Day 17.” A scrawled note on the bulletin board at a St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., emergency shelter dutifully kept count of the city’s sojourn into darkness. But the length of the ordeal following early January’s ice storm was also written on many weary and sickly faces. As the afternoon sun streamed into the library of the high school housing the shelter, some people slept on army cots. Others coughed sporadically—they were among the 200 people at the shelter battling flu and other ailments. The fatigue was equally palpable across the border in the small farming village of Ste-Anne-dePrescott, Ont, as the community entered its third week without power. Nicole Bessette, 48, a veterinarian’s assistant who lives on a horse farm with her husband, John O’Brien, and two daughters, spent a few hours hauling water and wood to their home, heated by two woodstoves. “Everyone around here is OK— our house is more than 100 years old so it’s going to stand up,” said Bessette. “But it’s been going on so long, and we’re just so tired.”
The worst should soon be over. Power was expected to be fully restored in eastern Ontario and most of Quebec at the start of this week. But Hydro Quebec said it could take another week for electricity to return to some isolated rural areas. And the damage to Hydro Quebec’s tarnished image will take even longer to repair. Canada’s worst ice storm on
record has been a humbling experience for the provincial utility—long a proud symbol for many Quebecers. The frealdsh ice storm pummelled Hydro’s network, knocking out power in downtown Montreal on Jan. 9 and shutting down many offices there for three days while leaving hundreds of thousands of people south of the city in the dark for close to three weeks. As Hydro tabled a $650-million plan last week to beef up its power grid, critics accused the utility—and the government, which quickly gave its blessing—of acting too hastily. “Hydro shouldn’t be judge and jury on this question,” complained Christos Sirros, the opposition liberals’ environment critic and former energy minister.
“Would we ask a private enterprise to tell us what went wrong with their system, and propose to us what should be done and we would pay for it?”
That wasn’t the only criticism. Others accused Premier Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québécois government of using the storm to rush approval for a new aboveground transmission line into Montreal—a project that, in 1996, Quebec’s environmental assessment board ruled was not necessary. (Currently, 12 high-voltage transmission lines from generating stations in northern Quebec and Labrador supply power to southern Quebec.) But Bouchard maintained that Hydro’s plans
Quebec's power grid may be overhauled
needed to be followed up quickly to bolster the system. ‘We are equally conscious that we must not find ourselves in the same situation next winter after doing nothing,” he said.
Hydro Quebec also plans to improve its power grid by building more robust pylons and new connections that will transform dead-end lines into loops—giving it more options to channel power. The utility also proposes building a link to Ontario’s power grid, which could be used in emergency situations. Some observers concede that looped lines would make Hydro’s system more secure, but they argue that the proposals ignore the lessons from the ice storm. Tom Adams, an analyst with the national environmental and consumer watchdog Energy Probe, maintains that the answer is to diversify. ‘To enhance reliability they’ll have to do more than just add wires,” says Adams.
As the debate percolated, many people welcomed the prospect of returning home after three weeks. Others escaped the final days of the blackout. Seventysix Quebec high-school students are spending this week in Grand Forks, B.C., 220 km south of Kamloops, at the invitation of a local high school. The students, who attend two anglophone high schools south of Montreal, flew out to British Columbia last Wednesday courtesy of Canadian Airlines, Air Canada and the provincial forestry ministry. “It’s so wonderful,” enthused Karli Munday, a 16year-old St-Hilaire, Que., student “I’d almost forgot how a light switch worked.”
All in all, the blackout provided an impressive display of the country coming together during a disaster. Needy Ontarians received
13.000 cots and stretchers, 17,000 blankets, 1,500 power generators, 1,100 carbon monoxide detectors and 1,100 smoke alarms. Other donations and volunteers flowed into Quebec, including members of the St. John Ambulance who arrived from Ontario and New Brunswick to provide first aid at the shelters. Students from Charlottetown sent batteries, and five small planes carrying blankets and linens for St-Jean-sur-Richelieu’s hospital arrived from Toronto.
At the height of the crisis, 14,000 soldiers were sent to the afflicted areas—the largest peacetime mobilization in Canadian history. Last week, although most of the troops in Ontario were withdrawn, about 7,400 soldiers remained in Quebec, helping Hydro crews. And while Ottawa avoided turning the warm
response into a national unity issue, the outpouring of support was clearly appreciated
in Quebec. “The comment I’ve heard is,
‘The Canadians, they actually care,’ ” says Myroslaw Smereka, the mayor of St-Jean—
located in a nationalistic riding regarded as a barometer of Quebec voters.
Some large businesses in Quebec’s socalled Triangle of Darkness, the hardest hit area south of Montreal, reopened last week with the help of generators. But many people, like St-Jean businessman Sylvain Cartier, fretted while their stores stayed closed. Cartier, 31, owns a sewing-machine and alterations shop that has yet to reopen. “When we open in February, there won’t be anyone shopping,” laments Cartier, who is married with three children. “like me, they’re all having financial problems.”
The tab for the storm, meanwhile, is estimated at $2 billion. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, as of last week more than 21,000 claims, totalling more than $53 million, had been made in Ontario, and
250.000 claims, worth $365 million, recorded in Quebec. And for many people, harder times lie ahead. In Ste-Anne-de-Prescott, and in other rural areas, the blackout spelled extra work and stress for farmers— many of whom lost animals and suffered other damage. ‘The toll, for a lot of these people, is not going to be felt until this is all over,” says John Wilson, the head of SteAnne’s emergency operations committee. In St-Jean, Smereka noted that money is tight after Christmas as a result of credit-card debts—and many people going without income during the blackout. “It’s going to be rough,” he acknowledges. But the mayor, who jokes that he can now add “chaos manager” to his curriculum vitae, is confident that people will bounce back. ‘We’ve surmounted one crisis,” he said. “We’ll go through the second one.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.