Unwritten Histories

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Memories and History: The 1998 Ice Storm

Branches under a thick layer of ice, with a blue tint.

There’s no power, there’s no food,

There’s no nothing, we’re all screwed.

While I was compiling the roundup a few weeks ago, I came across a reference to the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Ice Storm. My first thought was that it couldn’t possibly have been twenty years, since it didn’t feel like it was so long ago. I have to admit, I’ve been rather bemused by the media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Ice Storm. Most of the stories that I’ve read are of the “feel good variety,” like this one, where “Quebecers recall funny and heartwarming moments.” Or this interview with Jean Chrétien, who, when asked whether people would be so resilient in the face of another ice storm, replied, “I guess so. I hope so. I think so. We’re still Canadian, you know.” Meanwhile, this piece even has a nifty infographic of the Ice Storm, including the percentage of maple syrup taps that were under more than 40mm of ice (20%, in case you were wondering). Aside from a few photographic essays and a couple of more somber pieces, the overall emphasis has been on the indomitable spirit of those affected. And this is not at all what I remember. Memories, however, are funny things. So in today’s blog post, we’re going to take a look at the 1998 Ice Storm, the relationship between personal and collective memories, and how we use the past to make sense of our lives.

 

Seven Days of Hell

I have very vivid memories of the Ice Storm, even though I was only thirteen at the time. The Ice Storm hit the day after our first day back at school following the holiday break. Much of the city, including our house and our school, lost power. Now, Montreal was no stranger to ice storms. They happened every year, were really annoying, but generally were not that big of a deal. Similarly, sometimes we lost power, but it was never for more than a few hours. When the Ice Storm hit, we had no idea what we were in for.

On that first day, I was home alone. My parents had to go to work. Since the only door that opened from the outside was the automatic garage door (which required electricity), someone had to stay home to make sure that my parents could get back in the house. My sister decamped to our neighbour’s house (they had a fire place), so I was the lucky girl. I remember feeling so cold. No power also means no heat. In January. In Montreal. Of course, just as my parents came home, the power came back on. But they promised us McDonald’s, so I forgave them. 😉 We stayed the night at home, but at some point, the power went out again. My parents decided that enough was enough, and we went to stay with my grandparents. Their power stayed on, since their power lines were underground.

In my memory, this was two weeks of unmitigated hell (though my mother has informed me that it was only seven days). My sister and I were stuck home alone with my grandparents. They did not have cable, and this was in the Dark Ages, before the internet. The only movies they had were Jeanette MacDonald films, and a copy of the Sound of Music. I have seen that movie way too many times. To make matters worse, my grandfather went to bed at 7:00 pm, which meant absolutely no noise for the rest of the evening. Even worse, I had to sleep in my uncle’s old room with my dad, because my sister refused to sleep with anyone except my mother. My father is not a quiet sleeper. I remember spending a lot of time staring into the dark, being really bored.

When we were able to watch tv, or listen to the radio (for the young’uns, just like podcasts, but live), the news was really scary. I remember hearing about people who died because they brought their barbeques into the house or because icicles fell on their heads. It also seemed like Hydro Quebec wasn’t really doing anything.

Eventually, we were able to go home. The pipes had frozen, but thankfully not burst. But my parents had lost an entire freezer’s worth of food, which ended up being really expensive. I did have to help my dad chop ice off the drive way with a hatchet so that he could park the car, but shortly thereafter, I went back to school and life continued as before.

 

It was a Nightmare

While researching this blog post, I ended up calling my mother to clarify some details, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what she remembered about the Ice Storm. So I asked her. The first thing she remembered were sheets of ice everywhere, and that it was impossible to walk up the front steps of the house or up the drive way: “It was a nightmare. The whole city looked like a war-torn country. No lights, no power, hydro poles were down. [And it] just kept going, and going, and going.”

According to my mother, both my sister and I went to stay with our neighbour on that first day. She and my dad went to work, since they didn’t think the weather was that bad (it was only raining). We stayed in the house for the first night, under the assumption that the power would come back. But the next day we went to my grandparents’ house, which was, in her words “a nightmare.” She had to sleep on this really old hide-a-bed with me, and the springs dug into her back. And we all had to go to bed at 7:00 pm, because that’s when my grandfather went to bed.

She also remembered being forced to go to work. At the time, she was working at our local mall, which had been opened as a shelter. The mall was near my grandparents’ place, so it also still had power. And, apparently, her bosses thought that some of the people taking shelter might want to go shopping. My dad got to stay home for the first few days, since he worked downtown and it was impossible to get that far.

We were forced to stay with my grandparents for seven days, since the grid that powered our house was one of the last ones restored in our area. After we returned home, my mother recalls discovering that the pipes had frozen and burst. The house was badly damaged, and the furnace needed to be replaced.

 

Wasn’t Exactly the Greatest

My dad’s version of events is also quite different. He told me that his first concern was over my sister and I, since we were in the house for a whole day without heat. He was also worried that the pipes would freeze and burst. While he went to work on the first day, his office was closed for three days afterwards, since no one could get downtown. The schools were also closed, but he wasn’t sure if it was for two or three days, or most of a week.

He thinks we tried to stay in the house for one night, but had to go and stay with my grandparents, which, in his words, “wasn’t exactly the greatest.” We had to sleep on makeshift beds in the basement. My grandmother didn’t know what to feed us, so my mother ended up doing most of the cooking. She was also forced to go and work, and he was worried about her going outside since “every street was full of ice,” and because of the news stories showing people being hurt or killed by falling icicles. He also remembers news stories that emphasized that Hydro Quebec was working on restoring power, but that it was too dangerous even for them (he said this with a really sarcastic tone). However, he also remembered that anyone who had power or a heater opened their homes to other people.

He’s not sure if we stayed with my grandparents for four or five days, or a full week. Again, he mentioned that this was because our grid was the last one in the area to have power restored.  After he returned home, he discovered that the pipes had frozen, and was forced to call a plumber to clear them up. He also remembers not being able to get the ice off of the driveway. My mother had called the gardener (this was a small company that cleared driveway in the winter, and mowed the lawn in the summer), and asked him to do it. When he said he couldn’t, she fired him.[1]

  

The First Draft of History

Complicating the story further are news media accounts of the Ice Storm. I went back and looked at the Montreal Gazette’s coverage as the Ice Storm was in progress (I live in BC, and it was the only Montreal newspaper I could access online). To my amazement, while the Ice Storm is officially recognized as having occurred between January 4th and January 10th, there was absolutely zero news coverage of freezing rain or power outages on January 4th or 5th, and the 6th only featured a short piece about freezing rain and driving conditions. [2]  Keeping in mind that this was pre-internet (for most of us) and that the Gazette was only published once a day, this still seems like a strange lapse.

It wasn’t until January 7th that there is any kind of substantial news reporting on the Ice Storm, with reports that “[We are] grappling with the worst ice storm to hit the region in nearly four decades, and with more freezing rain in the forecast, Hydro-Quebec warned yesterday that blackouts won’t end quickly.”[3] But even still, the coverage was largely nonchalant. For example, Peggy Curran bragged that “This Ice is not Nice: But Montrealers Tough it Out Again.” In this tongue-and-cheek article, she laid out three different approaches to winter, including the “cozy slipper” Montrealer — “(Montrealis fuzzy pantoufus)” — who stayed inside and pretended winter didn’t exist; the hot-dog Montrealer — “(Montrealis stupidus extremis)” — who didn’t see why they couldn’t wear shorts and barbeque in January; and, finally, the “hardy, persevere-against-all-odds Montrealer (Montrealis undauntibus),” whom she describes as “When the going gets tough, the tough get shoveling. They would never let a little thing like a monster ice storm or fractured ribs keep them from going about their business.”[4]

Expert Tip: There is a lot of fascinating stuff in the coverage about the idea of Canadians as a hardy people because of the cold. For more info on this, check out Blair Stein’s blog post, “Is it Cold in Canada? Three Ways to Answer.”

However, on January 8th, there is a noticeable shift in coverage, one that continued through to the 11th.[5] Articles with titles like, “People Seek the Essentials: Heat, Light, Food: Hotels and Motels were Booked Solid and Shopping Malls were Staying Open to Offer Food and Warmth to People Unable to Stay with Family Members Or Friends. Parents and Babysitters were Saddled with Children Whose Schools Closed,” appeared alongside stories about elderly residents who refused to evacuate because they were scared something would happen to their homes, and news of the first fatality, Joseph Laplante.[6] Tellingly, there was even a piece with “survival tips,” for those without electricity. Author Jeff Henrich advised readers to wear warm clothes, check on their neighbours, and avoid bathing. More ominously were warnings against using propane or kerosene burners or generators inside the home, because “carbon monoxide could kill you,” and the admonishment: “don’t keep a newborn child – that is, one month old or younger, in a cold house. Don’t even take the chance.”[7]

Once the dust had cleared, eastern Canada received 100 mm of freezing rain. Nearly 1.4 million people lost power in Quebec alone. Half a million people were displaced into temporary shelters. Nearly 1000 people were injured, whether though falling ice, fires, or car accidents. And between 25 and 35 people died.[8] 

 

Will You Remember Me?

So how do we reconcile all of these seemingly contradictory stories? Well, in short, the answer is that we can’t. Here on Unwritten Histories, we’ve talked a great deal about the relationship between the past and the present. In many ways, the past is fundamentally unknowable. Until someone invents a time machine (I’m still waiting!), we have no way of really knowing what happened. That’s because, though some of us like to think about history as concrete, static, and finished, the reality is that history is alive and constantly changing.

When historians speak about memory, they generally divide it into two categories: personal memories and collective memories. Personal memories refer to individual recollections, often, but not necessarily, based on experience. Collective memory refers to how communities and societies remember their pasts. Consider, for example, the difference between one Holocaust survivor’s memories, compared to how Jewish-Canadians remember the Holocaust. While they are not the same, they are very much intertwined. That is because memory isn’t a concrete object, or even a passive image in your head. Instead, it is an active process. Memories are constantly being rewritten, invented, and forgotten.

As Pamele Sugiman explains, memory is a social act,

one that is far more than “spontaneous,” “personal”, and individually experienced. Past events after all are very much situated and represented in present-day society. As such, they cannot be accessed in “unmediated form.” In the words of Annette Kuhn, memory is ‘always already secondary revision.’ It is neither “pure experience” nor “pure event”. It reflects personal and historical transformations, ideological shifts, changing relations of power, strategy and struggle.[9]

In other words, our experiences are always filtered through our own world views, affecting not only the original creation of a memory, but how the memory lives on in our imaginations.

Now this is not to suggest that memories are not real or true. Far from it. Unless someone invents a time machine (again, I’m still waiting!), we can’t go back in time and re-experience a particular moment, even if that moment was one second ago – we can only access the past through our own memories. In the end, what really happened is less important than how individuals remember what happened and how they make sense of the past, the present, and the future.

Expert tip: The problem of how historians deal with memory, particularly its relationship to oral history, is really complicated, and deserves its own blog post. Just keep in mind that whether we are telling a story or writing down our recollections, both are acts of memory. The only difference is the medium.

 

Conclusion

This look back at the 1998 Ice Storm was important to me both personally and professionally. I found myself frustrated by the coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Ice Storm, largely because it didn’t match up with my own experiences. The coverage almost completely glosses over the personal and human toll of the Ice Storm. Nearly all of the articles would just say something like “25 to 35 people died,” without providing any additional information. This was upsetting because my neighbour Irving was one of the people who died. He was a sweet older man, who had an adorable shih tsu named Elmo. Irving was always happy to spend time talking to an awkward little girl, and would always let me walk Elmo around the block.

On a professional level, my training as a social historian always makes me question official narratives, particularly when they emphasize one predominant experience or perspective. The disconnect between my personal memories and the collective memory of the Storm made me reflect on how these two kinds of memories intersect. But more significantly, it shows just how it important it is for historians to understand the multiple perspectives and experiences of the past.  My Ice Storm memories reflect my age at the time, and my boredom, while my parents’ memories reflect their adult responsibilities. And the 20th anniversary coverage, while frustrating to me personally, is no less important. It tries to make sense of the Ice Storm by tying in what happened to the idea of Canadians as hardy northerners.

 


That’s it for this week! I’d love to hear your stories about living through the Ice Storm in the comments! The ironic part is that I’m in BC, where it is 5 degrees, and it’s been minus 30 in Montreal for the last week. Muahaha. Anyways, I hope you enjoyed our first post of 2018! If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for an epic roundup! See you then!

 


 

Notes

[1] When I asked my sister what she remembered, her response was that she didn’t really remember much. She was only eleven at the time. She did remember not being in school, and staying with my grandparents, but that’s it.

[2] Monique Beaudin, “More Weather Mess on the Way: Freezing Rain, Drizzle Today; Cold and Snow Forecast.” The Gazette, Jan 06, 1998.

[3] Jonathon Gatehouse, Susan Semenak and Monique Beaudin. “Ice Cripples Region: Power Won’t be Fully Restored for Days,” The Gazette, Jan 07, 1998.

[4] Peggy Curran, “This Ice is Not Nice: But Montrealers Tough it Out again,” The Gazette, Jan 07, 1998. A3.

[5] Jonathon Gatehouse, Campbell Clark, Michelle Lalonde and Katherine Wilton, “Hydro Braces for More: New Round of Freezing Rain Hits Region,” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998.

[6] Mary Lamey, Susan Semenak, Lynn Moore, Sue Montgomery, Kathryn Greenaway and Geoff Baker, “People Seek the Essentials: Heat, Light, Food: Hotels and Motels were Booked Solid and Shopping Malls were Staying Open to Offer Food and Warmth to People Unable to Stay with Family Members Or Friends. Parents and Babysitters were Saddled with Children Whose Schools Closed,” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998; Alexander Norris, “Fire Death in Laval Linked to Ice Storm.” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998. A3, ; and Susan Semenak, “Coming in from the Cold: Families and Seniors Begin to Crowd into Community Centres for Warmth,” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998. Norris, Alexander. “Fire Death in Laval Linked to Ice Storm.” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998. See also, Monique Beaudin and Sue Montgomery, “Samaritans Bringing Joy to Strangers.” The Gazette, Jan 09, 1998; Jeff Heinrich and George Kalogerakis, “Gougers, Thieves Take Advantage of Storm Crisis: Higher Prices, Thefts Reported Throughout Region.” The Gazette, Jan 10, 1998; George Kalogerakis and Mike King, “Shelters Packed, More Opened.” The Gazette, Jan 09, 1998; Alexander Norris, “Businesses Looted in South Shore Town: SQ Patrols Saint-Jean-Sur- Richelieu.” The Gazette, Jan 10, 1998; and Alexander Norris, Sue Montgomery, and Mike King, “Blackouts Claim Three More Lives.” The Gazette, Jan 09, 1998.

[7] Jeff Heinrich, “Survival Tips: Some Dos and Don’Ts if You’Re Still Left Out in the Cold,” The Gazette, Jan 08, 1998.

[8] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ice-storm-1998/

[9] Pamela H. (Pamela Haruchiyo) Sugiman, “Memories of Internment: Narrating Japanese Canadian Women’s Life Stories,” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 29, no. 3 (2004): 364.

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4 Comments

  1. Great article, I found it very interesting and well-written. I was not in Montreal in 1998, but have experienced other storms in other places. Your comments on personal vs. collective memory and memory as an active process vs. a concrete object or passive image really resonate with me. Perspective is everything when it comes to memory of historic events. I have been reading a number of oral histories on the explosion in Halifax Harbour in 1917 and finding the stories differ depending on the memories and perspectives of the people who were there when it happened. Thanks for the really fascinating and inspiring read.

  2. I lived outside Victoria at the time, and remember the storm because one or two guys I knew through the military community were deployed to Quebec to help, and there was a picture of one of them in the paper, probably the Times Colonist. I was a teen then, and seeing someone I knew in the paper was a highlight. 🙂 I also seem to remember that the usually snarky editorial cartoon was sympathetic, especially since the Great Blizzard of ’96 was relatively fresh in everyone’s minds. I wonder if their archives are online? I should look…

    • Andrea Eidinger

      January 20, 2018 at 7:55 pm

      That’s so cool! Some of them are, but usually you need a subscription to a library to see most of the articles.

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