Canada needs a new building program to protect the country from natural disasters, premiers said, as well as tough new measures to make sure shipments of dangerous goods are safe.
In the wake of once-in-a-century flooding in Alberta and the deadly derailment of an oil-filled train in Quebec, the Council of the Federation on Friday said the country must act immediately to ensure such catastrophes do not happen again. The provinces outlined several proposals they are willing to implement if the federal government will help.
The first is a program to construct protective structures to battle disasters. The provinces agreed to put up half the money for the fund if Ottawa will provide the rest, they said.
The disaster-mitigation initiative, as they dubbed it, must be separate from already-existing infrastructure programs, Alberta Premier Alison Redford said.
“We do not want the federal government to tell us as provinces the existing infrastructure funding that’s available is what should be used for flood mitigation,” she said at a noon-hour news conference shortly after meetings finished. “There is an infrastructure plan that’s in place already that local governments have worked on, provincial governments have worked on … these projects need to be treated separately. We cannot use the existing pot of money for this.”
Last month’s floods in her province exposed the fragility of some existing riverbanks, where flood waters surged up and literally carried away houses in some instances. In parts of Calgary, there was little to stop the rivers from pouring into the streets, flooding buildings and shutting down the inner city.
The premiers also demanded that Ottawa leave intact the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements, which pay to repair flood damage. Currently, the federal government pays 90 per cent of those costs. Such help will be vital, since insurers do not cover much of the property that was damaged in the flood.
“These events are getting more severe, they’re more intense, they’re more frequent,” said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who led his province through a major flood two years ago. “There’s a recognition that there’s a clear pattern out there and it’s necessary to work on these patterns, as climate-change issues continue to gather steam and storm.”
The premiers also proposed two methods of avoiding train crashes like the one that decimated Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people and flattening the centre of town after a train carrying crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded.
The council demanded that railroads be forced to carry liability insurance in sufficient amounts to cover the cost of such destruction as an extra incentive for them to take every safety precaution. They also called for a national warning system that would alert the authorities whenever dangerous goods are on the move.
“It’s a step in the right direction that we’re taking in demanding the federal government transmit information on dangerous materials, a bit like traceablility for food,” Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada said the federal government is on side with the premiers, and “committed to working together to support disaster mitigation in Canada.”
“I can tell you that the Government of Canada will review the recommendations stemming from the Premiers’ conference with a view to further discussions on a number of the points raised,” Josée Picard wrote in an e-mail.
Taken together, the programs are meant to bring a more strategic approach to dealing with disaster by preventing them or limiting their damage, rather than paying high cleanup costs after they happen, the premiers said.
Under the proposed disaster mitigation system, for instance, provinces and municipalities would plan projects – berms, storm sewers or other measures – meant to protect against floods or other disasters. British Columbia, for instance, has already worked to protect major buildings from possible earthquakes and runs a tsunami-warning system.
“The first thing that we would want to do as a provincial government is work with our local decision-makers in municipal governments to make sure that we’re setting the right priorities and acting as soon as we possibly can,” Ms. Redford said. “We see it as a decision-making process that would happen within provinces.”