation from hitching a ride in his Zodiac.

Mayor Susan Thompson wanted a military parade, to let Winnipeggers shower the soldiers with their affection and gratitude. Jeffries declined.

Wary of disturbing the working relationship he’d been able to establish, he protested that the military personnel were not the only heroes - that all manner of people had gone above and beyond the call.

Five-year-old Vann Hansell salutes passing soldiers from dad Darryl's shoulders.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Five-year-old Vann Hansell salutes passing soldiers from dad Darryl's shoulders.

In the end, Jeffries and Thompson compromised. A convoy of 130 amphibious vehicles, trucks and jeeps was to leave the city May 14.

So that Winnipeg and the armed forces could salute each other, the convoy formed up at the Winnipeg Canoe Club on Dunkirk Drive, rolled up Osborne Street to Portage Avenue, down Portage to Main and then on to the CP Rail yards at Keewatin Street and Selkirk Avenue, where the vehicles were loaded onto trains.

Under a chilly drizzle, 15,000 people lined the route, waving flags.

It was a show of pride and respect that Canadian soldiers had not seen for years, certainly not since Somalia.

Jeffries said fighting the flood gave his troops a shot of morale, the likes of which he had never seen.

"I think it has helped the Canadian Armed Forces turn the page for our forces," he said.

"I think they’ll go home the better for this," agreed Hillier.

Guay, the combat engineer who lost his hand in the accident near Emerson, led the Red River Exhibition parade on June 22.

Rummery, the other injured combat engineer, was invited to share the honour. Rummery, who was in Winnipeg the day before the parade to be fitted for a prosthetic eye, said he appreciated the good wishes, but he preferred to heal in private.

Guay said it was strange to be leading the parade. "I’m more used to being behind — in a mass of green," he said.

Both Guay and Rummery expected their military careers to be over. Rummery got a job offer from a Winnipeg engineering firm and planned to take it up in the fall of 1997. Guay said his injuries sometimes left him feeling "dependent and useless."

But self-pity isn’t in Guay’s character. Free Press reporter Paul Samyn dropped into his hospital room in Edmonton on May 7, 10 days after the accident. "Even when you go into combat, you don’t think about things like injuries," said Guay, who had done 30 months of peacekeeping in Croatia. "Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do your job. But I had some bad luck."

Samyn asked if there would be a medal or some other sort of honour. Guay pointed to the greeting cards, mostly from Manitobans he’d never met, lining his room.

"This is pretty much my citation," he said.

Osborne Street in Winnipeg was jammed with grateful residents when the military convoy passed on its way out of the city for the last time.

JEF DEBOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Osborne Street in Winnipeg was jammed with grateful residents when the military convoy passed on its way out of the city for the last time.

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.

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