A b s t r a c t
CANADIAN DISASTERS - AN HISTORICAL
Robert L. Jones
The major Canadian disasters from the 1500s
to date are identified by cause and type. General disaster criteria
are defined. Twenty or more deaths occurring at one time is the primary
criterion. The other principal criterion is to include events which
have occurred within Canada, and Newfoundland before 1949, and offshore
inside the 200-mile economic zone. Events such as wars, epidemics
and battles between natives and European settlers during colonization have
been excluded. These criteria limit the events which are discussed
to a manageable number.
The results of an expanded literature search
are presented and a brief description of some of the disasters is given.
The weather-related factor is determined. An historical perspective
is discussed with a view to illustrating the disasters which were common
in early Canadian history, and those which have occurred in modern times.
Conclusions are drawn as to which types of natural and man-made disasters
are likely to occur in Canada in the future.
In the 18 years since original publication,
(Table 5 ref. Nh) the database has
more than doubled in size from 95 events in 1990 to 218. The updated
version of the paper is published on the World Wide Web at: http://web.ncf.ca/jonesb/DisasterPaper/disasterpaper.html
KEY WORDS: disasters, Canadian disasters,
C A N A D I A N
D I S A S T E R S
A N H I S T O
R I C A L S U R V E Y
The first task was to define a disaster for
analysis purposes. This was followed by an intensive literature search.
Implications of weather- and / or climate-related phenomena were also noted
and recorded during the search. All disasters appeared in at least
one reference, with recent events taken from newspaper coverage.
Finally, conclusions were drawn about the weather-related disasters as
compared to the other disasters found in the references.
In order to limit the number of events
to be included in the survey, the primary disaster criteria were defined
as a single event, occurring at one time (no more than the order
of a few days), within Canadian (and Newfoundland, before 1949) territory
out to the 200-mile economic zone offshore, in which loss of life was 20
or more persons. The search identified and counted all such
events except wars and epidemics. The early colonization battles
with aboriginals and the war of 1812 with the United States were excluded.
In all, 218 disasters have been identified which met these criteria.
Several major epidemics were found but
not counted in the primary list. Epidemics have by far the highest
death tolls of all Canadian disasters and those found in the references
are listed in
Table 2. The worst
of these were the Spanish influenza epidemic which killed between 30,000
and 50,000 Canadians in the last five months of 1918; the 1862 smallpox
epidemic which killed at least 20,000; and another smallpox epidemic in
1885 which killed almost 6,000 in Montreal.
In a short communication such as this,
the scope cannot hope to extend to comparisons of Canadian disasters with
those in other countries. Further, the scope did not include economic
or property loss criteria.
DISCUSSION AND FINDINGS
218 Canadian disasters which met the above criteria and
which were found in the references, listed in Table
5 at the end of the paper.
Fifty-eight of these disasters
occurred prior to Canada's Confederation in 1867. It is felt that
there may be several unidentified disasters in that early period but, on
the other hand, the period from 1867 to date may well include most of the
events where at least 20 persons lost their lives. It is worth noting
that the significant loss of life in the large number of marine disasters
in the period around the time of Confederation was the catalyst which caused
the federal government to found the Canadian Weather Service with a grant
to Professor George T. Kingston in 1871.
lists 97 disasters which did not meet all the criteria, but were
reported in the references. Several were just short of the 20-death
criterion, but were spectacular in nature. Others happened outside
the 200-mile limit, but had distinctive "Canadian" characteristics such
as the 1985 Air India crash over the North Atlantic Ocean and the 2001World
Trade Centre attacks which killed 25 Canadians. Still others met
the criteria, but occurred over periods of time from a few months to a
decade or more. Finally, Table 2
includes some wartime events.
Given sets of data such as Tables 1 and
2, many conclusions can be inferred. Dealing with the weather-related
factor first, 49% of the disasters were found to be weather-related,
whether or not they met the criteria. Of the remainder, 44%
were not weather-related and the effect of the weather could not be determined
from 7% of the disasters found. A strict definition of the
weather-related factor is not possible in this examination. Based
upon each event description in the references, a subjective decision was
made on this factor, depending on the way the incident was described.
Some authors have stated that weather-related
disasters have been increasing markedly in recent years. A survey
of the 36 disasters in both Tables 1 and 2 since 1986 (giving two
decades of data), shows that
53% were weather-related, 44%
not weather-related and there was one
disaster where the weather-related
factor was uncertain. When the many updates to the original published
paper are considered, the weather-related factor
has remained constant
with weather being involved in about half of the disasters.
Marine and Transportation
There were interesting findings regarding
marine disasters. Over
35% of all the disasters occurred at
sea, or on the Great Lakes, and 90% of these were weather-related.
As expected, many of these marine disasters did not occur in modern times
and, to a degree, land transportation and aviation disasters are beginning
to replace the ship/marine disasters. Clearly, when the number of
aviation, train and bus accidents are added, transportation in all forms
has been, and still is, the most common cause of major Canadian disasters.
Dates and Frequency
of Disasters Meeting Criteria
Starting with 1801-1810, the rate of change
with time of the numbers of people dying each decade in major disasters
was examined. Figure 1 shows the total number of deaths per
It is evident that, although the nation's
population has been rising steadily since colonization, the number of people
killed in major disasters has been gradually dropping. The very large
anomaly in the 1911-1920 decade was caused by the 1917 explosion of a munitions
ship in Halifax Harbour and by the collision of two ships off Rimouski.
These two events make the 1911-1920 decade Canada's deadliest by far in
terms of disasters at home.
Using Statistics Canada's latest population
data (census of 2006, with projection to 2011), Figure 2 below shows
the number of deaths per million population per decade. Figure 2
begins with the 1851 census, the earliest accurate census.
The same decadal data were also used to
determine that, on average, there was about one major disaster per year.
The rate approaches two disasters per year in the three decades from 1891
to 1920, in agreement with the above anomaly for 1911-1920.
Categories of Disasters
The Journal of Natural Hazards recognizes
the following hazards: atmospheric (weather and climatological), earthquakes,
erosion, floods, droughts, landslides, man-made and technological, oceanographic
(waves and storm surges), snow/avalanches/ice, tsunamis and volcanoes.
It is interesting to note that Canada has
experienced at least one disaster in each of the categories listed in the
Journal, with two exceptions: storm surges and volcanoes, and that the
two of the three most common Canadian disasters do not fall exactly into
any of the classifications listed. They are shipwrecks and fires.
Obviously, the shipwrecks are, in many cases, the result of marine (wave)
hazards, but the fires do not seem to have a place in the hazards phenomena.
A classification for fire should be added. Table
3 lists the disasters by category and frequency.
The geographic nature of the disasters
Table 4 shows their distribution
by Canadian province. Of the 28 events that could not be assigned
to a specific province, 10 occurred in more than one province and
18 were Table 2 items
that occurred outside the country. Generally, the locations
reflect the population density with the many disasters occurring along
the East Coast and in the St. Lawrence River area. On land, they
were centred near the large population centres of eastern Canada.
Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island are the provinces with
the fewest disasters (and the Arctic territories).
Manitoba had a train wreck at Dugald in
1947 which caused 40 deaths and several Red River floods which had high
economic losses but very few fatalities. PEI's only disaster was
the 1851 "Yankee Gale" which sunk 70 US ships nearby and taking up to 300
lives. Major Canadian cities which have never had a disaster meeting
the criteria are Ottawa, Saskatoon and Calgary.
There were only four occurrences in the
Canadian Arctic found in the references:
Other Findings of Interest
the Rea Point NWT Pan Arctic Electra crash
in 1974 in which 32 oil and
gas workers lost their lives;
the loss of the Franklin expedition in Nunavut
(NU) where 129 officers and crew of "HMS Erebus" and "HMS Terror" perished
over the two-year period 1847 to 1848;
the 1991 Hercules crash near Alert NU with
the loss of 18 lives; and
the crash in the Yukon, in 1950, of a U.S.
military transport plane with 44 persons aboard.
Canada's best known and worst disaster, in
terms of lives lost at one time, is undoubtedly the Halifax Explosion of
1917. It had the highest death toll (nearly 2,000), was documented in the
most references, and was the only Canadian disaster meeting the criteria
to appear in the Guinness Book of Records.
Only one other disaster, meeting the criteria,
killed over 1,000 people. This was the collision of the ships "Empress
of Ireland" and "Storstad" near Rimouski in 1914. A 1775 storm off
Newfoundland reportedly killed 4,000, presumably in ships lost offshore
(only reference was the Canadian Weather Trivia Calendar). Later,
a description of this storm was found in a St. John's newspaper which indicates
the approximate death toll of 300 and another researcher set the toll at
400, following detailed study.
The 1903 Frank Slide at Turtle Mountain AB
which killed 70 people is mentioned in nine references, the highest
number, making it arguably as well known as the Halifax Explosion.
In terms of total loss of life, the 1918 influenza
epidemic which claimed between 30,000 and 50,000 Canadians in five months
ranks as Canada's worst disaster (although epidemics were excluded from
the disaster criteria of this paper).
Deaths due to wars were originally excluded
from the paper. Because Canada has had few major battles on home
soil or in nearby seas, two war actions are now reported in Table
2: The 1942 sinking of the ferry "Caribou" by a German U-boat
off the Newfoundland coast, and the disappearance of a Newfoundland fishing
schooner in 1914 which was attributed to hitting a mine.
Several disasters recurred at the same place.
There were six wrecks near Sable Island, NS; four disasters in the Crowsnest
Pass border area of Alberta/B.C. (mines and landslide); three air crashes
near Gander NL; three or more disasters at coal mines in Nanaimo and Springhill,
and in Lower Quebec City due to rock falls; and two at the site of the
In another coincidence, senior citizens died
in almost-identical bus crashes on the same steep hill near St. Joseph
de la Rive (aka Les éboulements), Quebec; 13 deaths in 1974; 43
deaths in 1997.
Twenty-eight people were killed in 1929 when
a tsunami struck Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula following an earthquake
in the Grand Banks area. This event was Canada's only tsunami or
The 1912 Regina Tornado whch killed between
28 and 30 people, and the 1987 Edmonton Tornado which resulted in 27 deaths,
are the two deadliest Canadian tornado events.
While there have been many lightning strikes
which kill one or two people at a time, there was only one major disaster
directly caused by lightning (not including forest fires). The Weather
Trivia Calendar reports that a freighter, "The John B. King", loaded with
explosives was struck by lightning in the St. Lawrence River in 1930.
Thirty crewmen died in the resulting explosion.
No mine disasters have been placed in the
weather-related category. However, following the Westray NS accident
in 1992, studies of ambient atmospheric pressure in the areas of mine entrances
indicate changing atmospheric pressure may be a contributing factor involved
in the build-up of methane gas in mines. Methane gas is believed
to be the major cause of several coal mine disasters reported in this paper.
Many of the disasters are reported in several
of the references. They are the most familiar "household word" disasters.
In order of date, the ones found in eight or more references
The Frank Slide, Turtle Mountain, Alberta
"Empress of Ireland" and "Storstad" Collision
near Rimouski (1914);
Halifax Explosion (1917);
Burin Peninsula Tsunami (1929);
Hurricane Hazel (1954);
Ste. Thérèse TCA DC8 Air Crash
Toronto Air Canada DC8 Crash (1970);
"Ocean Ranger" Sinking (1982);
"Arrow" DC8 Crash at Gander, Newfoundland
Ice Storm in Eastern Canada (1998)
Canada has not had a disaster meeting the
criteria since 1998 (when there were three). Since 1950, until the
last disaster which met the criteria, Canada has averaged almost exactly
one disaster per year. The fact that no disasters have occurred in
the 11 years from 1998 to date confirms that mitigation efforts by public
and private agencies are working.
Despite the various events uncovered during
this research, it is evident from comparisons to other countries that Canada
gets off rather lightly in major disasters. Canada has not been subject
to the disastrous earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, typhoons and
floods which still regularly take thousands of lives in countries like
China, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Even the United States has more
weather-related disasters because its larger population is subjected to
far more hurricanes than Canada, and the USA is the most tornado-prone
country in the world.
Since the final acceptance for publication
of this paper in 1991, 123 new disasters meeting the criteria have
been added to Table 1 and 65 new
disasters have been added to Table 2.
As well, about 45 new References have been added to Table
The Ice Storm of January 1998, which affected
Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces, has been identified by media
and other commentators as the worst Canadian natural disaster.
Abley (Reference Ic, p. 11)
reports that the Ice Storm, a once-in-a-lifetime event, was the most
destructive weather disaster in Canada's recorded history.
In the first 10 days following the storm, which deposited from 50 to 100
mm. of ice on hydro wires, trees and outdoor structures, 35 persons died
directly as a result of the storm (22 in Quebec; four in Ontario; six in
New York state; and three in Maine). Most of these deaths were caused
by effects of long periods without electricity, such as carbon monoxide
poisoning from heaters, or hypothermia.
World Wide Web (WWW) sites are increasingly
quoted as references. Several are now linked to this Web version
of the paper. By 2007,
Wikipedia and other Web databases
became sufficiently complete that most, if not all, the disasters listed
may be easily found. As well, Google on-line searches will yield
additional information on almost every disaster. Further, many of
the search results from both sources are referenced and linked back to
this paper. Wikipedia has been added as Reference
Wi in Table 5 but it has not be
shown in all the references columns of the tables.
The author is aware of the transient nature
and unreliability of material placed on the Web, therefore as much care
as possible is being taken before accepting Web references. As well
many of the Web lists of disasters now cross reference each other, suggesting
that more care is now needed to ensure correct information is found.
With each update of the paper, Web site references are verified to ensure
they are still active. In 2009, a "last accessed date" has been added
to the web references, further ensuring the sites are reachable.
Although the paper has been reorganized since
being published, no major changes in abstract, findings or conclusions
have been made. It is hoped that the latest available information
will ensure that the Web version of the paper is as complete as possible.
Robert C. Parsons of Grand Bank
NL has authored several books detailing many East Coast marine losses.
In 1999, twelve new items from his books were added, eleven of which met
the criteria (Reference Pa).
In 2002, six new items from a Web database of pre-Confederation shipwrecks
by Gilbert Bossé of Little Métis (near Rimouski)
QC were added.
Many other additions to the tables have been
due to work by colleague,
D. Reid, who is studying historical meteorological events.
Dr. Reid's additions include marine events that met the criteria and occurred
mainly in the 19th century.
Following a Canadian Meteorological and
Oceanographic Society Congress in Winnipeg in May 2001, which had a
theme of "Extreme Weather", three major new sources emerged which contributed
to the significant update in July 2001. It is now thought that a
greater percentage than before of all Canadian disasters are now listed
in the tables. Considerable cross references, cross checks and additional
items were added with thanks to:
Robert L. Jones
Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada
Disaster Database (Reference O);
A book published in 2000, Disaster Canada
by Janet Looker (Reference L);
Web database by Richard Kebabjian,
covering the world's plane crashes from 1908 to date (Reference
Times of the updates: December
1992; March 1993; July 1993; September 1993; September 1993; December 1994;
April 1996; July 1996; October 1997; March 1998; June 1998; November 1998;
December 1998; September 1999; March 2000; July 2000; January 2001; July/August
2001; (minor updates) October and December 2001; February 2002; May 2003;
August 2003; April 2004; December 2004; October 2005; January and July
2007; January 2008, February and October 2009.