On Wednesday, June 12th, 2019 in Climate Change, Debate, Democracy, Issues, Parliament

Elizabeth May: Madam Speaker, I rise to raise a question I initially asked on May 30, not long ago.

While the procedures for Adjournment Proceedings call for being allowed to ask for such a debate when the answer received is not sufficient, I think I am within the rubric of our rules in asking for this further debate on the issue. However, for the record, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness answered my question fully, capably and responsibly. My concern was that we learn from this experience.

I will repeat what I asked back on May 30. There was, and remains, a very terrifying episode for the community of Pikangikum First Nation, which is way out west in Ontario, so far that it is almost in Manitoba. It is a fly-in, remote community. Approximately 4,000 people live in this first nations community. The people there were surrounded by fire.

When I rose to ask the question that day, I had just heard that the chief and the community had called out for help. She actually called out for my seatmate, the hon. member who used to be the minister of Indigenous Services. Through her, I heard that the planes had not been able to land. A Hercules that was flying in to rescue people could not land because of the smoke. It was clearly a terrifying emergency situation. My question for the minister was what was the federal government doing.

The mobilization of resources to help that community was impressive. With the fire less than one or two kilometres from the community, thousands of people were removed to safety, with the Hercules aircraft flying in and out over a period of days.

My question is this. What have we learned from this? One of the things that struck me about it, when I read the newspaper reports, was that the community had lost power, had lost land lines, had lost cell service and it was surrounded by smoke. There was an immediate health issue.

This is exactly what happened the summer before last in Ashcroft, British Columbia, where my husband is from. I talked to the deputy fire chief. People were on an evacuation alert. They had to be ready to be evacuated because of the fire. At that moment, they were without electricity, without cellphones and without land lines. They only had one road out of town. They also had an acute health issue, because people could not breathe.

The deputy fire chief told me to be prepared for these events in the future and that people were talking about what they should do when they lost power and the use of cellphones and land lines. She concluded that Ashcroft, B.C. needed to get a really big bell and put it at the fire station to warn people of evacuations. It so resonated with me.

I held my town hall meetings in the Gulf Islands in January. On December 20 of last year, we had a windstorm so severe that trees were down in the roads. This lasted 10 days, through Christmas. There was no power, no land lines, no cellphones. Just like in Ashcroft, the community self-organized, got chainsaws out and removed the trees on the roads, which we know is illegal. However, since there was no power, people felt they were safe. People took the trees off the roads, they self-organized and they went to check on their neighbours and friends.

My point is this. We are in a climate emergency. The things we think we can count on, such as our devices and our electricity, will be gone. We will be dealing with tornadoes, floods and fires. What is Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness doing to prepare for what is happening now?

 

Mrs. Karen McCrimmon (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Lib.): Madam Speaker, before I get to the answer for my hon. colleague for Saanich—Gulf Islands, I want to offer my heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and community of Kelsey Strang who had been evacuated from Pikangikum. The Minister of Indigenous Services has reached out to the community leadership at this difficult time. While no words are adequate to respond, my heart aches for those who knew and loved her.

We will always help Canadians affected by wildfires and other disasters. We know that climate change is making natural disasters more severe, more frequent, more damaging and more expensive. Our government always stands ready to help.
The government operations centre engages with federal, provincial and territorial partners concerning fires and flooding across the country in order to be ready to respond should federal assistance be required. Emergency response is handled first at the local level. If local first responders need assistance, they can request it from neighbouring municipalities or from their province or territory. However, if an emergency escalates beyond their response capabilities, provinces or territories can request assistance from the federal government.

There is a well-established process in place for managing requests for federal assistance, which is facilitated by the Public Safety Canada regional offices through the government operations centre, and it includes interdepartmental consultation as it pertains to resources. This process ensures that municipal, provincial and territorial jurisdictions are respected, that emergency response is well coordinated and that the provision of assets and resources can be expedited at the national level when needed.

Regarding the situation of the Pikangikum First Nation, I will share some information about the events that took place recently.

On May 29, Indigenous Services Canada informed the government operations centre through the Ontario provincial emergency operations centre, that a fire was affecting the community of Pikangikum. As members may be aware, Pikangikum First Nation is a fly-in community of about 4,000 residents located in Ontario, about 70 kilometres from the Manitoba border. That same day, on May 29, a state of local emergency was declared due to the impact of smoke and fire. A request for aircraft and evacuation assistance from the Canadian Rangers and the Canadian Armed Forces was issued by the Province of Ontario to the federal government.

On May 30, in concurrence with the acting minister of National Defence, we accepted the request for the affected communities. Evacuation of the community began on the same day, on May 30. Airspace around Pikangikum was restricted to ensure the safety of Canadian Armed Forces operations and fire suppression. Ontario was not able to accommodate all the evacuees on such short notice and requested assistance from the Province of Manitoba, and that was graciously provided.

The evacuation has been suspended. The evacuation order was cancelled by the Chief of Pikangikum on June 9 due to the improving conditions.

I want to reassure Canadians that we remain committed to community safety.

 

Elizabeth May: Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. parliamentary secretary for the update.

The loss of life is tragic, but I thank God it was not so much worse, and it could have been with 4,000 people surrounded by fire. However, this is not the last time this is going to happen, and so there is a question of risk mapping.

The Province of Quebec, when Lucien Bouchard was premier, started risk mapping in response to the climate crisis years ago. We need it nationally. If we are going to have an adaptation strategy, we also need to have a prevention strategy.
There is standing dead forest throughout northern B.C. because of the pine beetle. There is no economic value in getting those forests out. Can we not have an effort to create fire breaks so that we are prepared for what is going to happen and protect communities before the fires get going? We also need to be prepared for more flooding. We need not to develop into flood plains.

We need to be much more prepared. We are living in a climate emergency. We have to go off fossil fuels, prevent the worst and prepare for what it inevitable.

 

Karen McCrimmon: Madam Speaker, the Government of Canada is always going to stand with Canadians every step of the way as they deal with these kinds of disasters.

We agree that collaborative effort is absolutely essential. We work shoulder to shoulder with all levels of government in Canada, first responders, volunteers, other NGOs, government departments, provinces and territories, municipalities and industry to identify collaborative actions in support of disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Through Public Safety Canada’s newly developed emergency management strategy, Canada will be in a better position to predict, prepare for, respond to and recover from weather-related emergencies and natural disasters.

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