Being a visionary often comes at a price. Visionaries invariably face a multitude of naysayers quicker with criticism than support. In the case of Duff Roblin, he was continually ridiculed for thinking that having a ditch dug would prevent a reoccurrence of the devastation of 1950. But in his mind, Roblin knew he was right and he defiantly countered against his critics.
The 1950 flood came as a shock to Winnipeggers. There had been minor events, but nothing of such magnitude since 1861. Historically, city residents and government officials had been dulled to the devastation a flood could create in the Red River Valley. Once the banks of the river are breached, the flatness of the ground allows water to spread outward, creating the lake typified by the inland sea of 1997’s “Flood of the Century.”
“In early April (1950), there was no reason to anticipate anything different from previous years,” wrote historian J.M. Bumsted in his book The Manitoba Flood of 1950. “Since the city had been incorporated in 1873, nothing serious had ever happened within the urban areas, despite constant dire predictions.”
D.B. Gow, the federal government’s district engineer in Winnipeg, predicted, “We will have high water, but we always have high water.”
The first signs of trouble in 1950 came on April 4 when flooding occurred in North Dakota and Minnesota — the same harbinger of things to come that Manitobans dreaded in 1997 as well as instilling worry this year. By Monday, April 24, the Red River was out of control on the Canadian side of the border with most of Emerson under water. On April 27, the entire population of Morris had to be evacuated. As news of the disaster imperilling outlying communities reached the city, Winnipeggers feared the worst. By Tuesday, May 2, water was within inches of the top of the Elm Park Dike and inundating streets in West Kildonan.
May 5 would come to be known as “Black Friday,” as pouring rain added to the burden imposed on the dikes. The rain continued periodically into Monday. Dikes were breached and water flowed over sandbags, forcing the evacuation of whole neighbourhoods.
“On the evening of ‘Black Friday’ I remember going to bed three times, exhausted; but every time I heard the water splashing against the basement windows I’d jump up and pack more things to be moved. Then I’d check the basement to see how many steps were covered The next day our electricity was disconnected by Hydro men in boats so we really felt isolated. My cousin’s husband Chic Balderstone and his son Jack came in a large canoe the next day and took us out,” commented Margaret Cormack Twist of Winnipeg in Bumsted’s book.
In 1950, 10,000 homes were inundated and one-eighth of Winnipeg was under water. In the end, 100,000 people had to be evacuated to safety.
When the 1950 flood struck, Roblin was an opposition MLA in a province run by a Liberal-Progressive coalition led by Premier Douglas Campbell, whose government’s slow action to declare an emergency during the flood and lack of decisive action for protection in the wake of the flood were highly criticized.
“I knew a 1950 flood could come again,” wrote Roblin in his autobiography, Speaking for Myself. “Naturally I demanded action. Every year that passed brought us closer to another crisis.”
A 1953 report released by federal engineers proposed a number of options with a retention basin at Ste. Agathe formed by a 40-kilometre dike across the Red River, a diversion around Portage la Prairie and the Greater Winnipeg Floodway considered as the only useful measures. The engineers particularly favoured the floodway as “the only positive means of flood protection.” For maximum protection, the engineers recommendated all three options.
The report remained on Campbell’s desk for three years. He only acted when public pressure mounted. Campbell asked Ottawa for a cost-benefit study, but the federal government refused.
A cost-benefit study was commissioned by the province in 1956, but it wasn’t ready until 1958. Not surprisingly, the commission came up with the same recommendations contained in the 1953 federal report.
In the 1958 provincial election, Roblin, the leader of the Conservative Party, made flood protection a major campaign issue. He won the election and formed a minority government and after a hastily-called election in 1959 had a majority.
Roblin wrote that even his own caucus was not convinced of the merits of a floodway, but he eventually won them over. He said “political opposition in the legislature was vocal. They were skeptical of the plan. They rejected the cost. The whole proposal was unnecessary. A flood like 1950 — to say nothing of a greater one — was quite unlikely ... That prompted one of them to coin the epithet ‘Roblin’s Folly’ to underline their disapproval.”
In the floodway sweepstakes, Roblin had an ace to play — the newly-elected George Diefenbaker Conservative government. Sitting in a Winnipeg hotel room, he cajoled the “Chief” to come up with a greater share of federal money for the floodway. His persistence paid off. Roblin managed to wrangle a 55-per-cent federal and 45-per-cent provincial cost-sharing agreement.
The first bulldozer began work on the floodway on October 6, 1962. By the time the project was completed in 1968 from St. Norbert to near Lockport — on schedule at a cost of $63 million — more earth had been excavated than during the St. Lawrence Seaway project or the construction of the Panama Canal. Since it was built, the floodway has been used over 20 times — including this year — to protect Winnipeg from major flooding. Expansion of the floodway undertaken by the Doer government with federal support has doubled its capacity.
“We were within one inch of going over the top in 1997, Doer said, which led to his government’s commitment to improve upon Duff’s Ditch.
“The 1950 flood was a traumatic and defining experience for Winnipeg and Manitoba,” said Roblin. “My part in that test made me determined to do what might be necessary to deal with a similar future threat to life in the valley ... Duff’s Ditch is there, and Duff’s Ditch works.”
Forty-one years after the opening of the floodway no one can quibble with the statement that Duff Roblin was a visionary who defied his critics and got the job done when it was needed.