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A home has it's foundation ripped away by the Coquihalla River near Hope, B.C., on Dec. 2.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Glenn McGillivray is the managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and an adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University. Korey Pasch is a PhD candidate in the department of political studies at Queen’s University.

The tragic flooding in British Columbia over the past few weeks has resulted in a disaster that has captured our collective attention. Back-to-back-to-back storms and the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have reinforced just how impactful disasters will be for Canadians in the years ahead. It is clear that we must reconsider our assumptions about these events as the climate crisis unfolds, as well as our approaches to catastrophic risk.

Not all that long ago, damages and resulting impacts caused by disasters in Canada were fairly mild and tolerable. Sure, we had our share of loss events caused by extreme weather and other phenomena. But the numbers were relatively small and manageable from an insurance and provincial/federal disaster assistance perspective.

When the 1998 eastern Canadian ice storm caused more than $1-billion in insured damage, it was viewed as a statistical outlier. Canada had come nowhere close to a billion-dollar event prior to that. The ice storm remained Canada’s costliest insured disaster for 15 years, until flooding in Southern Alberta submerged several communities, including Calgary, in 2013.

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Damage from that event (about $1.7-billion insured) was soon overshadowed by the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., at about $4-billion in insured damage. Now, estimates of insured damage from B.C may drive the Fort McMurray loss into second place.

Since about 2008, Canada has witnessed more frequent and larger disasters, including wildfires, hail, windstorms and flooding – all of which have been exacerbated and intensified by the climate crisis.

From 1983 to 2008, disaster losses cost Canadian insurers an average of about $400-million a year. Since 2009, the annual average has shot up to nearly $2-billion.

The Canadian insurance industry considers a severe event to be a “catastrophe” if claim costs exceed $25-million. When you add up all such events from 2008 to 2020, you get a whopping $21-billion.

Large, costly and disruptive disasters are here to stay. And yet, in Canada, we insist on treating them as a series of completely unforeseeable “one-offs.” We always appear to be caught collectively off-guard, as though Canadians are somehow uniquely immune to the consequences of the climate crisis and our deep connection to the fossil fuel industry.

This clearly can’t continue. We must radically shift our understanding of “catastrophe” and view disasters as systemic in nature. And systemic problems demand systemic responses.

Understanding disasters as systemic means viewing them not as unforeseeable tragedies but as more-permanent fixtures of Canadian life that require permanent institutions and permanent approaches dedicated to their management.

It means understanding that disasters come at the intersection of natural hazards (the storm, the wildfire, the earthquake) and societal vulnerability (while the hazard is natural, the disaster is human-made). It means understanding that disasters can have knock-on effects that need to be considered and planned for. And it means considering all this in relation to our addiction to both fossil fuels and the contribution the industry makes to Canadian government coffers.

So while repurposing the Canadian Armed Forces to respond to severe events is not an entirely bad idea, it is also a good example of how we tend to treat disasters as one-offs. This approach is not sustainable, particularly as we can expect to see more and larger disasters in the years ahead.

Over the last week or so, we had Armed Forces personnel assisting with atmospheric river events on both coasts simultaneously. But what if these events occurred when our soldiers were heavily involved in a major foreign campaign? Or addressing other aspects of another crisis compounding the newest disaster, such as a global pandemic?

A big part of treating disasters as systemic means ensuring that the right people are on the right bus, sitting in the right seats. That would mean using professional emergency managers and responders, as opposed to soldiers often wholly unprepared for the job.

One place to start is with the creation of a dedicated Canadian federal emergency management agency that can focus entirely on disaster mitigation “before the storm,” response during, and recovery after.

Reducing the impacts and costs of disasters means reducing vulnerability – and the creation of such an agency is a piece of the puzzle. But so is addressing other diverse aspects of vulnerability – for instance, by transitioning off of fossil fuels, strengthening building codes, re-evaluating land use and reducing poverty.

As the events in B.C. have made clear, continuing to treat disasters in an ad-hoc and fragmented manner, as we do in Canada, is not the way forward. We need a permanent shift in perspective and approach that recognizes our permanent exposure to catastrophes.

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