The ice storm had begun on Sunday, Dec. 22, when Stephen Harper held a photo-op at a Calgary seniors' centre. The next evening, he went to a Flames hockey game.
By that time, the storm had hit four provinces, downing power lines and leaving 385,000 Canadian homes and buildings without power, with many being warned days could pass before service would be restored. A Christmas in the dark loomed.
Mr. Harper didn't visit. Other natural disasters have triggered quick responses, such as during the June flood in his hometown Calgary. But the Prime Minister and his cabinet steered clear of the ice storm – and have continued to, in the two weeks since it struck.
Why? Ottawa "stands ready to help communities in the event of a state of emergency," Jason MacDonald, Mr. Harper's chief spokesman, said in a statement last week.
But there wasn't one.
Municipal leaders in Toronto, worst-hit by the storm, were split over whether to declare a state of emergency – Mayor Rob Ford didn't want one, while Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly did. It was Mr. Ford's call, so no emergency was declared, as was the case in the other less-affected areas in the storm's path. Essentially, Ottawa wasn't asked to do anything. Aside from a pair of Twitter messages, Mr. Harper sent out no substantial statement, nor did Jim Flaherty and Rob Moore, the regional ministers for flood-battered Toronto and New Brunswick, respectively. There were no visits or public pledges of support. Ottawa left the cities and provinces to handle it.
That absence left mixed feelings.
Mr. Kelly – who himself apologized for an overnight trip to Florida after the storm – said some show of federal support would have been welcome. "[Mr. Harper] has his own set of issues to deal with. But it would have been, I think, appreciated if someone on behalf of the national government had been a part of the response, even if symbolically," he told The Globe and Mail. (Meanwhile, federal Conservatives have regularly avoided comment on Mr. Ford, a one-time ally, since revelations about drug use.) Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile, has worked directly with Mr. Kelly and says she hasn't reached out to the federal government, or heard anything from it, about the storm. She declined to say whether Ottawa might have done more.
"I will just say generally that when there are emergencies, every level of government and elected official need to look at the situation and say, 'Is there a role that we can play, is there some way that we can have some responsibility to help out?'" Ms. Wynne told The Globe and Mail. She has also said Toronto's decision not to declare a state of emergency is moot, because the province mobilized help anyhow.
But in New Brunswick, Premier David Alward said they considered asking for federal help, but didn't.
"The determination was taken [that] it was not necessary," Mr. Alward told The Globe, adding he's "not in any way" displeased with Ottawa's response. "We've had a very good working relationship with the federal government in the past," he said.
The ice storm affected over 500,000 homes and buildings in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, including 300,000 in Toronto. East of the city, two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning, prompting officials to urge people not to use barbecues and generators indoors while without power. New Brunswick crews reconnected 88,000 homes, many of the twice and some as many as six times. Many homes were reconnected only late last week.
One government source said Mr. Harper would only visit the storm-affected region if there was a federal role in the response, and not "for what would ultimately amount to a photo op that might only serve to distract from the response effort."
They've carried out disaster photo-ops in the past. Hours after floodwater hit Calgary, the first federal statement was issued. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued his own statement that night, and toured the devastation the next day. Troops were dispatched. In that case, though, there was a federal role – in declaring a state of emergency, Calgary had asked for help.
With homes now reconnected after the ice storm, talk is turning to cleanup, and Ottawa may yet be asked to play a role. Mr. Kelly – who council has handed many of the powers once held by Mr. Ford – has said he's considering whether to call in the army to help with cleanup of debris and tree-pruning, which is expected to cost $75-million and take up to eight weeks. If that request is made, it will go through the provincial government to Public Safety Canada, which will decide to send troops or not.
Secondly, Ottawa may be asked for money. Toronto's council will meet Jan. 10 to debate whether to seek disaster relief funding from the province. If it does, the province may turn around and seek some from Ottawa. Under the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, the higher the eligible costs go, the bigger the federal share will be.
In the meantime, cabinet's steer-clear approach to the ice storm has continued. Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Moore both declined interview requests about the federal storm response in their regions. Mr. Harper kept a quiet schedule over the holidays, but was in B.C. on Monday for a Vancouver Board of Trade event. A trip east may follow – but, it seems, locals first have to ask.
Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Adrian Morrow contributed a report from Toronto.