Military Support to Civil Authorities: The Eastern Ontario Ice Storm

By Scanlon, Joseph | Military Review, July/August 1998 | Go to article overview

Military Support to Civil Authorities: The Eastern Ontario Ice Storm


Scanlon, Joseph, Military Review


MARTIAL LAW EXERTS a continuing attraction for military planners who must address questions of civil disaster. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail, and nobody has declared martial law in the United States since the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. A major reason for backing away from this simple-appearing panacea is the fact that when you take over government, you take over all government, including services.

Thus, the eager military commander who wants to stabilize a municipality backs off from a martial rule declaration when he realizes that he will have to run everything from divorce court to library fines and garbage collection. And indeed both US and Canadian doctrine are quite explicit-the military comes into the disaster area to support, not replace, existing civil authority. For that matter, so does the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

This article examines an apparently straightforward case where Canadian military support was called in to aid a civil government that could not function because of an overwhelming ice storm. The big anomaly here was that civil government was not there. A week-old realignment of boundaries and levels of administration left large portions of Ontario without an identifiable civil government, though another legitimate civil authority had summoned military support. Think of the dilemma faced by the troop commander-here his soldiers are ready to support, there is plenty to be done, but there is no single identifiable civilian official to support.

If ever there was an opportunity for the military to take charge, this was it. Canada, US, UN, whatever, the instinct is to fill a void. But Canadian doctrine and training prevailed, resulting in an exemplary disaster relief performance. Let future unit commanders who think a civil situation is out of hand reflect on how these Canadian soldiers and their leaders coped with the ice storm of the millennium. And as an exercise for the military student, one should likewise reflect on how to handle a parallel situation in an occupied area, friendly or hostile, or in the absence of civil authority, to determine how to support a government and its sundry services. - Dr. James W. Kerr

IN EARLY JANUARY 1998, eastern Canada was hit by three consecutive ice storms. Because the temperature remained at or below the freezing point, ice from the second storm piled up on the ice from the first. Ice from the third storm piled on top of that. The accumulated 3 to 4 inches of ice pulled down trees, power poles and even steel transmission towers. By the time the storms ended, one out of every five Canadians was without power and 66 municipalities in Eastern Ontario had declared a state of emergency. Like the hard-hit communities in neighboring Quebec, many requested military assistance, requests that led to an unusual situation in peacetime-military initiatives to create civilian government.

In the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton (RMOC), a large urban-rural municipality that includes Canada's capital city, Ottawa, the ice accumulation was three times the record for a six-day period: 10 percent of the trees were destroyed and 70 percent were damaged. Roads and sidewalks were covered with ice and falling debris knocked out 80 traffic lights on regional roads. However, the RMOC had backup generators at all lift stations in the liquid waste system and at the liquid waste processing plant. It also had generators for all pumping stations on its fresh water distribution system. By working extended overtime, regional road crews also kept the major arteries open.

Nevertheless, on Thursday, 8 January, RMOC's senior officialsthe chief administrative officer (CAO), chief of police, regional fire coordinator, medical officer of health, commissioner of environment and transportation and commissioner of social services-advised the elected regional chair to declare a state of emergency. Sidewalks were treacherous to walk on, and there was a risk of being hit by falling debris.

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