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Jen Gerson: I asked some questions about our disaster response plans. My insides hurt now
By: Jen Gerson
The clever and devoted readers of The Line will have already surmised that I am a touch neurotic, prone to catastrophize, and gifted with one of those imaginations that is perfectly capable of picturing in vivid detail every worst-case scenario playing out simultaneously.
And so, dear devotee, you will have no trouble picturing my mental state in recent months, in what will come be known as the Summer of Fire. Until next summer, anyway. Until then, it’s always fun to watch two cities burn (or come close to burning) over the course of a single weekend, eh?
Watching the long lines of cars fleeing Yellowknife, or the beachcombers lining the shores of Lake Okanagan as swathes of West Kelowna disappeared, I have to admit that my mind wandered into its darker wings.
Yellowknife and Kelowna are cities, yes, but relatively small ones: Yellowknife is remote and served by only one road, making it a particular logistical challenge to evacuate. But it's still only a town of 20,000 people. This ought to be well within the capacity of a wealthy, organized G7 country.
What if wildfires threatened, say, Edmonton? A city of a million. How would we get everyone out? Where would they go? What would they eat?
And this line of internal paranoia brought me to the media landing page of the minister of Public Safety Canada. I have questions — to my mind, basic questions — about this country's capacity to handle major catastrophes. They were as follows:
What are the transportation resources typically available to facilitate an evacuation: in an emergency, how many people could we move by air or land, and how quickly?
Does the federal government maintain stores of food or other basic goods? How much? How many people could we feed?
Do we have the capacity to establish temporary housing for evacuees displaced by an emergency situation? If so, how many people could it hold, and for how long?
I also had a few more general queries. I am aware that they may not have been fully answerable by the federal government, but I was curious about what the response would be. Specifically:
Are we going to rebuild everything that burns down, or do we have to accept that climate change will make some previously inhabited sections of Canada unlivable?
What kind of resources will the federal government marshal toward hardening infrastructure to prepare for more serious floods and fires in the future? Is this a priority?
To be clear, none of these questions are "gotchas." I was not out to catch the federal government by surprise, nor to embarrass it in any way. I don't think any of these questions is unreasonable; in fact, I expected some fairly stock answers. That is, I expected that a federal government would keep at least a basic running inventory of things like temporary housing or food supplies. Further, I would have been perfectly content with very general answers. Perhaps some of my questions were misguided, and I would have been happy to understand that as well.
What I got was, well, I'm going to show you exactly what I got, offer a little of my own running commentary, and allow you to come to your own conclusions.
The communications individuals at the other end were polite and professional; I told them I would like to write about this subject within about a week. Eight days later, I received an immaculately crafted 1,450 word response that managed, with extraordinary grace, to avoid answering much of anything directly.
The response in full is available here. For discussion purposes, I offer the following choice bits, however.
"The primary response to a large-scale natural disaster rests with municipal, provincial and territorial governments. They lead and coordinate the emergency response, but the Government of Canada remains ready to provide assistance and support when needed through various mechanisms, if the emergency escalates beyond their capabilities. The Government Operations Centre continuously monitors new and evolving threats across the country, such as the ongoing wildfires in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, and proactively engages with provinces and territories to coordinate the response to the situation and mobilize all necessary federal resources.
The principal tool the federal government has for immediate response to an emergency is the request for federal assistance (RFA).... This enables the federal government to engage all of the tools at its disposal, including the Government Operations Centre, the Canadian Armed Forces, the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS), the Humanitarian Workforce, and the resources of multiple federal departments such as Indigenous Services Canada, Transport Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, among others, according to the needs identified by the province or territory."
The first of my observations is that I don't get the sense, from this response, that the federal government is keen to play a proactive role in emergency response, do you? Right off the bat, we have "[this] rests with the municipal, provincial, and territorial governments." No doubt that this is true. Local governments should take a leading role in responding to local problems, and I'm not really interested in getting into a jurisdictional bunfight.
What I am noticing is that the federal government is more than happy to step on jurisdictional toes when it suits their own ideological interests or priorities (see, for example, the electricity grid, hey-o). But get into the inglorious and messy grind of real governance (ie: housing policy or national disasters), and all of a sudden: "we lookin' at you, provinces!"
This is how Canadian federalism actually works, yes, I am aware. But please pause the cynicism for a moment.
Emergency preparedness is one of those areas in which a federal government ought to be both proactive and at the national forefront. The reason for this is pretty simple: the capacity to mitigate and manage national disasters varies wildly between provinces and municipalities. When Calgary flooded in 2013, it could rely on its newly built emergency response centre; it generated billions of dollars for repair; and it marshalled considerable capital for future prevention and flood mitigation (albeit with help from other orders of government).
Calgary, however, is a wealthy city of a million in a wealthier province. Yellowknife simply cannot draw on that kind of tax base. The money is just not there. If it needs to cut cheques to citizens, its resources are limited. If an expensive road needs to be built through the tundra, the federal government is the only level of government that can reasonably be expected to generate the necessary capital.
It therefore doesn't make sense for the federal government to do a lot of hand waving. I would use this platform to give additional support to NWT Premier, who was absolutely livid last week, noting that the federal government has ignored clear infrastructure needs for years. After meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she was somewhat placated: the federal government now seems committed to "accelerating" such projects, but hasn't yet attached a dollar figure to those promises.
So let's move on: Even if responsibilities like emergency housing, transportation, or food stockpiles are the responsibilities of provincial and municipal governments, I still expect the federal government to keep a running inventory of what we have available. I shouldn't have to pose these basic questions to every level of government in this country: these are straightforward questions about national capacity. If, God forbid, we did run into a truly existential disaster requiring an all-hands response, a federal government might need to, say, appropriate resources from one province to distribute to another. How would Public Safety Canada manage such an exercise if it doesn't know what we have? This is not a question that should need a week and an inquiry to answer. It should be right there. In case there is a, well, emergency.
And if the ministry does keep a running tally on emergency supplies and won't tell me, I have to ask, why? Why is this an unreasonable thing for the citizenry to know?
And because PSC brought it up, let's also talk about the military for a moment.
What is it that we, as a country, want our military to do? What is it for, exactly? I realize that this is not a novel concern, but Canada's armed forces fall squarely under the federal government's domain. Do we expect our military to function as a service devoted to managing domestic crises? Do we want to maintain capacity to serve abroad? Or do we want our military to fulfil both tasks? And if the answer is "both," then why aren't we funding the forces adequately to do both?
As it stands, our military is really more of a national guard; its primary function is to train bodies to help with a growing number of emergencies and catastrophes on the home front. If that's what we want, that's fine. It's fine to train and equip a military primarily for domestic purposes. But then we can't continue to pretend that our defence spending is fulfilling our international treaty obligations. This is deceptive, both to our allies, and, worse, to ourselves. You don’t have to take my word for it: Wayne Eyre, then commander of the Canadian Army and now chief of the defence staff, the top position for a military officer in Canada, warned in early 2020 that the pace of domestic operations was eroding the military’s ability to contribute, and if necessary fight, abroad.
But let’s continue:
"In addition to responding, all levels of government regularly participate in emergency management exercises. Although provincial and territorial government manage the emergency response in their respective jurisdictions, joint emergency management exercises strengthen the capability across all regions to respond to incidents of all types....
"The National Priority Exercise focusses on a specific hazard and is delivered over a designated period of years. It brings together provincial and territorial leadership, the federal government and non-government organizations and authorities to design and deliver inter-related exercise activities, ending with a final cross-jurisdictional exercise. The activities support the national interest to strengthen Canada's ability to assess risks and to prevent/mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
Coastal Response 2023 (CR23) was the Federal Government’s National Priority Exercise for 2020-2023.
CR23 was co-led by Public Safety Canada and the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, British Columbia, in February 2023. Participants came from all orders of government, first responders, Indigenous communities, and officials across the public and private sectors, including 25 federal departments and agencies. The CR23 exercise scenario was designed to simulate, to the greatest extent possible, the challenges, issues, and stressors of a catastrophic earthquake. The coast of British Columbia is the region most at risk of a major earthquake. A strong earthquake near one of Canada's major urban areas would likely be the most destructive natural disaster this country could experience. The scenario outlined how the earthquake would have been strongly felt in most areas of southwestern B.C., with the affected area directly impacting the Lower Mainland, where approximately three million people reside. It described serious damage reported in Greater Vancouver and the possibility of strong aftershocks.
CR23 objectives included addressing the following issues:
Public communications to appropriate stakeholders and engagement with the public
Mass care supports such as shelter, food, and water.
Logistics in support of supply chain management and inter-agency coordination to provide resources
Critical Infrastructure identification of interdependencies and prioritization of key assets
Continuity of government focus on delivery of essential services
Senior leader focus on governance, decision-making and prioritization
The exercise will help improve future national exercises and point to recommendations to benefit the emergency management system in Canada, bolster our preparedness, and strengthen our response."
Honestly, I think this is great. I'm genuinely glad that all of these levels of government are running hypothetical disaster scenarios annually, and I'd actually be very keen to attend one of them. Really! If for no other reason, I think it would make me feel better about the coming apocalypse.
However, I'm sorry, but I have to ask: If these governments are conducting annual exercises and running through major disaster scenarios — scenarios that force them to consider factors like transportation, food, logistics and shelter — then why can’t the federal government answer simple and direct questions about those things?
If Richmond fell into the sea tomorrow, how many people could we house? If they literally just did this exercise, the answer should be right there, man. Is it 10,000? A million? A hundred?
Reading these responses, I don't know whether this government can't answer these questions, or simply doesn't want to because the answers aren't great. Or perhaps it’s so mired in a culture of secrecy that it avoids direct answers even when it has the information at hand simply as a matter of habit. Regardless, I'd infinitely prefer a straight response that admitted to serious shortcomings than a non-answer that makes me feel like a coked-out side character on True Detective who just can't tell what's real anymore. I mean, I feel like I'm trying to discern meaning from swirling bird sign here, man.
Look, I'm trying not to be a bitch here, really. I am not out to make anybody look bad. I have no doubt that numerous — perhaps dozens — of talented and dedicated communications professionals spent days crafting this response, using hundreds of emails, and cross referencing uncountable source materials. I am sure that my request made life much harder for some very decent civil servants and I actually do feel a little bad about it.
That said. Deep breath. Let's keep going.
"In light of our changing climate, the Government of Canada has been working with provinces and territories since 2016 through the development and implementation of the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada to improve resilience and enable Canadians to build back stronger. The strategy and its supporting biannual action plans demonstrate concrete steps that governments and emergency management partners intend to take to increase resilience to disasters."
I swear to God I tried my damnedest to read through the Emergency Management Strategy for Canada and I struggled to find a single thing resembling a "concrete step" as normal people would understand that term. There's just a lot of verbiage about priorities that sounds like this: "FPT governments work with their respective EM partners to develop interoperable public safety communication systems."
Wait, public safety communications systems aren't interoperable? Um.
"FPT governments will work to implement terms for sustainable, timely, and accessible post-disaster financial assistance for their residents."
Aren't the Yellowknife evacuees still waiting for some kind of direct assistance from the federal government in addition to the meagre $750 provided by the territorial government?
Or, "FPT governments, and their respective roles and responsibilities, will strive to develop more robust recovery supports and programs beyond financial assistance."
Super, I guess? Like what? Can we offer some specifics?
I don't know what I was expecting, here. Maybe something more like "We're going to spend $5 billion over the next three years to identify and improve bridges in flood prone areas," or, perhaps, "we're going to ensure that every northern community of more than 2,000 people has more than one working road out of town." I dunno, I'm just spitballing.
Hey, by the way, did anybody look at those long lines of cars leaving Yellowknife — bumper-to-bumper traffic for hundreds of kilometres without access to gasoline — and think: "Gee, I wonder how we would have pulled that off in federally mandated electric cars?"
OK. I’m sure that’s fine, then.
"Working collaboratively with partners to implement the shared priorities laid out in the country’s first National Adaptation Strategy, to help Canada be more resilient and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Strengthening national resilience to disasters is one of the five focus areas of the Strategy;
Working with provinces and territories, Indigenous Peoples, municipalities, and the emergency management community to implement the Emergency Management Strategy to help Canada better prevent, mitigate, predict, prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies and disasters;
Developing a National Risk Profile to enhance whole-of-society collaboration and governance to strengthen resilience and to improve understanding of disaster risk in all sectors of our communities;
Integrating climate resilience into the National Building Code and conducting research to factor climate resilience into the design of buildings; and
Providing funding for infrastructure projects through the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, to help communities better withstand the potential impacts of hazards."
Personally, I'll sleep better at night knowing that Canada has a National Adaptation Strategy, an Emergency Management Strategy, and an imminent National Risk Profile, won't you? Don’t worry, everybody: the NAS has set a clear and attainable goal for infrastructure here: “All infrastructure systems in Canada are climate-resilient and undergo continuous adaptation to adjust for future impacts to deliver reliable, equitable, and sustainable services to all of society.”
You know, that sounds great, but for a “goal” section, it’s a little lacking in objective, measurable outcomes, no?
“Starting in 2024, resilience to climate change impacts is factored into all new federal infrastructure funding programs,” Okay, but what does that actually mean, beyond adding a box to check to some internal bureaucratic funding form? “By 2030, 80 per cent of public and municipal organizations have factored climate change adaptation into their decision-making processes.” Again, sure. I would expect climate change is on the minds of literally all public and municipal organizations that build stuff at this point. “By 2026, additional climate change resiliency considerations are incorporated into 3 Canadian Codes.” Super: I mean, updating building codes is a necessary part of a process to adapt and mitigate, certainly, but none of this is concrete or impressive. There are no clear win or fail conditions attached to any of these targets: no actual measure by which we could say “this plan has not achieved its stated objectives.” It’s masterful written-by-committee bureaucratise. Too vague to fail.
Meanwhile, about that Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF), was announced in 2018: it committed "$2 billion over 10 years to invest in structural and natural infrastructure projects to increase the resilience of communities that are impacted by natural disasters triggered by climate change." This funding was increased in Budget 2021: "an additional $1.375 billion in federal funding over 12 years was provided.
So we’re talking roughly $3 billion in funding across the entire country over 12 years? Or is that $3 billion over 16 years. Who knows. Doesn’t matter. Point is, it’s actually not a lot. The fund is only meant to cover about 40 per cent of the cost of mitigation projects, and the money is already half spent. Then I clicked through examples of "approved DMAF projects" in Alberta just for fun: this took me to a generic infrastructure page where I found endless news announcements for the future "electrification of Lethbridge's transit fleet," and the "the renovation of the Canadian Native Friendship Centre in Edmonton" and "energy efficient upgrades for two youth community centres in Edmonton."
What I don’t see off the top are funds earmarked for disaster mitigation as the government's website architecture seems to imply; this just federal infrastructure funding for Alberta in general. (To be fair, the last major DMAF grant that I can find for my area was the $168 million contribution to the $432 million Springbank Reservoir; and that’s worth a whole column in and of itself. The Reservoir was conceived as a crucial mitigation project after the 2013 flood that literally inundated Calgary. No fault of the feds, but it won’t be completed until 2025, if then. Twelve years.)
What I do see, albeit fuzzily, is a federal government that squanders untold number of professional hours producing bureaucratic reports and and strategies that neither say nor commit to anything. I see a government that is consistently providing funds for feel-good small-ball items that suit its ideological outlook and agenda. I'm not seeing so much cash for highly ambitious or expensive projects like, say, rebuilding major highways so they don't get washed out in floods. Or creating lots of big reservoirs to preserve water supply in times of drought.
Which brings me back to my first observation: that this is a federal government that only wants to be a federal government when the problems facing the country are easy, or the topics are buzzy or of interest to them. Cannabis legalization! Net-zero something! Plastic bans! The messy stuff, the stuff that requires real governance and hard priority setting and big ambitious builds, are matters better shuffled down the chain, or pawned off to successors. Whether this is a vision of federalism that suits the expectations and priorities of Canadians is not for me to say.
But I admit, my stomach does not feel any better today than it did a week ago.
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