Last week in St. John’s, NL, we held a very useful meeting of Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for managing how we can best respond, individually and collectively, to emergency situations of all kinds—including natural disasters like severe storms, floods, wildfires and earthquakes, as well as human-made crises like the train disaster that devastated Lac Megantic, or last year’s pipeline spill that polluted the North Saskatchewan River, or cyber attacks that threaten to hack into our communications, banking, energy, transportation or healthcare systems.
In a country as vast, diverse and digitally-connected as Canada, the range of possible disaster situations is extensive. The big majority of emergencies are handled every year entirely at the municipal, provincial or territorial level. The federal government monitors all these developments on a constant 24-7-365 basis through the federal Government Operations Centre, which is part of my Public Safety portfolio. We stand ready to intervene when requested to do so by a provincial government.
Through the past 12 months, we have been called upon to provide federal coordination and resources to help with the huge wildfire that swept over Fort McMurray last spring, an ice storm in New Brunswick during the winter, and floods again this spring in Quebec, Ontario and Labrador. (While a federal response was not requested in British Columbia or New Brunswick, we were on high flood alert for those two provinces and elsewhere too, just in case.)
Our common objective is to have a practical, comprehensive emergency plan always in place—ready to be activated immediately to keep all Canadians safe and to protect their property and livelihoods. The overall framework and specific details are revisited about every five years or so, to stay up to date. That’s what the meeting in St. John’s was all about.
As you would expect, our framework takes an all-hazards approach to try to be ready for any eventuality—including the increasing likelihood of more frequent, severe and costly weather events brought on by climate change. It aims to engage the whole-of-society and is based upon partnerships and teamwork. It focuses on prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response capacity and recovery.
Ministers were especially interested this year in upgrading Canada’s overall resilience through pro-active, up-front investments in smart infrastructure and other measures that can help us withstand the growing consequences of climate change.
In this regard, two federal programs are especially relevant. Our National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) is an existing five-year initiative with $183 million available for cost-shared mitigation projects including mapping flood plains across the country. And to this we have just added our new Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund which will invest some $2 billion in transformative infrastructure projects designed to head-off the worst effects of wild weather.
We have agreed to examine the experience to date of the NDMP to make it as user-friendly and effective as possible. The new disaster infrastructure plan, to be designed over the coming months, will involve close consultation with provincial/territorial partners.
A third federal initiative is the long-standing Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement (DFAA) which dates back to the 1970s and provides a cost-sharing formula. In basic terms, the provinces and territories are responsible for approximately the first $3.07 per capita of all eligible costs incurred to battle and recover from a disaster. As costs rise above that minimum threshold, the federal government assumes a greater share of the burden (up to 90%).
We are examining all reasonable ways to improve the DFAA, but most especially how good investments in smart infrastructure and up-front mitigation—before disaster strikes—can reduce the costlier burden of cleaning up the mess afterwards. And when we rebuild, we must “build back better” instead of perpetuating the same vulnerabilities.
Federal, provincial and territorial governments plan to work closely and collaboratively with Indigenous leaders and communities to achieve a better assessment of the specific risks those communities face, their state of preparedness (including response plans) and an inventory of gaps that should be filled.
We also want to pursue ways in which to increase the numbers and the effectiveness of available, trained and disaster-ready volunteers in communities of all kinds—to maximize our whole-of-society reach.
Private insurance to help cover losses from overland flooding was another important topic of discussion in St. John’s. We are anxious to intensify work with the insurance industry to promote the development of more readily available and affordable insurance policies. Our work on flood plain mapping is very relevant to this topic. We also plan to study best practices in other jurisdictions (the United States, the U.K., etc.) to learn from their experiences. And we’ll convene an inclusive national roundtable to examine all possibilities for future action.
We also committed ourselves to pursuing the effective implementation of a Public Safety Broadband Network and a National Public Alerting System. Progress has been made on both fronts, but more work is required to drive these initiatives to completion.
Finally, on the topic of public safety officers, emergency workers and first responders, Ministers agreed to launch a new Emergency Management Exemplary Service Award later this year—to recognize the remarkable work, skill and valour of these distinguished Canadians.
And backing up the award with real substance for first responders, the Government of Canada has reinstated federal funding for six strategically located Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Teams across Canada. We have renewed funding for additional HazMat Training for firefighters. And we have created a new federal financial benefit to be provided to the families of firefighters, police officers and paramedics who lose their lives in the line of duty.
We’re also continuing work on two other important matters:
- the concept of recognizing firefighter safety as an objective in the National Building Code; and
- the development, with provinces and territories, of a more effective and truly national system for dealing with post-traumatic stress injuries among first responders and emergency workers.
Canada’s emergency preparedness agenda is both busy and important, and it’s a field in which there is a lot of common ground among all orders of government.