Documents Reveal Natural Disasters, Rising Costs Are Canada’s Number One Public Safety Risk

Documents from Public Safety Canada, released under access to information legislation, say that natural disasters and the rising cost they incur are the country's biggest public safety risk.

According to the documents, a human resources and briefing plan released to Global News, Canada's current emergency response infrastructure may be insufficient to manage a large-scale disaster. A federal program designed to aid the provinces in emergency will undergo an assessment for its "sustainability," the documents state. 

The briefing plan, written by Deputy Minister Francois Guimont, lists the "top 3 risks" for 2013-2014, with natural disasters and their costs at number one.

The document states that "worldwide costs of natural disasters have increased steadily from an annual average of losses of $25 million in the 1980s to $130 billion in the 2000(s)." This "recent, dramatic increase," writes Guimont, "indicates a broader trend in Canada and globally."

The rising costs of natural disasters "may increase the federal liability" of the Government of Canada under the Disaster Finance Assistance Arrangements (DFAA), a federal plan designed to distribute disaster recovery funds to the provinces, the documents note. Under the DFAA Ottawa will cover up to 90 per cent of a province's eligible costs. The DFAA will be assessed by Public Safety Canada "to ensure program sustainability."

According to Public Safety Canada, the government has paid out more than $2.3 billion since 1970.

Natural disasters are getting more expensive, however, with the Alberta floods alone costing an estimated $5 billion.

The second highest risk noted in the file is the government's inability to respond to natural disasters through the Government Operations Centre, which provides federal emergency response at the national level.

"The Government Operations Centre (GOC) infrastructure may be unable to support a coordinated response to large-scale or multiple significant events affecting the national interest," says the document.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney did not provide comment on the documents although a department spokesman told Global News the government committed to speaking with the provinces and territories to discuss disaster mitigation.

Spokesman Jean Paul Duval said in an email that the government recognizes "that mitigation can lessen the impact of natural disasters on vulnerable communities and reduce the costs associated with these events." He added that the department has been "working diligently" to address the problems facing the GOC.

"The Government's response to a number of events this year, such as the flooding in Alberta, demonstrates our ability to manage the risk at this time," said Duval.

The document says that the GOC needs to be moved to "a new accommodation if it is to contribute to the department's mandate," because it is "housed in a building that Public Works and Government Services Canada intends to remove from the federal government inventory within the next three years."

NDP national defence critic Jack Harris says that the Conservatives aren't doing enough to prepare for the rise in natural disasters, reports Stone. "We don't see this government taking seriously the notion that climate change is going to have more serious implications in the future," said Harris.

York University professor Ali Asgary, who teaches in the emergency management program, said the uncertainty about the GOC's ability to respond to disasters is "a real concern."

According to the documents Public Safety Canada plans to develop a "National Resilience Strategy" to reduce the "occurence and negative impacts of disasters." 

Global News writes this strategy will involve "empowering citizens, emergency response, organizations, communities and governments to share the responsibility to prevent hazards from becoming disasters."

The third risk outlined in the document is the possible insufficiency of current policies to address the evolution of organized crime.

Image Credit: Wayne Stadler / Flickr

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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