Western premiers and territorial leaders, grappling with what they can do to help Alberta cope with devastating forest fires, are being short-changed by a federal disaster relief program they would have to rely on in their own crises, says British Columbia Premier Christy Clark.
Ms. Clark, speaking for western leaders gathered in Vancouver for their annual conference, said concerns remain about the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements – a federal program that helps provinces and territories cover the costs of major natural disasters – a year after she and her colleagues raised the issue.
"There's still work to do on that program," she told reporters on Thursday at the start of the gathering.
The other leaders, including Saskatchewan's Brad Wall and recently elected Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, were not available to speak to the media. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is not at this year's conference due to the wildfires that have led to the evacuation of Fort McMurray. Her Deputy Premier and Health Minister, Sarah Hoffman, is attending in her place.
Ms. Clark said the issue of how to help Alberta is at the top of the agenda for the two-day meeting. She said B.C., which has ruled out sending firefighting resources, is asking social-services workers to volunteer to go to Alberta for five-to-10-day stints to help process and offer aid for evacuees from Fort McMurray and other affected communities.
Alberta requested the help, she said.
"That call has just gone out now to our civil servants to see who we can send across the border to support people in Alberta," she said.
The premiers and territorial leaders ended their 2015 meeting expressing concerns about the offloading of disaster relief costs onto the provinces and territories.
According to a program description on the Public Safety Canada website, Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements offers financial aid to provincial and territorial governments when response and recovery costs of a "large-scale natural disaster" exceed what the provinces and territories could "reasonably" be expected to pay on their own.
Ms. Clark said the previous federal Conservative government reduced its support for the program, increasing the burden on provinces. She noted that climate change has left B.C. and Alberta vulnerable to massive forest fires and flooding.
"The problem is getting worse," she said. "The federal government support for it over the years has been diminished. It needs to go in the other direction. We need to come together as a country to recognize that these problems are more and more common. It's not going to get easier, and we all need to commit more financial resources."
Ms. Clark said the provinces have not yet had a "deep discussion" with Ottawa on the issue. "We want to start with a discussion of western premiers first and see where that discussion leads us, and then enter into a discussion with the federal government."
In a statement issued shortly after Ms. Clark's news conference, the western leaders also said they were concerned about "long delays" in disbursement of funds under the program.
The federal government has pledged to help Fort McMurray cope with the wildfires and eventually rebuild. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday that Ottawa will match all individual donations made to the Red Cross to help those affected by the wildfires.
Asked about the B.C. Premier's remarks, the press secretary for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement that the federal government is intent on paying "greater attention" to emergency planning, preparedness and response.
Scott Bardsley said Mr. Goodale is receptive to his provincial and territorial counterparts on various issues related to disaster management and relief. He noted that the government has increased the federal share of provincial disaster mitigation projects from one-third to 50 per cent.
Ottawa's commitment to spend $120-billion on infrastructure over the next decade includes funds for climate change, and restored funding to heavy urban search-and-rescue task teams in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Manitoba, Mr. Bardsley said.
But the western leaders said in their statement that $200-million over five years for priority disaster mitigation projects is "insufficient" and asked for a significant, though unspecified, increase.