The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 29 no 7, February 2018. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
On January 4, 1998, sleet transformed Cantley into a surrealistic crystal world coated in layers of thick glassy ice – beautiful, yet frighteningly dangerous. Sounds of crackling ice pellets and crashing branches punctuated an eerie silence. Occasional bursts of flame exploded from hydro wires and transformers. Cantley was trapped, isolated in a world without electricity. Roads disappeared under sheets of ice. The heavily-laden trees arched down, gluing their branches to the ground. The impenetrable ice encased vehicles, homes, the entire landscape.
Many Cantley residents were forced to leave their homes for work or because it was too dangerous to stay. Sandy Fitzgibbon remembers the slow dangerous drive to Ottawa on the night of January 4 … so silent except for clacking sounds of branches hitting the car. She and her husband could not access their home until two weeks later. On their return, they had to contend with damage, burst pipes, and the loss of many items such as house plants.
Many decided to stay in Cantley. Mary Holmes’s family used the wood in her wood/oil furnace to produce some warmth. However, life was a challenge since schools, daycares and businesses were closed.
My 76-year-old father, Bob Phillips, refused to abandon his beloved Grange. He and his dog Dan decided they would survive alone, as the pioneers once did in the same log building. Closing off doors and vents in all other rooms, he moved into his small living room where he too managed some warmth from his wood/oil furnace. For 12 days without power, Dad became adept at cooking everything in a fondue pot, including his morning coffee. With great difficulty, family and neighbours brought water and supplies to him by toboggan whenever they could navigate through the treacherous landscape.
Thousands of fallen branches made the home of the elderly Benton Jackson inaccessible. Realizing this, neighbours alerted the Municipality. Cantley firemen arrived to find Benton lying on his floor, unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia. They were able to revive him, thus saving his life!
Benton then stayed in Cantley’s Municipal Council Chamber, where a well-run shelter was set up for overnight accommodation, and the library doors’ opened for daytime use. He ate three delicious home-cooked meals a day, prepared and served by volunteers in the Hupé House. Carole Chartrand, coordinator, reported volunteers served up to 500 meals a day to those in need!
In his letter to the February 1998 Echo, Benton thanked his heroes as well as Cantley’s excellent emergency plan. He wrote, “It has been a tremendous experience for me, a resident of Cantley since 1960, to witness the outpouring of sympathy for « nous autres sinistrés », along with the sense of solidarity evident among our population. Other municipalities in Western Quebec were not all so fortunate. Cantley had its emergency plan and, when put to the test, it certainly worked magnificently.”
Mme Chartrand told the Echo her list of Cantley volunteers was five pages long. Twelve offered to share accommodation in their homes. Volunteers delivered meals, firewood, water and anything else people required. The mayor, some councillors and municipal staff were always available to organize and help. Cantley’s firemen systematically visited every home in Cantley to verify the well-being of its inhabitants and help those in difficulty.
Cantley’s fire department, public works staff and 12 soldiers worked for 7 days, 10 hours a day, to clear all roads for Hydro Quebec – the first municipality in the MRC to do so. For this reason, Cantley quickly received help from the armed forces and the Red Cross. Hydro Quebec crews were able to begin restoring power – to some homes in a few days, most within 2 weeks, longer for others.
All the Echo letters and articles (February 1998) agreed with Mayor Michel Charbonneau who wrote that the Ice Storm demonstrated the strength of Cantley, such as it had during its fight for independence from Gatineau in 1989 “… but this time it was the extraordinary collective effort of the people …”
Gabrielle Tassé wrote, “Well, we did it! We survived the great ice storm of ’98 … the best part of it is discovering the good side of people and knowing we are not alone. We made new friends, shared feelings, gave moral support or received it … To everyone who did their share, thank you. It’s people like you that make Cantley a great place to live in …”