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  • Writer's pictureMartin Zeilig

25th Anniversary of the Red River Flood

For Silvana, a 14-year-old student, at Shaughnessy Park School, the opportunity to meet members of the Canadian Armed Forces, has motivated her to consider a future career in the CAF.

Canadian Forces veterans and current serving members who were part of the “Flood of The Century” relief efforts receive post cards from students during the 25th anniversary of the 1997 Manitoba Floods at Shaughnessy Elementary School on May 26th, 2022, Winnipeg, Mb. Photo by: MCpl Darryl Hepner, 17 Wing Public Affairs, Winnipeg, Mb

On May 26, the Winnipeg K-8 school held a commemorative ceremony, which was hosted by Veterans’ Affairs Canada with CAF members and a number of veterans in attendance, to mark the 25th anniversary of the “Flood of the Century” and the Canadian military helping out.

The event featured speeches about the flood fight as well as displays from the University of Manitoba Archives, City of Winnipeg Archives and Parks Canada, Veterans’ Affairs, plus hands on activities, including filling sandbags in the school playing field. Altogether a total of 200 children from grades 4-8 took part in the activities.

The flood of 1997 was the most severe in Manitoba’s Red River valley since 1852, notes information on the Government of Manitoba website. Flooding in the Red River basin also saw high running water on other Manitoba rivers and the Red River flood directly or indirectly affected 24 communities in southern Manitoba, including Winnipeg.

Many streams in these areas had record or near-record high water flow.

The Red River crested at approximately 7.5 metres (24.5 feet) at the James Avenue Pumping Station in Winnipeg. Without the flood control works, the crest would have been at 10.5 metres (35 feet).

Over 7,000 military personnel were employed for 36 days to help prevent flood damage and relocate 25,450 evacuees. An estimated 1,000 homes were damaged, says the online information.

“We were selected out of all classrooms in Winnipeg to host this event,” said Matthew Honer, a grade four teacher at the school.

“Our school has been very active in promoting and supporting veterans and sending cards of thanks and material over the years.

This is part of our history program. It’s very timely with the Red River being so high now. It’s a connection from the past to the present.

I feel very fortunate that we got selected and we have a lot students here that have been very honoured. A lot of students in my own classroom have written out postcards and letters to the veterans. They’re very excited to shake their hands, and some of the students have autograph pages for the vets to sign.”

Major General (ret) Dennis Tabbernor, who was Commanding Officer of 38 Canadian Brigade Group during the 1997 flood, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony.

“As it became obvious that the flood in 1997 was going to be a big one, the Army in Western Canada deployed a small headquarters commanded by Brigadier General Meating and a battalion of about 600 soldiers from 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, stationed in Edmonton, to help with the flood preparations such as building dikes,” he said.

“At that time I commanded 38 Canadian Brigade Group headquartered in Winnipeg. I had offered Gen Meating anything my Brigade could do to help support his Brigade. That very night the phone rang about midnight and Gen Meating asked me to come and work with him starting the next morning. And for the next month I was intimately involved with the flood.

“As the flood got bigger we brought in about 100 soldiers from Wainwright, Alberta where they had been training to deploy to Bosnia for six months to help keep the peace in that war torn country. They were due to go overseas soon, but they came to Manitoba to fight the floods.”

He also mentioned that the Army Brigade stationed in Petawawa, Ontario under the command of Brigade Commander BGen Hillier was brought here too. The Naval Reserve sent all their “small boat units in Canada” to Manitoba, Maj Gen (ret) Tabbernor said.

“These small boat units proved invaluable navigating the shallow waters of the flooded areas supporting the evacuation and supply of those trapped by the flood waters,” he continued.

The RCAF brought helicopters to help rescue people stranded by the waters and to provide supplies to those who had decided to stay with their houses, as well as long range submarine hunter aircraft that could stay in the air for long periods of time and could drop parachute flares that lasted a very long time “and turned night into day,” he added.

“When it came time for the military to go home, the Mayor of Winnipeg, Susan Thompson, asked if the military could parade through downtown at lunch time so Manitobans could thank them,” he said.

We did. And, it was great to see thousands of Manitobans lining the parade route cheering for military personnel.

A few months later Premier Gary Filmon hosted two personnel from every unit at a ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature to thank them and their units for what they had done for Manitoba,” Maj Gen (ret) Tabbernor said.

“It was a memorable spring in Manitoba for all,” he observed.

Warrant Officer Chris Patterson, 38 CBG at Fort Garry Horse, was the quartermaster for one of the 38 CB companies in 1997.

“We were located out of St. Norbert,” he said.

“My job was to run logistics and get guys out to the sites and make sure they were clothed and had all the equipment they needed.

It was one of the first times that we had seen that many troops concentrated in Winnipeg. It really tested the training we had and the system we had, and how we were going to manage the troops and everything. We were able to prove that it worked, we fed and managed the troops and looked after them. We were able to exercise a lot of the leadership skills in how to adapt things to changing situations. The mission elements were constantly moving locations, so we would have to act. It was an opportunity to get together and work with our regular force counterparts, and with other non-government organizations.”

“It was the first time in my career that I got an opportunity to see everybody come together and work as one team. It was career changing for me. It was a major point at which I sort of got validation of my training and got to see how things are supposed to work, and how we can adapt on the fly and still accomplish the task.”

Lieutenant Colonel Heather Collins, who works at 1 Canadian Air Division, had been in Winnipeg for less than a year when the flood happened.

She was working as a logistics officer at HMCS Chippewa in charge of all the naval reserve personnel who came out to help with fighting the flood.

“I looked after all their human resource requirements, their housing, food,” LCol Collins said.

“I looked after the people who came out to do the work. I remember how highly motivated the people were. There were no complaints. We were in the old Chippewa building, the former curling club.”

LCol Collins noted that she and several other people were awarded the Maritime Commanders Commendation for their efforts during the flood.

“I received it for how to activate the reserve force in domestic operations and how the Reserves and Regular Force can work seamlessly together,” she said.

“It was pivotal for me. I treasure that award.”

She also lauded Shaughnessy Park School for holding the 25th anniversary event.

“It is important to remember how the military came out to help with the flood, but also that the 1997 flood was quite pivotal on how we activated our Reserve Forces in domestic operations.”

As for young Silvana:

Canadian Forces members show students how to fill sandbags during the 25th anniversary of the 1997 Manitoba Floods at Shaughnessy Elementary School on May 26th, 2022, Winnipeg, Mb. Photo by: MCpl Darryl Hepner, 17 Wing Public Affairs, Winnipeg, Mb

“I really enjoyed when they talked about how they helped out with the flood of 1997,” said the grade eight student.

“I found it really interesting. It inspired me to join the military when I get older. I would like to be in the navy.”

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