New Year Celebrations and No Y2K Disasters | The Canadian Encyclopedia


New Year Celebrations and No Y2K Disasters

Howard Mann laughed as he threw himself into the fresh snow.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 10, 2000

New Year Celebrations and No Y2K Disasters

Howard Mann laughed as he threw himself into the fresh snow. Propping himself up on his elbows, he snapped a photo of his sons, Ben, 10, and Sam, 9, tumbling in snowsuits in front of the Peace Tower in Ottawa, its imposing gothic skeleton reflecting the Christmas lights festooning the surrounding trees. For Mann, and many others gathered on Parliament Hill, it was not just the lure of lavish end-of-the-millennium entertainment - much less the promised speech by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien - that brought him out of his warm living room into the cold night. Rather, he said, he simply wanted to join in celebration with millions of others on the planet, and this, he was certain, "was a great place to be."

And so it was, as people revelled under a canopy of fireworks on Parliament Hill and around the world. From the tiny islands of the South Pacific, where men blowing trumpets made of seashells first greeted the new century, to the capitals of the West, the arrival of 2000 quickly turned into the first global party. The celebrants barely paused to note that the dreaded Y2K meltdown never occurred. Or that, despite fears raised by the arrest of suspected terrorists in the United States, no bombs went off. For some, it was a time to reflect on a century that brought not only the miracles of manned flight and life-saving antibiotics, but also the horrors of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. As Mann watched Ben and Sam roll in the snow, he could reflect on messages of hope brought by people like 11-year-old Joanne Metcalfe, who prayed with the Archbishop of Canterbury in London. "Lord, thank you for this beautiful world," said Joanne. "Help us keep it safe for those who will come after us."

Joanne's sentiments were shared by billions, regardless of religion, as midnight moved westward across the world's time zones. In Sydney, Australia, colourful flames exploding from the Harbour Bridge lit up the city. Near Beijing, people gathered on the Great Wall to watch the fireworks in the country that invented them. In Indonesia, where fears had run high of serious Y2K problems, none arose. Instead, people danced in the streets and celebrated at hotel bashes where all the lights stayed on. "We're just having one big party," gushed a staffer named Nuni at Jakarta's Canadian-managed Regent Four Seasons.

Lasers illuminated the pyramids in Egypt amid a gala concert. In Jerusalem, thousands of extra Israeli police were deployed in the land that gave birth to Christianity 2,000 years ago. Many Christian fundamentalists believed the end of the millennium would usher in Christ's return, igniting a holy war in the Middle East. But the Messiah did not return - only a handful of disappointed zealots appeared. For other believers, just walking over the hills that Christ once strode was a profound experience. "It felt right to be here," said American David Enlengyel, 41, who spent the evening in Bethlehem despite U.S. concerns about possible terrorism. "This is where it all began."

In Rome, Pope John Paul II was also in a thoughtful mood as 60,000 people jammed St. Peter's Square. The frail 79-year-old pontiff could have been referring to himself when he told the crowd that as the century draws to a close, it "brings home tangibly the fact that time passes inexorably. All creatures are subject to its flow." The Pope, however, still plans to visit Israel in the spring, and has declared 2000 to be the church's jubilee. In France, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin cancelled a New Year's Eve party organized by his wife, Sylviane, mindful that more than 800,000 French households welcomed the millennium without electricity due to a severe winter storm. Paris nonetheless revelled in a spectacular fireworks display that turned the Eiffel Tower into a spear of light.

London, centre of Greenwich mean time, put on one of the most extravagant shows. Queen Elizabeth II, in a peach-coloured overcoat, presided at the opening ceremonies inside the new Millennium Dome - a $1.8-billion exhibition hall at Greenwich. She looked decidedly ill at ease when Prime Minister Tony Blair abandoned protocol and grasped her hands to sing Auld Lang Syne. But the Queen was sufficiently moved by it all to embrace her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, as Big Ben tolled midnight.

The first city in North America to greet the new year was St. John's, Nfld., where people thronged the waterfront to celebrate. In Halifax, David Mundy, a United Church minister, his wife, Ruth, and their three teenagers climbed the stairs into the bell tower at St. Andrew's United Church. At midnight, they took turns pulling the big rope to ring in the new century.

When the grand moment arrived in Ottawa, Chrétien, wearing an Inuit parka and a fur hat, mingled with nearly 50,000 revellers on Parliament Hill. In a short speech, Chrétien offered a millennium gift: "Hopefully," he said, "a little bit of a tax break." Down the road in Montreal, they danced to jazz music in the city's old quarter, but a concert by Celine Dion at the Molson Centre was tinged with sadness. The singer is taking a long break to start a family and many of her fans, who paid up to $500 for a ticket, gave her a rousing ovation as Dion's eyes glistened with tears.

A massive fireworks display turned Toronto's landmark CN Tower into a fountain of multicoloured flame. In rainy Vancouver, street musician Thor Leif Tunold, 42, wearing a black broadbrimmed hat trimmed with silver bells, penned his own composition for the occasion. "Dream into the millennium," he sang, "grasp it in your hearts." Even in the high Arctic, temperatures of -41° C and howling winds could not keep people from celebrating. In Iqaluit, they held a torchlight parade led by more than 100 snowmobiles. And no one worried about the Y2K bug. "If the water goes out," said Mike Ferris, Nunavut's emergency measures officer, "you step outside your door and find a nice clean patch of snow, fill your bucket and melt it."

In the end, there were only a few annoying snags. In Toronto, a computer program that routes ambulances to emergency wards failed, five U.S. nuclear power plants reported minor malfunctions in their computer monitoring systems, and in Britain, earlier in the week, thousands of debit-card machines went off-line.

But the Y2K bug could still bite. Peter de Jager of Brampton, Ont., one of the foremost Y2K experts, said smaller internal systems in corporations could still collapse as they came back online after the holiday season. "Wait to start drawing conclusions about how successful or unsuccessful we've been," he cautioned. Even so, one thing is certain: the millennium has begun in a burst of good faith.

A Happy New Year

Shirley Macklin would easily qualify as the Canadian candidate for Most Terrifying Millennium Experience. Just hours before the year 2000 began in Afghanistan, she and 154 other hostages were finally freed by killer terrorists who had held them for eight tense days on a fetid plane. But Macklin, a 60-year-old retired Winnipeg set designer, seemed relatively unfazed by the ordeal. She told reporters she would continue working with an aid group in India, a country she has grown to love, and felt no need to return home. But she was angry. "It was a bitch of a time," she told Canadian officials on arrival in New Delhi. And she added, to her son Hartley back in Winnipeg, that her captors were "bastards."

Macklin's horrific odyssey began high over the mountains of northern India. After a vacation in Nepal, she had just left the capital, Kathmandu, bound for New Delhi aboard Indian Airlines Flight 814. From her 9C seat, she suddenly saw a masked guerrilla, one of five armed with grenades and guns, burst into the cabin from business class, upending the food carts and ordering everyone to "keep your heads down." They brutally stabbed to death one man who defied them, and ordered the pilot to fly to Lahore, Pakistan. When officials there refused it permission to land, the plane shuttled through three cities in the Gulf region before finally touching down in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, on Christmas Day.

Macklin, it turned out, was caught up in India's often deadly dispute with Pakistan over control of divided Kashmir. The hijackers, whose nationality was never disclosed, demanded the release of 35 Kashmiri militants and a Pakistani religious cleric from jail in India. After drawn-out talks with Indian officials, brokered by Afghanistan's ultra-conservative Islamic Taliban regime, the two sides agreed on release of the cleric and two militants. Indian officials accused Pakistan of backing the terrorists, but the military regime in Islamabad said it would arrest them if found. Macklin, meanwhile, was greeted in New Delhi by another son, David, a Toronto doctor, who arranged for a secure and quiet place for her to recover.

Maclean's January 10, 2000