THE BLOG

Why Canada Can't Handle Disasters

09/05/2013 12:10 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

One of the most frustrating characteristics of the Harper government is that it announces that it intends to take big steps forward on various issues of national importance, then takes furtive steps backward when nobody is looking.

Those of us disturbed about the state of the Canadian military have watched these sleight-of-foot retreats over and over again. The government announces major acquisitions of desperately needed equipment that usually end up lacking just one crucial element: delivery. In too many cases, these vital orders end up being cancelled or put on hold.

The same promise-and-retreat routine has stricken our country's capacity to prepare for -- and respond to -- national emergencies, like the recent floods in Alberta and the train wreck in Lac-Mégantic.

The primary concern of any national government must be the physical safety of its citizens. National governments need to prepare for, and coordinate responses to natural and man-made emergencies, including floods, forest fires, train wrecks, infectious disease outbreaks, power outages, cyber breakdowns, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, explosions, terrorist attacks, nuclear leaks -- things that none of us expect, but that happen.

Stephen Harper's Liberal predecessors never developed a coordinated national response to disasters. So it was encouraging five years ago when the Harper government announced that it would negotiate with the provinces and territories to put some kind of agreement in place that would create a strategy for pre-empting and responding to national emergencies.

Nice. But this has turned out to be one more of those promises left twisting in the wind.

The Canadian Press acquired documents recently showing great internal concern at Public Safety Canada over the fact that funding has never been forthcoming to activate a strategy. Briefing notes prepared for the deputy minister of public safety said that while discussions had been held with the provinces since 2011 on "possible program components," the exchange of words had not been backed up with any exchange of dollars:

"The Strategy has yet to be supported with a program for implementation, and has received consistent criticism for recognizing the importance of mitigation, but not providing financial support."

The briefing notes point out that one in three Canadians live in earthquake-prone regions, 80 per cent of our cities are at least in part on a flood plain, the threat of pandemic influenza persists, 20,000 hazardous spills happen each year and communities are now more vulnerable to fires from nearby woodlands.

But when the notes come to the section called "Next Steps," the paragraphs are blacked out, deemed to be too sensitive to be released to the public under the Access to Information Act. One can only presume that no positive "next steps" are in the works.

If this were a case of the federal government attempting to save money when national disasters strike, one could at least understand (if not agree with) its reasoning. But when major disasters do strike, it is the federal government that ends up paying most of the bill. When costs go beyond $5 per capita in the province in which the disaster occurs, the federal government starts picking up 90 per cent of the tab.

On major disasters, that threshold is reached very quickly.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford has estimated that it will cost more than $5-billion to rebuild infrastructure after the floods. Under the agreed formula, a whopping $4.5-billion of that will come from Ottawa, including reimbursement for most of the billion dollars the province has already committed to relief.

So if Ottawa pays the piper, why doesn't it want to call the tune on disaster mitigation projects? Mitigation certainly won't prevent every disaster, but look at the Red River Floodway that Manitoba built in the 1960s for about $60-million, which has saved an estimated $30-billion in damages since then.

The federal government of the time paid about 60 per cent of the floodway cost.

Still another Public Safety Canada document, this one obtained by Global News, says the escalating costs for compensating Canadians for natural disasters is rising at an alarming rate, and indicates that the federal contribution formula is being assessed for "sustainability" because Ottawa may not want to keep up with rising costs.

That sounds like the Harper government might be planning to shuffle its feet backwards once again after promising to lead the way on disaster mitigation. It already withdrew funding from the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) at the end of March, leaving the provinces on their own to fund programs like Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR), which uses trained dogs and electronic equipment to find people trapped in damaged structures.

This government may argue that disaster mitigation is a provincial jurisdiction and it shouldn't get involved. But do Canadians really want rich provinces less prepared for disasters than poor provinces? And if the federal government doesn't want to get whacked with enormous relief bills, shouldn't it be showing leadership on trying to pre-empt some of these tragedies?

We Canadians join hands in celebrating national triumphs like victories at the Olympics. We mourn together when disasters hit, wherever they strike across our vast land. That's part of what makes us a family. The federal government should understand this, and lead the way in ensuring that we're all part of a smart approach to dealing with national disasters, wherever they occur.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca

*This oped originally appeared in The Calgary Herald - September 3, 2013