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Guy Laroche: Commanding officer in Quebec's water wars

NDP leader Jack Layton, right, takes a walk along a street immersed in flood waters alongside St-Paul fire chief Gilles Bastien in the town of St-Paul-de-I'lle-aux-Noix, Que., Monday, May 30, 2011.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

His smooth style of delivering the daily brief is unmistakable, even if now he's reporting water levels and weather forecasts instead of the grim toll of war.

Guy Laroche, the civilian in charge of the Quebec government's flood fight in the Richelieu Valley, was the army brigadier-general who led Canada's mission in Afghanistan in 2008.

Mr. Laroche is better equipped than most to face the stress of helping some 1,000 exasperated evacuees and 3,000 homeowners who have suffered damage in the disaster zone south of Montreal. For six months in Afghanistan, it was Mr. Laroche's job to craft and carry out strategy. He also had the grim duty to announce the deaths of no fewer than 12 Canadian soldiers on his watch.

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"I've gone from one disaster to another," said Mr. Laroche, who was also in charge of the Canadian mission in Haiti after the earthquake last year. He retired in December after 32 years in the military and took over as co-ordinator of civil security in Quebec's Ministry of Public Security.

Whether it was training Afghan recruits or peacekeeping in Bosnia, Mr. Laroche learned the importance of patience, something Quebec flood victims are starting to run short on. Water levels were expected to peak again Tuesday, for the third time in a month. If the warm and dry weather forecast holds, water might finally start to recede some 40 days after the first homes were flooded.

Hundreds of houses along the Richelieu are abandoned and many of them will be bulldozed. Luckier residents have managed to keep their homes habitable through a combination of sandbags and pumps running 24 hours a day. Even those still living at home have had to go to work and school in rowboats for more than a month now while living without running potable water or sewer systems.

"Usually in a flood, the water comes and goes. Here, it arrived quickly and has refused to retreat. It's been a real roller coaster and is hard on patience," Mr. Laroche said.

Some victims and municipal leaders have turned their ire toward the federal politicians in charge of the military.

First, the army reduced its presence long before waters reached their highest levels. Then the federal government refused a provincial request to send more soldiers, even though floodwaters were rising once again. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews sent a letter to the province, saying the army's role does not include clean-up and repair and that such an effort would pose unfair competition to the private sector.

To many Quebeckers, those words, often repeated in commentary and open-line shows, have summed up a meagre federal response to the flood. They've also noted the absence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who did make it to the Manitoba flood zone and to fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alta.

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NDP Leader Jack Layton underlined the absence with his own tour of the flood on Monday.

"When people start returning home, they will need help," Mr. Layton told reporters. "They're looking for a bit of solidarity and the government hasn't shown that yet as they should."

Small-town mayors along the Richelieu have thrown up their hands in frustration.

"We've moved on to other things," said Gérard Dutil, mayor of the small town of Saint-Paul-de-l'Île-aux-Noix. "We've had excellent help from the soldiers who are here, patrolling streets, stacking sandbags. It's their commanders who seem to have a different definition of emergency from mine."

Mr. Dutil noted that grassroots volunteer efforts have sprung up amid the outrage. Some 8,000 Quebeckers have put in their names to help out when floodwaters recede.

Co-ordinating those volunteers will become the next logistical challenge for Mr. Laroche, who says soldiers have been a great help, but steps around the political side of the question.

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"The army is a big, green machine. The individual with his arms are welcome, but it's also important to remember the army has tools no one else does. Their vehicles can go places civilian vehicles can't go," he said, without saying how long those tools will be needed.

Mr. Laroche said the army has seamlessly co-ordinated with the civilian effort, something that may sound surprising given the army culture of following orders. But he says the military has started to resemble civilian organizations, particularly at higher levels.

"When you were a general in 1914, it might have been 'Yes sir, yes sir,' " Mr. Laroche said. "Today, it's 'Yes sir, but …' There are a lot of similarities with the civilian world."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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