Dawson City Challenge

16 January 1905

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rules of ice hockey were considerably different than they are today. For one thing, a team had seven players on the ice instead of the modern six. The extra player was known as the “rover.” The game itself was divided into two, thirty-minute halves, instead of three, twenty-minute periods. Forward passes were illegal. Similar to rugby, the puck-handler who found his progress blocked was forbidden to pass the puck forward to an open team mate. Pity the poor goalie too.  He was virtually indistinguishable from other players, wearing little or no padding. At best, his shins were protected by cricket pads. The other team members didn’t have it easy though; line changes were a thing of the future.

Who could compete for the Stanley Cup was also very different. Instead of the Eastern and Western Conference champions of the National Hockey League playing in a best-of-seven series, the Cup was a “challenge” cup for amateur play. A hockey club, usually the winner of some league play, challenged the Cup holder for the trophy, typically in a best of three game series, or a two-game, total goals series. The winning team also got to take home the Cup, and only relinquished the trophy upon its defeat by a challenger.

In the fall of 1904, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, Ottawa’s Silver Seven, the forerunners of the Ottawa Senators, were challenged by an upstart team from Dawson City, Yukon called the Dawson City Nuggets, or sometimes the Dawson City Klondikers. The Cup challenge was organized by Colonel Joe Boyle, Dawson City’s number one citizen. Boyle, a larger-than-life character, had made a fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 through mining concessions and other businesses. His nickname was “King of the Klondike.”

By 1904, however, Dawson City was in decline, the gold largely played out. Its population, which had topped 40,000 at the peak of the gold rush in 1898, had fallen to less than 5,000, though there were more settlers in the surrounding hinterland. Boyle, a one-time boxing promoter with a passion for hockey, put together a four-team league consisting of miners, prospectors, police and civil servants. The small league played at a newly-built, indoor rink that amazingly boasted an attached clubhouse, dressing rooms, showers, lounges and a dining room. The Dawson City Nuggets, an “all-star” team, were drawn from this ragtag bunch. Confident of their abilities, however, somebody came up with the idea, reputedly at a “knees up” in a local saloon, of challenging the Ottawa Hockey Club’s Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup.

This wasn’t as wacky an idea as it sounds. A number of good hockey players had come to the Klondike to seek their fortunes. As one press report of the time noted, the men “continued to play hockey when they were not ‘plucking gold nuggets.’” Coincidently, many of the players were from the Ottawa area. The team’s captain, Weldy Young, was a legitimate star who had played for the Ottawa Hockey Club during the 1890s. The team’s rover, Dr Randy McLennan, also had considerable hockey experience, having played for Queen’s University in Kingston when it challenged the Montreal AAA team in a losing cause for the Stanley Cup in 1895. However, the Ottawa team was a formidable opponent. It had defeated the Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup in March 1903, and had successfully defended it against five challengers over the following year.

Dawson City Nuggets outside Dey Arena, 1905, Yukon Archives 88.25.1

The Dawson City Nuggets in front of Dey’s Rink, Ottawa, 1905. In rear, left to right: Hector Smith, George Kennedy, Lorne Hannay, James Johnston, and Norman Watt. In front, left to right: Albert Forrest, Joseph Boyle, and Dr Randy McLellan, Yukon Archives, 88.25.1.


For reasons that are unclear, the Ottawa Club accepted the cheeky challenge from the northerners to a best of three series to be held in January 1905 in Ottawa. Col. Boyle bankrolled the Nuggets, covering their travel and other expenses of $6,000, equivalent to about $125,000 in today’s money. With the team’s likely share of the box office from the Stanley Cup games expected to be only $2,000, he also organized a series of post-Cup exhibition games in eastern Canada and the United States to help re-coup his expenses. The Dawson City Nuggets became an instant media sensation throughout North America. The Montreal Gazette called their trek out east “the most gigantic trip every undertaken by a hockey team.” Ottawa’s Evening Journal said it was “the pluckiest challenge in the history of the Stanley Cup.”

Most of the team set out from Dawson City on 19 December 1904. They were originally supposed to leave several days earlier, but their departure was delayed by a federal election in the Yukon. As it was, the team left without Weldy Young. Employed by the government, he had to work over the election period and couldn’t get the time off. He later caught up with the rest of the players, too late, however, to play in the Stanley Cup series in Ottawa. The team’s number two player, Lionel Bennett, was also a no-show. He didn’t want to leave his wife’s bedside who had been injured in a sleigh accident.

Undeterred, the team set out on the 4,300 mile (6,900 kilometre) trek to Ottawa. The first leg of their voyage was to Whitehorse, a 330-mile slog through the wilderness, on bicycle, foot, and by sled. Despite the cold and overcoming frostbite, the men made good time. They covered 46 miles on their first day alone. But it took them nine days to get to Whitehorse, sheltering at night in cabins owned by the North West Mounted Police. From Whitehorse, they caught a train to Skagway, Alaska. Delayed two days by snow storms in the White Pass, the team missed their boat and had to wait an additional three days before catching a steamer to Seattle. They then backpacked to Vancouver. At Vancouver, they boarded the transcontinental Canadian Pacific train for Ottawa. Before leaving, Boyle sent a telegram to the Ottawa Hockey Club asking for the series to be postponed to allow the Nuggets to recover from their odyssey; the request was denied.

The Nuggets arrived in Ottawa on 11 January 1905, two days before their opening game at Dey’s Rink located at Gladstone and Bay Streets. The team was warmly greeted in Ottawa. The Ottawa Journal called the Dawson players “hardy Norsemen,” and opined that the “Yukon team was a sturdy lot” and would “bear themselves bravely.” The team took some light practice at the arena before the series began, as well as visited the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club to watch boxing matches and an endurance contest.

The first game of the series was held on 13 January at 8.30pm. In goal for Dawson City was 17-year old Albert Forrest, originally from Trois Rivières, Quebec. Replacing the absent Weldy Young as team captain was Dr Randy McLennan (rover). The other players included Jim Johnstone (point), Lorne Hannay (cover point), Hector Smith (centre), George Kennedy (right wing) and Norman Watt (left wing). Joe Boyle acted as the team’s manager.  At the other end of the ice, Dave Finnie was in goal for Ottawa. The other Silver Seven players included Arthur “Bones” Allan (point), Art Moore (cover point), Harry “Rat” Westwick (rover), Frank McGee (centre), Alf Smith (right wing) and Fred White (left wing). Bob Shillington was the team’s general manager.

The game was played to a capacity crowd of roughly 2,500 spectators. The Governor General, Lord Grey, dropped the puck to start play. Through the first half, the Nuggets, dressed in black sweaters with gold trim, were competitive, holding the Silver Seven, wearing their red, black and white jerseys, to only three goals to their one. But the Nuggets began to flag in the second half, the effects of their trip becoming apparent. Penalties didn’t help either. A punch-up in the first half sent Norman Watt of the Nuggets and Ottawa’s Alf Smith off for ten minutes each for fighting. Tempers deteriorated further during the second half. When Art Moore, Ottawa’s cover point, tripped Watt, Watt retaliated. After he picked himself off the ice, Watt skated over to Moore and smashed him over his head with his stick, knocking him out cold for ten minutes. Two quick Ottawa goals followed. The final score was a lopsided 9-2 decision in Ottawa’s favour; Alf Smith tallied for four goals, Rat Westwick and Fred White each got two, while Frank McGee scored once. For Dawson City, Randy McLennan and George Kennedy retaliated.

Notwithstanding Watt’s brutal assault on Moore and the other fights, the Ottawa Evening Journal admired the sportsmanship displayed by both teams. In the newspaper’s description of the game, the reporter commented: “It was rather a novelty to the Ottawa public to see such a wholesome, even-tempered exhibition and it went down very well with the audience. More power to you boys!” One wonders what rough games were like during that era.

The second game of the series took place two days later on 16 January 1905. Both teams made modest changes to their line-ups. For the Nuggets, Dave Fairburn replaced Randy McLennan as rover. Harvey Pulford, the Silver Seven captain took over on point from “Bones” Allan. The national press didn’t rate the Nuggets chances very highly. The St John Daily Sun commented that the Stanley Cup would likely stay east. The newspaper commented that although the Klondikers had demonstrated they could handle the puck during the first game, the team had been “outskated, out-generalled, out-pointed in very department” by the Ottawa club. Still, the Dawson City newspaper, Yukon World, remained optimistic saying that the Klondike team had “a good chance.” The paper was wrong. Ottawa destroyed the Nuggets in the most lop-sided victory in the history of the Stanley Cup, defeating the northerners 23-2 in front of another capacity crowd at Dey’s Rink. Reports were pretty unanimous that Ottawa would have run the score up even higher if it hadn’t been for the strong goal-tending of young Albert Forrest.

Frank McGee, Ottawa’s centre, scored fourteen times, another record that still stands today. Eight of those goals were scored consecutively in less than nine minutes in the second half. McGee, an Ottawa native, was the nephew of D’Arcy McGee, the father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868. McGee was a well-rounded athlete who had played football for the Ottawa Rough Riders during the 1890s. He had only one eye; he lost the other one in 1900 to a high stick. With a full time job as a public servant, he retired from hockey in 1906 at the tender age of 23 years. Despite his handicap, he enlisted during World War I after cheating on his vision test. He died in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.

The evening after the blow-out, second game, the Ottawa Hockey Club hosted a party for the visiting Nuggets at the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club, with George Murphy, president of the Ottawa Club acting as toastmaster. It must have been quite an event. The Stanley Cup, filled with champagne, was passed around the table repeatedly. Later, somebody drop-kicked the trophy onto the frozen Rideau Canal.

The team from the Klondike left Ottawa for their tour of eastern Canada and the United States. With the return of Weldy Young to the team, the Nuggets had a modicum of success, though not enough to mitigate their overwhelming defeat in Ottawa. The team then disappeared from history, though not before getting its name engraved on the Stanley Cup for all time.

In 1997 a Dawson City team took on an Ottawa Senators Alumni team in a re-enactment of the 1905 game at the Corel Centre (now the Canadian Tire Centre) in Ottawa. Retracing the steps of their predecessors, the Dawson team travelled by dog sled and snowmobile from Dawson City, to Whitehorse, to Skagway and then by ferry to Seattle, before heading to Vancouver, and finally Ottawa. Before a crowd of 6,000 the visitors were once again thumped, this time 18-0. The proceeds of the charity event, split between the two teams, went to the Ottawa Heart Institute, the Yukon Special Olympics, and Yukon Minor Hockey.


Story suggested by André Laflamme, Ottawa Free Tours, http://www.ottawafreetour.com/home.html.

Gaffin Jane, 2006. Joe Boyle: The SuperHero of the Klondike Gold Rush, http://www.diarmani.com/Articles/Gaffin/Joe%20Boyle%20–%20SuperHero%20of%20the%20Klondike%20Goldfields.htm.

Gates, Michael, 2010. “The game that almost brought the Stanley Cup to Dawson,” Yukon News, 22 January.

Globe, (The), 1904. “Coming of the Gold-Diggers,” 29 November.

—————-, 1905. “Ottawa Outclassed Dawson.” 17 January.

Levett, Bruce. 1989. “2-game Series took month’s trek.” Ottawa Citizen, 27 August.

McKinley, Michael, 2000. Putting A Roof On Winter, Greystone Books: Vancouver, Toronto, New York.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1904 “The Stanley Cup Dates,” 23 November.

—————————-, 1905. “Story of the Stanley Cup,” 18 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1905. “Overcame All Hardships,” 13 January.

————————————, 1905. “Ottawas Victorious In the First Stanley Cup Match,” 14 January.

———————————–, 1905. “The Stanley Cup Will Not Be Going To The Klondike,” 17 January.

———————————-, 1905. “J.P. Dickson Threw Down Gauntlet To The C.A.A.U. 18 January.

Pelletier, Joe, 2014. “Great Moments in Hockey History: Stanley Cup Challenge from the Yukon,” Greatest Hockey Legends.com,  9 May, http://www.greatesthockeylegends.com/2007/04/stanley-cup-challenge-from-yukon.html.

Pittsburgh Press (The), 1905. “Hockey Flashes,” 13 January.

Rodgers, Andrew, 2011. “Dawson City Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators Alumni: Interview with Award-Winning Author Don Reddick,” TVOS, 16 March, http://www.thevoiceofsport.com/2011/03/dawson-city-nuggets-and-ottawa-senators.html

St John Daily Sun, 1905. “Stanley Cup Will Probably Stay East,” 14 January.

Yukon World, 1904. “Dawson’s Champions And The Cup,” 18 December.

—————-, 1905. “Klondike Hockey Team Creates Great Interest In Ottawa,” 13 January.

—————, 1905. “Klondike Hockey Team Defeated In Extremely Rough Game In the Presence Of Thousands Of People,” 14 January.

—————, 1905. “Klondike Team Has Good Chance In The Game Monday Night,” 15 January.

————–, 1905, “Klondike Hockey Meet An Overwhelming Defeat At The Capital,” 17 January.


A Week Without Worry

28 January 1922

Back in 1922, Ottawa hosted a week-long winter festival that easily surpassed any that came before or since. Called the Canadian National Winter Carnival, its slogan was “A Week Without Worry,” a motto that Ottawa citizens and thousands of visitors took to heart. In a time before television and radio, the extravaganza was all the more appreciated, just the ticket to dispel the mid-winter blues. The preparation and organization of the events started months in advance, and involved the city, civic organizations, such as the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, as well as church groups, stores, and ordinary citizens. There was even an official Carnival song, written and composed by Mr Cecil Birkett. To an “Indian swing,” the chorus of the tune went: “Ottawa, Canada, Up, where the hills are great and steep, Up, where the snow is good and deep, Ottawa Canada, Up, to the north, where the air is pure and healthy.”

With the city made resplendent with colourful bunting and flags, the carnival officially began at 12.30pm on 28 January 1922 when the Governor General, Lord Byng, and his wife opened the “Slide-a-Mile” toboggan chute located between the Château Laurier Hotel and the Rideau Canal locks. For a dime, toboggan enthusiasts could take a thrilling rollercoaster ride out over the Ottawa River at speeds approaching 100 kilometres an hour on the specially constructed ice slide. Exhilarated riders eventually stopped midway across the river close to the Carnival Tea Room, a restaurant built on the ice that could accommodate more than 100 people. There, they could warm up with tea, toast, hot dogs, and soft drinks before making the long trek back to the Château. One thing that partyers couldn’t buy was booze. Prohibition was in full swing in Ontario; liquor could only be legally obtained with a doctor’s prescription, though doubtlessly more than a few flasks of bootleg booze were consumed.


Slide-A-Mile, beside the Château Laurier Hotel, January 1922

After the opening of the toboggan run, the vice-regal party was escorted by members of the Gaiete and A.J. Freiman snowshoe clubs to Cartier Square, the main venue for outdoor events. Many of the snowshoers wore traditional French-Canadian winter costumes, complete with toques, fur coats, and sashes.  Also in attendance was a Mohawk band in full regalia led by Chief Martin Two Axe from the Caughnawaga Reserve. At the Cartier Square Ice Palace, Ottawa’s Mayor Plant and other members of city council greeted the Governor General, and extended an official welcome to all visitors to the Capital. The Ice Palace was a sixty-five foot high, fairyland castle, complete with ramparts and crenellated towers, made entirely out of ice.

Other events that first day included snowshoe competitions, where participants from across Canada vied for gold, silver and bronze medals. At 7pm, there was a torchlight parade to the Ice Palace which was illuminated by multi-coloured lights; fireworks lit up the skies. This was followed by hockey games at the nearby Rideau Rink, amateur boxing and wrestling at the Drill Hall, and dancing at St Patrick’s Hall. Events held at Cartier Square were free to all, while a small admission fee was charged for the others.

That first day set the pattern for the rest of the week. There was something for everybody. The “Slide-a-Mile” toboggan ride ran constantly day and night. Carnival goers were wowed by daring stunts performed on the slide. George Labelle of the Cliffsides Ski Club descended on one ski, while holding his other leg extended behind him. Each afternoon, large crowds flocked to the rink at Cartier Square to witness varsity, junior, and ladies’ teams play hockey. There was also skiing, curling, and dog races. Every night, snowshoers, marching bands, and soldiers paraded to the Ice Palace, where a searchlight played over the revellers, with dancing to follow at St Patrick’s Hall. On one evening, the Mohawk band held a pow wow at the Drill Hall, treating the crowds to traditional dances, songs, and rope tricks. Lt. W.H. Currie, the chairman of the Carnival parade committee, was made an honorary chief and given the name “Raneriene,” which signified leader. At the ceremony, Chief Two Axe spoke of the friendship shown to him and his companions.

Some events were most unusual. On the first weekend, the YMCA organized a “Balaclava Melee” at the Drill Hall. Popularized by British regiments during the late nineteenth century, this was not a game for the fainthearted. It consisted of two teams on horseback trying to knock feather plumes out of the headgear of their opponents using singlesticks, or cudgels. The melee was followed by a contest of quarterstaves demonstrated by two soldiers. Even more bizarre, a baseball game on skates was attempted, as was a hockey game between two teams riding hobby horses strapped to their waists.  The hobby horse teams were a source of considerable merriment both on and off the ice. The Great War Veterans’ Association also put on a minstrel show.

One of the highlights of the Carnival was an NHL hockey game between the hometown Senators and arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. The Sens topped the Habs 4-2 in an infamous game where notorious Montreal brawler Sprague Cleghorn, dubbed the “disgrace of the NHL,” sent off four Ottawa players with serious injuries; three had to sit out the next two games. Despite their wounds, the Ottawa Senators went on that year to become the Stanley Cup champions.

Through the Carnival week, people bought tickets and voted for their choice to be the Carnival Queen from a slate of Ottawa beauties, with the victor to be presented at a gala ball at the Château Laurier Hotel. For the event, the hotel ballroom was decorated with multi-coloured balloons and streamers in a “Mardi Gras” style. After thousands of ballots were counted, Miss Theresa McCadden emerged the winner. Mayor Plant introduced the brown-eyed, brunette beauty at the ball, her entry heralded by a fanfare of bugles. Escorted by a detachment of boy scouts, she wore a simple black gown with sequin trimmings; her bodice was embroidered with flowers. The Mayor crowned Miss McCadden with a laurel wreath, and gave her a bouquet of roses and a fur scarf before presenting her to her “subjects.” The Ottawa Journal reported that Miss McCadden fulfilled her role “with an easy grace” that charmed everybody.

Gala participants swayed through the night to the sound of two orchestras. But at 10.30pm, in keeping with the Carnival spirit, there was a snowball fight; dancers pelted each other with white feather “snowballs.” A buffet supper followed at 11.30pm in the hotel dining room. Tables were decorated with potted plants and arrangements of spring flowers.

Ice Palace, Ottawa, 1922

Ice Palace, Canadian National Winter Carnival, Ottawa, January 1922

The climax of the Canadian National Winter Carnival took place on the last night, Saturday 3 February. After another day of sporting events, virtually all of Ottawa made their way to Cartier Square to greet the Carnival Queen, and to participate in the “storming” her palace. By 8pm, people had jammed the Square and the surrounding streets. According to the police, it was the largest crowd in Ottawa’s history. For a time, the press of people was a cause for concern as children and seniors were swept along by the crowd, or were squashed against the walls of the Ice Palace. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.

At about 8.30pm, “Her Royal Highness” Miss McCadden emerged from the Ice Palace on a fur-draped sleigh, accompanied by the Mohawk band in full regalia. Wearing a white turban, she gracefully acknowledged the cheers of the crowd as her sleigh made its way through an honour guard of boy scouts and snowshoers. The Gaiete Snowshoe Club band played music as the parade wound its way through the city before returning to Cartier Square.

The Carnival Queen’s return marked the beginning of the “storming” of her palace. Starting with a few sky rockets, the fireworks display grew in magnitude above the crowds. Flares and multi-coloured lights, which changed from white, to red, and then to green, lit up the Ice Palace. At times, its ramparts were blazing as if on fire. The grand finale came when hundreds of sky rockets were shot from every window and tower. Fifty “bombs” burst a thousand feet in the air, showering the crowds with rainbow-hued sparks. The light show was accompanied with the thunder of guns as if the castle was truly under attack. After the “storming,” the partying began in earnest at the Drill Hall where men and women dressed in wild costumes danced the night away amidst swirls of confetti.

The next morning the city congratulated itself on a job well done. There was hopes that the Carnival had encouraged people to get out and enjoy winter sports, and that Ottawa could have a Winter Carnival every year. Sadly, that was not to be. It wasn’t until 1979 before Winterlude, or Bal de Neige, became an annual fixture on Ottawa’s social calendar.



The Ottawa Citizen, 1922. “Great Winter Carnival Certain To Flood The City With Visitors,” 18 January.

———————–, 1922. “Thrilling Stunt By Ski Artist On Carnival Slide, 1 February.

———————–, 1922. “Senators Again Trim Canucks By 4-2 In Gruelling Game At Arena: Cleghorn Is Reported,” 2 February.

The Ottawa Journal, 1922. “Winter Carnival Gets Underway at Noon Today,” 28 January.

————————, 1922. “Ottawas And Canadiens To Provide Main Carnival Hockey Attraction,” 31 January.

————————, 1922. “Cartier Square A Gay Spectacle Of Happy Carnival Celebrators For Brilliant Night Programme, 2 February.

————————, 1922. “Many Attractions For Carnival Crowd,” 2 February.

————————, 1922. “Winter Carnival Queen Crowned At Enjoyable Ball In Chateau,” 4 February.

———————–, 1922. “Largest Crown in City History Enjoys Carnival,” 4 February.

———————–, 1922. “The Carnival,” 4 February.

UrbSite, 2013. “Winter Follies: The Ottawa Winter Carnival, 1922,


Images: Slide-a-Mile, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2013/01/winter-follies-ottawa-winter-carnival.html.

Ice Palace, http://spacing.ca/ottawa/2014/01/30/ottawas-winterlude-rich-history-winter-carnivals-nations-capital/.





The Soviet Embassy Fire

1 January 1956

It was Sunday, 1 January 1956. Like most New Year’s Days, revellers from the previous night’s festivities were nursing sore heads. With Monday being a holiday, many Ottawa residents were happy to laze about the house and enjoy their long weekend. The virtuous and hardy braved sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures to go to church, or attend the annual Governor General’s New Year Levee. Held on Parliament Hill, more than 1,000 Ottawa residents filed into the crimson and gold Senate chamber late that morning to be greeted by Governor General Vincent Massey, before receiving a glass of punch and a light lunch in the nearby Railway Committee Room. As was customary at the time, it was a very masculine affair. Other than Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s formidable mayor, and some female members of the armed forces, there were very few women present. The city’s diplomatic corps was well represented, however. Among the foreign dignitaries at the reception to shake Massey’s hand were three uniformed representatives of the Soviet Embassy. Little did they realize they were about to have a very bad day.

Following the levee, which ended in the early afternoon, the three Russian officers undoubtedly hurried back to the Soviet embassy for their own New Year’s celebrations, hosted by Ambassador Dimitri Chuvahin. Located at 285 Charlotte Street in Sandy Hill, the embassy building had once been the mansion of the Booth family, Ottawa’s lumber barons. Requisitioned by the Canadian government in 1942 for use by the Royal Canadian Women’s Naval Services, the house was instead turned over to the Russians to house the growing Soviet legation. As guests left the Soviet reception at about 4.15pm, Miss Diane Destonis, a neighbour living in the apartment building across the street, spotted smoke drifting from a window on the third floor of the embassy building. Another neighbour, Mr W. Dore, also saw the smoke. Believing it was a kitchen fire, he tried to alert the Soviet embassy by telephone; he received no reply.

The fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in the embassy’s communications room located on the upper floor of the three-storey building. Instead of immediately calling the Ottawa Fire Department for assistance, Soviet diplomats tried to put out the blaze themselves using hand extinguishers and a small fire hose installed in the building. Thirty minutes passed before the alarm was raised. Although firefighters were on the scene within ten minutes of receiving the call, flames had already engulfed the third floor. Entering by the front door of the embassy, Ottawa’s firemen, led by Chief John Foote, were stopped by embassy staff claiming diplomatic immunity. A Soviet official actually struck Chief Foote; the incident was later played down. Denied access to source of the fire, the firemen were obliged to tackle the blaze from the outside. The Soviet diplomats also impeded the firemen’s efforts by refusing to vacate the premises. Instead, they repeatedly went in and out of the embassy to retrieve filing cabinets, boxes, and files of documents. The last item to be saved from the flames was “a heavy piece of wireless equipment.” Two embassy cars, stuffed with documents, reportedly “careened” out of the embassy driveway onto Charlotte Street, running over deployed fire hoses, almost bursting them.

Soviet Embassy, after the fire, January 1956, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa

Soviet Embassy, after the fire, January 1956, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa

Incensed by the lack of Soviet co-operation, Chief Foote contacted Mayor Whitton who hurried to the scene. Shortly afterwards, R. M. Macdonnell, the deputy undersecretary of External Affairs arrived, as did Paul Martin, Sr, Minister for National Health and Welfare, substituting for Lester Pearson, Minister for External Affairs who was out of town. The mayor authorized Chief Foote to exercise all necessary emergencies powers at his disposal as Fire Marshall. At 6.30pm, he declared a state of emergency, calling in extra firemen and police support.

The fire was finally brought under control two hours later, but was not extinguished until close to midnight. One hundred firemen fought the blaze in biting cold weather, using equipment from four stations, including three pumper trucks and four ladder trucks. Although smoke and hot cinders filled the sky, a north-easterly breeze blew burning embers towards parkland and the Rideau River, sparing the embassy’s neighbours. More than three thousand spectators watched the night’s drama despite the cold. Hundreds of cars lined Riverside Drive. Meanwhile, streetcar service along Laurier Avenue East was blocked.

Thankfully, no lives were lost in the fire. But the embassy building was a write-off. Estimated losses amounted to $250,000 (equivalent to more than $2 million today). Ambassador Chuvahin and his wife, along with two other Soviet diplomats living in the building, lost their homes and their belongings. The Soviets set up a temporary embassy a short walk away at 24 Blackburn Avenue, the office of the Soviet commercial counsellor.

The next day, with the embassy building sheathed in ice, the blame game commenced. The Soviets claimed that the Ottawa Fire Department had been slow to respond, and that there had been insufficient water pressure. Mayor Whitton hotly denied the allegations, saying that the Russians had only themselves to blame by not calling in the firemen immediately, and then obstructing their access to the building. She also argued that the six-foot, spiked, iron fence installed around the perimeter of the property the previous year had made it difficult for fire equipment to be brought close to the embassy building. Additionally, extreme cold temperatures meant that water being directed onto the blaze vapourized before contact. At the city’s official New Year Reception held that afternoon, a hoarse and weary Mayor Whitton commented, “I’ve been fighting the Russians.”

The public was baffled by the Soviet effort to obstruct Ottawa’s firemen. A Citizen editorial called it “an incomprehensible act,” which put its neighbours at risk. Claims of “diplomatic immunity” in such circumstances were  deemed “fantastic.” Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk who had defected from the Soviet Embassy nine years earlier, explained that the only reason for embassy officials to impede and delay Ottawa’s firemen was to ensure that it’s most secret documents, for example, lists of names of agents in the west and instructions from Moscow, were kept secret.

Mayor Whitton called upon the federal government to review its regulations governing diplomatic immunity in order to give firemen free access to buildings in the event of future fires. The government demurred, arguing that international rules governing diplomatic immunity had been finely crafted over many centuries, and that Canadian officials abroad were accorded the same privileges as foreign representatives were in Canada. When contacted, other diplomatic missions in Canada were also wary of any change to the law, though several commented that they would have allowed the firemen onto their premises had their embassies caught fire.

With the old Booth mansion a write-off, a new Soviet Embassy, built in the Socialist Classical style, was constructed on the same site. With the Cold War in full swing, RCMP counter-espionage agents, assisted by British MI5 agents, apparently concealed microphones in the windows of the new building while it was under construction. Called Operation Dew Worm, Igor Gouzenko provided advice to the Canadian and British spooks on the best locations to place the bugs.

Embassy of the Russian Federation, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa

Embassy of the Russian Federation, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa, circa 2013

It seems, however, that western spy agencies gained little by this piece of high-tech skullduggery. Two books published in the 1980s, Their Trade is Treachery (1981) by journalist H. Chapman Pincher and Spycatcher (1987) by former MI5 agent Peter Wright, claim that the Russians were tipped off to the location of the bugs, and established a secure room elsewhere in the building. Allegedly, the source of the tip-off was a senior member of the British intelligence service, possibly Sir Roger Hollis, director-general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, whom the authors claim was a Russian mole. The British government officially denied the allegations. But Wright’s memoir gained world-wide notoriety when the British government tried to keep it from being published. The case against Hollis, now dead (as are Pincher and Wright), remains unproven. The Soviet Embassy building now houses the Embassy of the Russian Federation.

As a postscript to this story, history repeated itself in January 1987. When a small, electrical fire broke out in the basement of the Soviet consulate on Avenue de Musée in Montreal, Soviet diplomats choose to fight the blaze themselves using garden hoses and snow. When neighbours called in the alarm to the fire department, Soviet officials delayed the firefighters’ entry into the building for fifteen minutes to protect documents. As a consequence, what had been a minor fire became a major five-alarm fire.



City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,” http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-33.

Gouzenko, Igor, 1956. “Secret Work of Russian Embassy Vastly Expanded Since Spy Trials,” The Ottawa Citizen, 4 January.

Lewiston Daily Sun, 1956. “Soviet Ottawa Embassy Destroyed By Fire; Aides Stay To Move Documents,” 2 January.

Los Angeles Times, 1987. “Soviets Keep Firemen Out, Montreal Consulate Burns,” 17 January.

The Globe and Mail, 1956. “Report Chief Struck—Embassy in Ottawa Burned As Russians Impede Firemen,” 2 January.

————————, 1956. “1000 Call on Massey at Levee,” 3 January 1956.

————————, 1981, “The Spy Scandal: Did Canada bug rebuilt Soviet Embassy?,” 27 March.

Toronto Star, 1987. “Fire at Soviet embassy revives 31-year puzzle,” 18 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1956. “Mayor Asks Way To Pry Open Embassies During Emergencies,” 3 January.

———————-, 1956. “Weary, Semi-Ill Mayor Entertains At Reception,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “No ‘Immunity’ From Fire,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Flames Ruin Embassy, Red Tape Slows Fight,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Refused to Leave, Carried from Burning Building,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Senator Feared For Safety of Next-Door Residence,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Ottawa’s Diplomats Decidedly Cool Toward Any Curtailment of Privilege,” 4 January.

———————, 1956. “Traditional Colorful Scenes At Governor-General’s Levee,” 3 January.

Wright, Peter, 1987, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd: Toronto.

Images: Soviet Embassy after the Fire, 1956, City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,” http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-33.

Russian Embassy today, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embassy_of_Russia_in_Ottawa#mediaviewer/File:Russian_Embassy_in_Ottawa.JPG.

A “Canadian” Princess

19 January 1943

If there ever was a time for an emotional pick-me-up, you couldn’t have found a better moment than mid-January 1943.  It was brutally cold, and Canada was in its fourth year of war with the Axis Powers with no end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of Canada’s young men and women had left their homes, families and jobs to serve in the armed forces, or in the merchant marine bringing much needed food and other supplies to embattled Britain. Coupon rationing for gasoline and tires had been introduced the previous spring and had been extended through 1942 to cover many food staples, including sugar, tea, coffee and butter. And it was only to get worse. On 19 January 1943, Ottawa’s Evening Citizen reported that meat rationing was about to be introduced. “Bacon, ham and even pork sausage [was] unable to be had for love or money in many places.” The butter ration was also about to be reduced by a third to 5 1/3 ounces per week per person. But there was one piece of news that bleak mid-winter that raised spirits and boosted the morale of a war-weary population. At 7pm on that snowy January day, a princess was born at Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, the third daughter of Princess Juliana of the Netherlands.

Three years earlier in May 1940, the Dutch Royal Family had fled to Britain from the Netherlands, one step ahead of the invading German army. While Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government established a government-in-exile in London, her daughter, Crown Princess Juliana, and her two young daughters, Princess Beatrix, aged 2 ½ years and Princess Irene, 9 months, were evacuated to Canada. Her German-born husband, Prince Bernhard, now a Dutch subject, was stationed in London becoming an active RAF spitfire pilot.

Princess Juliana and her two daughters arrived in Halifax on 11 June 1940 on a Dutch cruiser. She had been offered asylum by Canada’s new governor general, the Earl of Athlone. His wife, Princess Alice, was an aunt of Princess Juliana. After staying temporarily at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence, the young family settled in Ottawa at 120 Landsdowne Road in Rockcliffe Park. They dubbed their home “Nooit Gedacht,” meaning “Never Imagined.” Princess Juliana later leased Stornaway at 541 Acacia Drive, now the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition.

In September 1942, Prince Bernard announced over Radio Orange that Princess Juliana was pregnant with their baby due sometime in late January the following year. In anticipation of the royal birth, the Canadian Government declared in December the hospital room in the Civic Hospital where the birth was to occur “extraterritorial” to ensure that the child would not be born a Canadian citizen and British subject; an important consideration should the child be a boy and hence heir to the Dutch throne.

Four rooms were set aside for Princess Juliana on the third floor of the Civic Hospital—one room for Princess Juliana, one room for the baby, another for her nurse, and a fourth for a security guard. Fittingly, the rooms overlooked Holland Avenue. The corridor outside of the rooms was also decorated with the Dutch flag.

Suffering from mumps and with the birth due anytime, Princess Juliana was admitted to hospital by her physician, Dr. Puddicombe, on Monday, 18 January 1943. Princess Margriet Francisca, the first and only North American-born princess, was born the following day. She was named after the marguerite, a daisy-like flower and symbol of Dutch resistance. Prince Bernhard who flew to Ottawa for the birth reported the glad tidings by telephone via Montreal and New York to Queen Wilhelmina in London. The news was then sent to reporters waiting at the Château Laurier Hotel, and broadcasted around the world.

At 7.45pm, the Civic Hospital released its first press statement saying that both mother and daughter were doing well, with the new princess weighing in at seven pounds, five ounces. The next day, the Peace Tower carillon on Parliament Hill played the Dutch National Anthem and other Dutch songs, while the Dutch tricolour flew overhead; the first time a foreign flag had flown from the Tower. In keeping with Dutch tradition, the baby’s birth was celebrated by eating beschuit met muisjes—a rusk topped with sugar and anise seed sprinkles. Typically coloured white and pink, the sprinkles were coloured orange in honour of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau. The rusks were wrapped in orange paper and tied with a red, white and blue ribbon. A journalist described one as “hard as a chunk of the city’s ice encrusted pavement” but “with rationing what it is” it tasted “pretty good.”

News of the princess’s birth, was a major morale boost for oppressed Dutch citizens living in occupied Netherlands. The underground Dutch newspaper De Oranjerkrant wrote: “Little Margriet, you will be our princess of peace. We long to have you in our midst…Come soon Margriet. We are awaiting you with open arms.”

Princess Margriet

Princesses Irene and Beatrix with Princess Margriet,
Ottawa, 1943

Princess Margriet was christened in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wellington St on 29 June 1943 at 1:00pm. It was a bright, sunny afternoon. Among the dignitaries in attendance for the occasion were her father, Prince Bernhard, her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina who was making her second trip to Ottawa, the Governor General and his wife, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King. The packed service was conducted in Dutch by Rev. Dr Winfield Burggraaff, a Dutch naval chaplain and a minister of the Reformed Church on Staten Island, NY. Also presiding were Rev. A. Ian Burnett, minister of St. Andrew’s and Rev. Robert Good, former moderator of St. Andrew’s. Godparents for the little princess included U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Queen Mary, the widow of King George V, the Governor General, and the entire Dutch merchant marine who were represented at the church by seven of its members. Martine Roell, who had accompanied Princess Juliana into exile in Canada, was also made a godmother, though she was identified only as a widow of a Dutch martyr who gave his life for his country in order to protect her family still in Holland from reprisals. The christening service was broadcasted by short-wave radio live to London via New York and was rebroadcasted to the occupied Netherlands. Prince Bernhard advised his countrymen not to celebrate too openly for fear of German retaliation. Following the ceremony, hundreds of Ottawa citizens welcomed the little princess with loud applause as the Royal Family emerged from the church.

The Dutch Royal Family stayed in Ottawa for the remainder of the war, returning to the Netherlands in early May 1945 after its liberation for the most part by Canadian troops. Before leaving, Princess Juliana gave an oak lectern to St Andrew’s Church that bore carvings of the royal coat of arms, marguerites, and the four evangelists. The birth of Princess Margriet helped cement a lasting bond between the peoples of Canada and the Netherlands. Princess Juliana is reported to have said “My baby will always be a link with Canada not only for my own family but for the Netherlands.” As way of thanks for her family’s treatment in Canada, Princess Juliana sent 100,000 tulips to Ottawa in the fall of 1945. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that has lasted to the present day.


CBC Digital Archives, 1943: Netherlands’ Princess Margriet Born in Ottawa, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/second-world-war/netherlands-princess-margriet-born-in-ottawa.html.

Het Koninklijk Huis, Princess Margriet, http://www.koninklijkhuis.nl/globale-paginas/taalrubrieken/english/members-of-the-royal-house/princess-margriet/.

The Evening Citizen, 1940. “Crown Princess of Netherlands Reaches Canada,” 11 June.

——————–, 1943. “Wider Powers for Economy Controller, Meat Rationing to Include Pork, Lamb and Veal,” 19 January.

———————, 1943. “News of Birth of New Princess Flashed to Royal Grandmother,” 20 January.

———————, 1943. “Third Daughter Born to Princess Juliana Early Tuesday Evening,” 20 January.

———————, 1943. “Butter Ration for Next Six Weeks Cut by Third,” 20 January.

———————, 1945. “Gift of Bulbs to Commemorate Great Friendship,” 3 October.

VanderMay, Andrew, 1992. When Canada was Home: The Story of Dutch Princess Margriet, Vanderheide Publishing Co. Ltd, Surray, B.C.

Image: http://www.ottawalife.com/2011/04/and-there-are-tulips-there-too/.


Ottawa’s Rink

18 January 1971

While Ottawa is a great place to live, even its most partisan citizens would have to agree that at life’s great banquet, it got a double helping of winter. On average, Ottawa receives roughly two metres of snow each year over a season that lasts from early November to well into April, with temperatures dipping to -30 Celsius. Consequently, to live happily in Ottawa, it’s important to embrace the season. Fortunately, we have access to lots of winter amenities, including wonderful ski trails and slopes in the Gatineau Hills just a short car ride away. But one of the city’s winter crown jewels is the Rideau Canal Skateway, which runs 7.8 kilometres through the heart of the city from the Ottawa River locks beside Parliament Hill to the Hartwell Locks at Carleton University. Each year, Ottawa citizens eagerly await the start of the winter skating season, checking regularly the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) web site or its information line on the state of the ice. Requiring an ice thickness of at least 30 centimetres, it takes at least a couple of weeks of temperatures persistently below -15 and a lot of hard work by NCC staff to prepare the ice surface before the Skateway can be safely opened to the public.

Typically, the skating season starts in early January and remains open until mid-March, though the Canal might close for short periods owing to temporary thaws. The earliest opening date occurred on 18 December 1971 and 1982. Its latest closing date was 25 March 1972. The average season is about 50 days, of which 42 are skating days. The longest season was 1971-72 with 95 days, while the shortest was 2015-16 with 34 days, of which only 18 were skating days. Even then, the skateway was open for its entire length for ony a few days. In contrast, the canal was open for a record 59 consecutive days during the previous 2014-15 season, attracting an estimated 1.2 million visitors. In general, however, shorter and milder winters associated with climate change is shortening the skating season.

Skating on the Canal has in fact been a feature of the City’s winters since the 19th century.  In March 1874, The Globe newspaper reported that there “was good skating on the Rideau Canal.” The ribbon of ice running through the city beckoned youngsters of all ages when climatic conditions were just right for a smooth, solid ice surface to form—low temperatures for several days with little snow. When that happened, skaters would descend on the Canal to enjoy the ice. On one occasion early in the 20th century, it was reported that people could skate all the way from Lisgar Collegiate to Sunnyside without benefit of snowploughs or sweeping.

At best, however, the city tolerated impromptu skating on the Canal. When times became more litigious, it forbade it owing to the risk of injury, or even death. Although the water is partly drained from the Canal each fall, it is sufficiently deep in places for people, especially children, to drown should they fall through the ice. Despite the risks, skating on the Canal captured the imagination of Ottawa’s citizens who recalled Dutch paintings of skaters on the canals of Holland. If they can do it in the Netherlands, why can’t we do it in frigid Ottawa?

Conditions were perfect for skating during the winter of 1958-59, and attracted thousands onto the ice on the Canal, Dow’s Lake, and even the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. Owing to public demand, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department asked Ottawa’s Board of Control for $16,000 to maintain a one mile length of canal between Patterson Creek and Bank Street, complete with ramps, changing huts and lighting, for the following winter season. Instead the City coughed up only $2,000, enough for a ramp at Fifth Avenue and a skating lane. It was maintained for just over two weeks from 15 December 1959 to 2 January 1960. Four men and two ploughs mounted on jeeps were unable to keep up with the snow. As well, twenty men using four water pumps were required to keep the ice surface smooth. But as the water was drawn from under the ice, city officials feared that air pockets might form leading to cave-ins. With attendance low, averaging only 30 skaters per day, the experiment was abandoned on 5 January, ending Canal skating for more than a decade.

Despite this setback, people kept the faith. In 1969, the National Capital Commission proposed the establishment of an ice rink on the Canal as a way of “finding imaginative and enjoyable uses for unused resources.” But even as late as December 1970, there were naysayers. In an editorial, the Ottawa Citizen opined that the “durable proposal” of Canal skating was “going nowhere.” Instead, it favoured a temporary outdoor rink with artificial refrigeration be installed by the National Arts Centre across from the Canal.


Skating on the Rideau Canal, February 2014

Douglas Fullerton, the redoubtable chairman of the NCC from 1969 to 1973, would have none of it. On 18 January, 1971, he sent teams of men with shovels to clear a five kilometre stretch of ice, twenty feet wide, from the Arts Centre to the Bronson Street Bridge. It was an instant success; 50,000 Ottawa residents flocked to the canal during the rink’s first weekend to enjoy the experience of skating through the heart of the city. There were glitches, however. During the second year of operations, the shelters provided on the ice for skaters sank. They were subsequently placed on gravel pads. Clearing the snow off the ice and maintaining a smooth ice surface suitable for skating also took considerable on-the-job learning. Within three years, however, NCC crews had improved their technique sufficiently to permit virtually the entire width of the Canal to be cleared for its full 7.8 kilometres length through the city. Changing facilities, bathrooms, skate-sharpening facilities as well as first aid centres were established.  Refreshment stands served snacks, hot chocolate, coffee and cider to cold, weary skaters.  To facilitate night time skating, lights were added.

In 1979, the NCC inaugurated the first annual Winterlude, or Bal de Niege winter festival featuring winter-related activities as well as snow and ice sculptures. It too was a great success. Naturally, its events centred on the Canal; so much so that Fullerton became concerned that Winterlude might detract from the skating. His fears were misplaced. Winterlude became a major tourist attraction and has attracted thousands of new visitors to the Skateway each winter. Ottawa is now a major winter tourist destination.

For many years, the Rideau Canal Skateway billed itself as the longest natural ice skating rink in the world. However, during the mid-2000s, Winnipeg’s River Trail usurped the title. Measuring 9.32 kilometres in length in 2009, it easily topped the Canal for length. Ottawa residents sniffed that Winnipeg’s Trail, which narrowed in places to no more than a car width was a poor excuse for a rink. Ottawa MP Paul Dewar called it a “cow path” in a tongue-in-cheek exchange with his Winnipeg colleague in the House of Commons. Today, Ottawa’s Skateway claims to be the “largest” outdoor skating rink in the world, equivalent to 90 Olympic-sized hockey rinks, a boast supported by the Guinness Book of Records.



Canadian Geographic Travel Club, 2009. “Skating: The Cold War,” http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/travel/travel_magazine/nov09/gateway3.asp.

Capital News Online, 2014. “The history of a record making rink,” http://www4.carleton.ca/jmc/cnews/27012006/news/includes/flashdata/timeline/n6/timeline.html

Forks North Portage Corporation, 2014. Red River Mutual Trail, http://www.theforks.com/rivertrail.

New Straits Times,” 1975, “Ice-Skating, The Popular Winter Sports,” 29 June.

National Capital Commission, 2014. “Rideau Canal Skateway,” http://www.ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places-to-visit/rideau-canal-skateway.

OttawaKiosk.com, 2005. “Fact Sheet-Rideau Canal Skateway,” http://blog.ottawakiosk.com/?p=2875.

Sports Turf Managee, 2006. Rideau Canal Fact Sheet – The World’s Largest Naturally Frozen Ice Rink, http://archive.lib.msu.edu/tic/stnew/article/2006win10.pdf.

The Age, 1974. “Skate Along Ottawa’s five-mile waterway,” 4 November.

The Citizen, 1984. “Evolution of Ottawa’s Rink,” 7 February.

The Globe, 1874. ”Latest from Ottawa,” 6 March.

The Globe and Mail, 2008. “Only in Canada: Two frozen cities face off over ice,” 8 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1960. “Skaters’ Wish Coming True With Rink At Mooney’s Bay,” 20 December.

———————–, 1971. “Canal Open—Night Skating On Its Way,” 24 December.

Image: skating on the Rideau Canada, February 2014 by Nea Powell



Winter’s Icy Grip

5 January 1998

Ottawa’s citizens claim that their city is the second-coldest capital city after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. While this may or may not be accurate, it’s undeniably true that you better pack your woollies if you are planning a winter visit. During the month of January, the city experiences frigid temperatures of below -9°C more than half the time, with the thermometer occasionally dipping to -30°C, or lower.

Despite Ottawa’s frosty reputation, the winter of 1997-98 began significantly milder than usual, with the city’s temperatures moderated by the impact of el Niño, a warm current that arrives around Christmas off the Pacific coast of Latin America. Usually, the current is relatively weak and is of little meteorological consequence. However, every several years, the current is warmer than usual and can have a major effect on atmospheric conditions across North America. In the fall of 1997, el Niño arrived much earlier and was far warmer than usual. The water temperature in the eastern Pacific rose by more than 4 degrees Celsius, the most in more than 50 years.  In December 1997, Ottawa’s average temperature was several degrees above normal leading to complaints from winter enthusiasts about the lack of snow.

With mild weather persisting, a powerful low pressure system stalled in early January 1998 across the Great Lakes, its eastward path blocked by a large high pressure system over Labrador as well as an unusually strong Bermuda-Azores high over the North Atlantic. As the Labrador high pressure swept cold Arctic air southward into Ontario and Quebec, the low pressure system pumped warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico northward. Slipping below the warm Gulf air, the heavier Arctic air began to collect in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence River valleys. The conditions were ripe for a significant accumulation of freezing rain.

Freezing rain is precipitation that falls when the temperature is below 0°C in the form of super-cooled rain rather than as snow or ice pellets. The water droplets freeze on contact, coating all exposed surfaces with a layer of ice. This phenomenon occurs when a thin layer of cold air is trapped beneath a thick layer of warm air. Moisture, which at high altitudes may start to fall as snow, melts when it passes through the warm air zone. The resulting water drops have insufficient time to re-freeze into ice pellets when they pass through the thin layer of cold air immediately before hitting the earth. Located in a valley, Ottawa and its neighbouring communities are frequently hit by freezing rain, experiencing at least a dozen episodes in an average year. But what they were about to experience in January 1998 was anything but average.

At 3.00am on the morning of 5 January, freezing rain began to fall in Ottawa. With temperatures hovering close to the freezing point, it didn’t stop, other than for an occasional pause, until 4.00pm four days later. The storm was massive. At its height, freezing rain was falling from southern Ontario, through to Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal, the eastern townships of Quebec, parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, upstate New York and New England. In total, Ottawa received 85 millimetres of precipitation over that period, most of it in the form of freezing rain. Montreal and Cornwall, located in the St. Lawrence River Valley, fared even worse, each getting more than 100 millimetres of precipitation.

Quickly, all exposed surfaces— every road, sidewalk, building, branch and power line—became layered with a thick coating of ice exceeding three centimetres thick. Roads became impassable. Branches littered the ground. Trees, bent double under as much as two tonnes of ice, snapped with a sound like cannon fire. Many of the Arboretum’s rare specimen trees were destroyed. Behind the Nepean Sports Centre, the recreational pathways used in winter for cross-country skiing were blocked with downed trees and branches. Often only splintered trucks were left standing, reminiscent of images of World War I.

Falling branches and the weight of the ice brought down tens of thousands of kilometres of power lines and thousands utility poles. High-tension transmission pylons that fed power to Ottawa, Montreal and other major cities were felled, leaving more than 4 million hydro customers without electricity for days, some for weeks. At night, the sound and flashes of transformers shorting out provided an eerie accompaniment to the tinkling of freezing rain and the crash of falling branches.


Ice Storm

Experimental Farm, Ash Lane by David Chan

Regional Chair Bob Chiarelli declared a state of emergency throughout the region. Rural communities, such as Rideau, Osgoode, and Goulbourn, were particularly hard hit. There, the lack of electricity meant water pumps could not operate. Barns collapsed and livestock perished. Across the Ottawa River, emergencies were declared throughout west Quebec. Thousands of government workers were told to stay home. Universities and colleges closed. In an unprecedented move, Bayshore, St. Laurent and the Place D’Orléans shopping centres were also closed and transformed into emergency shelters.

The army was called out to assist emergency workers to clear debris and to deliver supplies to shelters. Called Operation Recuperation, 2,000 soldiers from Petawawa and Borden helped in the Ottawa area, with their headquarters set up in the Cartier St Drill Hall. Many thousands more helped through the rest of Ontario and Quebec. In total, more than 15,000 troops were mobilized.

By 14 January, the city, and the region more generally, was getting back to normal. Power had been restored to most urban areas through the truly heroic efforts of hydro linesmen, many brought in from neighbouring provinces and U.S. states. Rural communities continued to suffer, however; some unfortunate residents remained without power for more than a month through the worst of a Canadian winter. It is believed that 28 deaths were caused directly by the storm, most from hypothermia. Roughly 600,000 people had to leave their homes. More than 30,000 utility poles and 130 major transmission towers collapsed. Millions of trees were destroyed, with an estimated 100,000 downed in the Ottawa area alone. The damage done to maple trees severely affected maple syrup production for years to come. The storm was Canada’s largest natural disaster with estimated losses of roughly $5 ½ billion.



National Weather Service, Forecast Office, Burlington Vt, 2008. 10th Anniversary of the Devastating Ice Storm in the Northeast: http://www.erh.noaa.gov/btv/events/IceStorm1998/ice98.shtml.

Susan Monroe, 2013. Canadian Ice Storm in 1998, Ask Canada.com http://canadaonline.about.com/cs/weather/p/icestorm.htm.

 The Ottawa Citizen, 2008. “The Great Ice Storm of ’98,” http://www2.canada.com/ottawacitizen/features/icestorm/story.html?id=4c9a65d8-502a-4f01-9f8b-fd199d0b7021.

The Weather Network, 2009. “Taken By Storm—1998 Ice Storm”, http://past.theweathernetwork.com/news/storm_watch_stories3&stormfile=topstorms2_01_06_2009.

Wikipedia: North American Ice Storm of 1998, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Ice_Storm_of_1998..

Environment Canada, 2013. Canada’s Ten Top Weather Stories of 1998, http://www.ec.gc.ca/meteo-weather/default.asp?lang=En&n=3DED7A35-1#t1

Weather Spark, Average Weather for Ottawa, Ontario, Canada http://weatherspark.com/averages/28316/Ottawa-Ontario-Canada.

Image: Experimental Farm, Ash Lane, 1998, David Chan, The Ottawa Citizen, http://www2.canada.com/ottawacitizen/features/icestorm/storyimage.html?id=e65b47d1-8819-48fa-bdb4-00c80274a349&img=aee02d83-b8b9-49ec-83d6-abe1362f7de8&path=/ottawacitizen/features/icestorm/.