The real security agenda - Emergency preparedness and public safety

GPC 2015 platform background paper

One of the most critical responsibilities for the federal government is to ensure public safety, broadly defined, and adequate emergency preparedness measures.  This requires implementing effective regulations that will guide a wide-range of activities. Stephen Harper’s rhetoric has increasingly linked the notion of “security” to obscure terrorist threats, while cutting funding for real threats like earthquakes, extreme weather events, and climate change. Yet emergency preparedness measures are intimately linked to the well-being and safety of Canadians as well as to the national interest. The Green Party supports the expeditious development of a National Strategy for Disaster Preparedness by the Council of Canadian Governments, in addition to much larger and more effective investments in public safety measures in a whole range of areas, including but not limited to the protection of our coasts, our transportation systems, and emergency preparedness on First Nations territories. 


Smart competent government should ensure clear national safety standards across a wide range of policy areas. Whether we live in Lethbridge, Alberta, or Rimouski, Quebec, we should be protected by clear standards for clean water and air, safe food and drugs, secure transportation and borders, and products free of toxic chemicals. Standard setting should be supported by high-quality scientific research and robust investigatory and enforcement agencies. In times of austerity, this is one area which in principle must be sheltered from budgetary cuts. Services may be contracted out to private operators or provincial agencies, so long as they work under appropriate oversight, follow established protocols, and meet national standards.

Stephen Harper has steadily eroded what few federal public safety measures Canada has.  Our capacity to respond to everything from earthquakes and increasingly severe climate events, to providing coastal security and search-and-rescue, and to ensuring transportation safety has markedly diminished.  Nor are we any better equipped to deal with public health crises, food safety issues, or consumer product safety. Even a brief overview of emergency preparedness and public safety points to the urgent need for reforms and additional investment in these areas by the federal government.

Disaster Preparedness

Catastrophic events in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan and now Nepal have brought earthquake preparedness to the forefront in Canada.  The 9.0 Tohoku earthquake in 2011 followed by a devastating tsunami up to 30 metres in height which ran inland upwards of 10km and resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear plant, has been of particular significance to the risks on Canada’s West Coast.

Proper preparation for an earthquake and other disasters requires urgent action on two fronts:

1. Substantial investment in technology and expertise to build world-standard early warning systems;

2. Federal government leadership to ensure an emergency response system that is proactive, comprehensive and long-term, one that efficiently and effectively coordinates key emergency management players at all levels of government and a wide range of stakeholders.

Canada lags significantly on both these fronts.

In 2010, the federal government cut $35.8 million over three years from the budget of Public Safety Canada (PSC); the results were nothing short of seismic.  Canada’s only national emergency preparedness college closed. (The college assets were awarded to Centennial College in Toronto.)  The Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) grants for emergency preparedness infrastructure and training which were cost-shared with the provinces and territories were eliminated, and funding for emergency management by First Nations was reduced. These cuts were imposed on an already-inadequate PSC budget, and they severely compromised Canada’s emergency preparedness which depends on the federal government leading well-structured coordinated initiatives across levels of government and critical stakeholders.

With specific reference to West Coast earthquake preparedness, a disturbing March 2014 report entitled Catastrophic Earthquake Preparedness by the British Columbia Auditor General noted that provincial coordination with the federal government was particularly inadequate in three key areas: funding, logistics, and responsibility to First Nations. The Auditor General also noted that Emergency Management BC (EMBC), the provincial agency responsible for leading emergency responses, had failed to come up with comprehensive plans to deal with a catastrophic quake or tsunami. To date, there are critical gaps in earthquake response plans, procedures, training exercises, public education programs and in the oversight of stakeholder readiness and capacity. With deficiencies at both the federal and provincial levels, municipalities charged with the responsibility of preparing for and responding to emergencies do not, in the vast majority of cases, have the finances to put their local emergency plans into practical use.

The December 2014 Consultation Report on Earthquake Preparedness submitted to the B.C. Attorney General and Minister of Justice in response to the concerns expressed by the BC Auditor General called for “clear vision, sufficient resources and strong political will” to ensure much greater federal and provincial support for emergency preparedness efforts at the local authority level, and for First Nations’ emergency management.

Despite rising concern, the federal government remains missing in action on earthquake preparedness.

Budget 2014 forecast the provision of $11.4 million over five years on a cash basis to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), to “upgrade the earthquake monitoring system to incorporate more advanced technologies that provide timely public alerts in high-risk and urban areas.” Budget 2014 also created the National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) – with $200 million to be allocated to the program over the 5-year period from 2015 to 2020.

Minister Blaney publicly noted that the existing national earthquake monitoring system was installed over 20 years ago and stated: “Earthquakes represent a significant threat to the safety and economic well-being of Canadians, especially in British Columbia. Public earthquake alerts allow Canadians to take action to reduce earthquake damage and protect lives by slowing and stopping trains, preventing cars from entering tunnels and automatically shutting down industrial systems.”

In Vancouver on October 15, 2014 at an earthquake symposium hosted by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, Minister Blaney made the all-too-familiar appeal to all levels of government, industry, academia and the public to work together on earthquake preparedness strategies. The Minister then stated, “Canada’s evolving approach to emergency management means our government is shifting from a reactive model to one that allows us to better identify risks related to natural disasters, and to take steps to eliminate or reduce these risks and their impacts before disaster strikes.”

Unfortunately, these were empty words – mere smoke and mirrors. Both the initiatives in Budget 2014 regarding slight increases in funding for NRCan and for the NDMP, which the Minister referenced as illustrations of the new proactive approach to emergency management, are reactive and will have a decidedly minimal impact on earthquake risk management. Moreover, to date, absolutely no information on the allocation of Budget 2014 funds is available. At the very least the establishment of a robust new network of strong motion sensors, with the associated distribution of warning data, requires clearly designated funds. It appears that the Treasury Board may have agreed that the additional NRCan funds might eventually cover “refurbishing seismic and GPS networks,” but this will only meet some of the cost, with the remainder coming from existing (limited) operating funds.  This negatively impacts both current operations and research. It is like buying paint, but not the services of a painter.  Furthermore, Minister Blaney recently announced the NDMP funding would focus almost exclusively on flood-risk identification and prevention measures, not on earthquake preparedness.

Budget 2015 continues the practice of the Conservative administration’s making meaningless announcements to serve partisan ends but certainly not public safety. There was a quiet reference in the Budget to taking another step towards the long-discussed creation of a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN), something that is an important component of emergency preparedness for all risks including earthquakes.  This initiative is long overdue and would finally ensure that Canada had vital inter-agency communications with interoperability capability. Budget 2015 provided for the designation of an additional 10 MHz of the 700 MHz band; the first 10 MHz was designated for this purpose in February 2012.  However, the government has only allocated a mere $3 million to be paid out over 2 years, beginning in 2016, “to take the initial steps to establish the PSBN.”  So, more than four years after the spectrum of funding for this essential network was first allocated, the government is only promising to take initial steps towards implementing the emergency communications system in 2016-2017.

The bottom line is that emergency preparedness for earthquakes remains both reactive and woefully inadequate.  The Conservative administration is not prepared to provide the clear national leadership required to coordinate all levels of government and stakeholders in the event of a disaster.  Nor has it made any effort to find the funds required to upgrade our emergency preparedness to world standards.

Canada needs substantial investment in technology and expertise to build world-standard early warning systems.  This means a much better early warning capacity similar to those currently under development in both the U.S. and Japan, incorporating modern seismograph and GPS technologies. The U.S. West Coast has a dense network of GPS monitors to provide early warning of earthquakes. In contrast, B.C. has only a‎ small scattering of such stations. The difference involves critical minutes of life-saving warnings that Canadians will not receive.

Canada’s earthquake monitoring networks are nowhere near the standards established by earthquake prone parts of the world, including the United States, Japan and New Zealand. We need to catch up and establish large integrated networks. Specifically, we must build a denser network of GPS sites in B.C. and the Yukon to complement those in the lower 48 states and in Alaska.  We also need strong motion sensor networks similar to those deployed in Japan which provided the residents of Tokyo warning of the impending shaking from the 2011 earthquake. The implications of a Cascadia Subduction earthquake and tsunami, as well as smaller damaging earthquakes in B.C. and other at risk areas in Canada require much more detailed study to better understand the potential consequences as well as to improve warning systems and emergency preparedness.

At the very least, NRCan needs more financial and human resources to establish long-term research and monitoring of earthquake risk.  For example, NRCan should be funded to levels that would permit an integrated western North American (Canada/U.S.) monitoring and warning system.  We also need the Public Safety Broadband Network now, not years from now.

The federal government should examine other countries’ models for funding the extensive expenditures required for proactive preparedness, such as the system of real-time GPS in Japan. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan operates the unique GEONET array, comprising more than 1200 real-time GPS stations. While not yet integrated into the tsunami early warning system, it has been demonstrated since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, that the network could have accurately predicted the parameters of the devastating tsunami as soon as 3 minutes after the beginning of the earthquake.  In the United States, a collaborative effort between federal and state agencies as well as universities funded by the National Science Foundation and other organizations supports the critical research and development of earthquake and tsunami early warning systems.

Our federal government must ensure an emergency response system that is proactive, comprehensive and long-term, one that efficiently and effectively coordinates key emergency management players at all levels of government with a wide range of stakeholders. The federal government must support collaborative and cost-sharing approaches to ensure adequate funding and strengthen community capacity building and preparedness.

In the most recent evaluation of its Geohazards and Public Safety Program, NRCan points out that Canada lags behind other nations such as Australia which are more proactive and effective in coordinating key emergency management players and engaging stakeholders and communities.  Yet “the magnitude of disaster risks in Canada is higher than it has ever been due to aging infrastructure and climate change, and the financial costs resulting from natural hazards in Canada are expected to increase. … [T]he federal government has a legislated mandate relating to hazards monitoring, national security, public safety and the provisions of disaster financial assistance to the provinces and the territories.”

The Green Party believes Canada should adopt the model used successfully by Australia to bring together various levels of government to identify specific needs in areas of hazards research and to establish a collective emergency management agenda. This model involves the Council of Australian Governments acting through the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management (SCPEM). The goals of the SCPEM are threefold:

  • to promote a coordinated national response to law enforcement and emergency management issues;
  • to provide a framework for cooperation and shared strategic directions for the policing and emergency services of Australia and New Zealand; and
  • to encourage and share best practice in police policy and operations and in emergency management across jurisdictions.

This well-structured process for intergovernmental collaboration has resulted in the Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience – a comprehensive, long-term, multi-hazard approach to disaster risk reduction that integrates all risk considerations, with a focus on disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness and vulnerability reduction. The Strategy was introduced as a response to a fractured system in which disparate policy agendas and competing priorities resulted in gaps and overlaps in natural hazard preparedness and management.

The Green Party supports the creation of a similar administrative body – a Council of Canadian Governments – to bring all levels of government together whether provincial, territorial, municipal or Indigenous [Governments can get along and get things done].  The time is overdue for national leadership to unite all governments and stakeholders to provide Canadians with a world-class system of earthquake monitoring and emergency preparation.

Our federal government must return to the business of supporting comprehensive municipal, territorial, and provincial emergency preparedness plans.  Such measures include providing public education and training programs; fast-tracking the seismic upgrading of public buildings such as hospitals, schools, and fire halls; improving local emergency infrastructure, such as adequate tsunami warning systems, civil defence sirens and other communication systems; clear marking of emergency evacuation routes; and ensuring the means to supply essential services such as medical services, energy supplies, food and water.  We must also undertake budgetary planning for post-disaster recovery.

The Arctic

Canada’s preparedness along our extensive coasts leaves much to be desired. Our Arctic search-and-rescue operations are particularly poor. Our long-range helicopters are based in B.C., N.S. and Labrador: As Michael Byers notes, “each aircraft would take more than a day to fly the 2500 kilometers to the Northwest Passage, stopping to refuel along the way. C-130 Hercules planes can be sent from southern Canada, but unlike helicopters, cannot hoist people on board. Worse yet, the Hercules used for search and rescue are nearly half a century old and often undeployable for maintenance reasons.”   The Conservatives have shut down regional search-and-rescue offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Dartmouth and St. John’s, and replaced them with a 1-800 number operating out of Gatineau and Montreal.  The closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station delayed the response time to the oil spill in English Bay in April 2015 to six hours instead of six minutes.

Canada does not yet have a single port along the Northwest Passage where a vessel in distress could seek refuge, despite obvious possibilities on Baffin Island, or near the communities of Tuktoyaktuk and Iqaluit.  By contrast, Russia has 16 deep-water ports along its Arctic coastline.

Even basic navigational charts are a problem, with only 1/10th of Canada’s Arctic waters charted to modern standards. Finally, Canada’s Coast Guard icebreakers are aging, yet colossally ineffective procurement processes have resulted in the Canadian Navy effectively having no new ice-breaking ships, only ones which are “ice-strengthened.”

The Green Party believes that the time is overdue for Canada to become a responsible coastal state.  This will involve significant regulations and increased investments to ensure not only adequate emergency preparedness, but also our ability to enforce laws concerning transportation safety and environmental protection, especially with respect to controversial proposals for Arctic drilling. The Green Party supports a moratorium on seismic testing in the Arctic until credible public consultation has taken place with local communities. We should consider reestablishing the regional advisory councils that were created under the Canada Shipping Act in 1993 to improve oil spill preparedness and response measures in the aftermath of the terrible Exxon Valdez oil spill.  The councils are badly needed to represent local communities and indigenous interests.

We should promote the establishment of an internationally-recognized Arctic Protected Zone where no mineral exploration is permitted by any country, similar to the Antarctic Protected Area.


In the wake of the horrific tragedy at Lac Mégantic in 2013, the Auditor General of Canada clearly found that Transport Canada is failing in its responsibility to ensure rail companies across the country are operating safely. Transport Canada is still struggling to implement a model of safety oversight. Its “safety management systems” put too much responsibility on individual rail firms, and long-standing improvements to prevent trespassing and in areas such as grade crossings and bridge safety have been delayed.

The Lac Mégantic disaster and the tragic loss of lives requires of us that we do more to ensure safe transportation of goods by rail and guarantee that municipal governments have the right to know what is moving through their communities.

The private sector, now controlling our rail beds and tracks, is simply cutting too many corners.  Tracks are not being properly maintained.  Cut-backs in staffing and over-working engineers are a recipe for disaster.  The reliance on Safety Management Systems is unwise.  Although Transport Canada refused to call these systems what they are - a form of self-regulation – their adoption contributed to the conditions that created Lac Mégantic. In other words, the system for moving goods by rail was being undermined just as the goods being carried became more dangerous.  The amount of unconventional fossil fuels moving by rail is a great cause for concern.

We need to invest in rail safety and to regulate it better. Municipalities need to access funds for re-routing rail lines to by-pass densely populated areas. Re-allocation of ownership within rail yards is also a critical municipal need. Finally, we need legislation to ensure that municipalities know what is moving through their communities.

The Auditor General of Canada also criticized the state of federal air safety regulation. Among other things, the federal government was found to have failed to inspect two-thirds of so-called high-risk aviation companies in 2010 -11, and most of the inspections it did carry out were flawed. Aviation inspectors lacked necessary training. Successive governments have failed to address safety concerns, some of which are more than 10 years old, ranging from pilot fatigue to bad runways. The government still refuses to say how many inspectors it needs to do the job properly, even as it cuts back the budget of Transport Canada.

We all want to prevent future tragedies. Regulators must have the tools they need. How do we establish acceptable levels of emergency preparedness and restore Canadians’ faith in our collective ability to respond to emergencies and threats? Of course this will require increased investments at all levels.   More importantly, it will necessitate more coherence in response plans, with fewer ad hoc partial responses after the fact, and more long-term planning and preparation, and above-all collaboration of all levels of government [Governments can get along and get things done].

Extreme events and unnatural disasters

Due to the impact of climate change arising from our dependence on fossil fuels, Canada is already experiencing more extreme, frequent and dangerous weather events.  Floods, droughts, tornadoes, storm surges on our coastlines and ice storms in southern Ontario and Quebec are all events that are slated to become more frequent in the destabilized climate.  Insurance companies are increasingly suggesting that coverage will be harder to obtain.  The Council of Canadian Governments urgently needs to assist in the coordination of emergency preparedness and monitoring for these events [Governments can get along and get things done][A serious climate change agenda].

First Nations

The Auditor General has particularly criticized the lack of adequate public safety measures on the part of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.  This must be corrected immediately. Among other things, insufficient steps have been taken to support First Nations’ communities struck by a wide range of increasingly common natural disasters, from floods to fires. Critical services in First Nations’ communities, like power and drinking water, are frequently disrupted for unacceptable periods of time. Yet this deplorable situation continues [Justice and Reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples of Canada].