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National Emergencies: Canada's Fragile Front Lines

March 2004

By Senator Colin Kenny


National emergencies are no longer rare in Canada. Consider the floods in Manitoba, the ice storm in eastern Ontario and Quebec, the E.coli outbreak in Walkerton, forest fires in British Columbia, Mad Cow in Alberta, SARS in Ontario, hurricanes in the Maritimes, the power blackout in Ontario, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  

The last one wasn’t ours, of course, but, like the others, it caused significant turmoil and economic damage in Canada. And, as with most of the others, Canadian lives were lost. That there weren’t more deaths attributable to this list of disasters is – to a large extent – a matter of good luck. Canadians can’t keep counting on luck to see us through these things.  

We’ve got to quit muddling. National emergencies should be confronted with extremely well coordinated responses. Sophisticated planning, streamlined systems and adequate resources need to be mobilized. 

Achieving this kind of fine-tuning is not easy in a country as administratively complex and geographically vast as Canada. But developing the capacity to counter-attack efficiently is vital to the well being of Canadians, especially during an era in which disasters are coming at us with increasing frequency. 

Paul Martin responded intelligently to a recommendation of one of the earlier reports of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He removed the Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness (OCIPEP) from the Department of National Defence and put it under Anne McLellan, the new Deputy Prime Minister. That should mean that OCIPEP’s role – which is primarily to prepare Canadian governments and citizens for national emergencies to minimize casualties and damage – should get the attention it deserves. 
Ms. McClellan responded to her appointment by saying that she intended “to make sure we’re functioning in a more integrated way, sharing information and sharing information obviously not only within the Government of Canada and all it’s agencies and departments but with other levels of government, the provinces and municipalities and cities.” This will be much easier said than done. But she is certainly on the right track. 
The Senate Committee for National Security and Defence will release a report today assessing what kind of help Canada’s governments are giving Canada’s first responders – fire and police detachments, ambulance services, doctors, nurses, emergency response teams and others on the front line. More to the point, we assessed what kind of help governments should be giving these first response units, since they invariably play the most critical roles when unexpected disasters strike. If our first responders aren’t ready, Canadians aren’t ready. 

I can’t discuss specific recommendations until the report is released. But I can tell you some of what the Committee heard in testimony from scores of witnesses, and what first response officials from reported to us in the survey we conducted across the country.  A few examples: 

·        Many municipal representatives who responded to our survey did either did not know the role of the federal Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness. Many of those who did know felt that the agency was not doing its job.  

·        The same people told us that when they go looking for help the federal and provincial governments do a lot of buck-passing as to which level of government is responsible for responding to their needs. 

·        In Ottawa, OCIPEP leaves emergency preparedness up to individual federal departments and agencies. So nobody is in charge of ensuring that whatever disaster occurs, the central government continues to function. 

·        Canadians have been hit by several national disasters in recent years. Each time lessons are learned about which types of responses worked best and what went wrong. Yet there is no centralized system for collecting and sharing “lessons learned.” 

·        Health Canada has placed caches of supplies across the country in recent years to help deal with emergency situations. But many of the first responders we talked to don’t know that the caches exist, or where they are, or what is in them. And they certainly weren’t consulted as to what should be in them. 

These are just a handful of the dozens of critical flaws in the system that the report outlines. I hope you will be reading about the solutions we recommend tomorrow. Taken together, the committee believes our recommendations could be used as building blocks for a federal strategy to upgrade Canadian emergency preparedness. 

Will it? Mr. Martin’s decision to hand the emergency preparedness portfolio to the Deputy Prime Minister gives us hope. But that structural decision is only a first step on a very long road.  

The Canada of our dreams is a haven from disasters.  Lucky, lucky us. So far. 

Senator Kenny is chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He can be reached via email at kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca