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Members of B Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment, receive a briefing before leaving to conduct firefighting operations in Yellowknife, NWT on Aug. 22.CANADIAN FORCES/Reuters

Imran Bayoumi is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

From deadly flooding in Nova Scotia to wildfires across Canada, the summer of 2023 was dominated by climate-change-induced disasters, many of which have overwhelmed provincial or territorial authorities and local first responders. Increasingly, a large part of the federal government’s response to these crises has been to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) via Operation Lentus, the standing military operation first set up in 2010 to respond to natural disasters across Canada. The military has often been treated as the default option when responding to natural disasters.

But this is not tenable, and Operation Lentus is increasingly threatening to pose a strain on the CAF’s capabilities. In 2020, General Wayne Eyre, Chief of the Defence Staff, warned that if responding to natural disasters becomes a more frequent task for the CAF, it will start to affect the readiness of the Armed Forces. That’s even more of a problem now, since Canada’s NATO allies have faced a heightened threat from Russia in Europe in the intervening years, while Canada’s interests in a peaceful Indo-Pacific region have been increasingly challenged by China’s efforts to undermine stability there. What’s more, the average number of deployments under Operation Lentus has steadily increased, from twice a year when the operation first started to an average of seven times a year between 2018 and 2022 – numbers that do not even account for CAF deployments to long-term care homes and northern and remote communities, nor its work managing and distributing personal protective equipment, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Total statistics for 2023 are not yet available, but so far the CAF has responded to disasters in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories.

The consequences of climate change will continue to affect Canada. The federal government needs to shift the burden from the CAF by creating a new agency like U.S.’s Federal Emergency Response Agency (FEMA), to coordinate and respond to future disasters across the country.

The good news is that the Trudeau government has already stated that it is exploring options for a federal national disaster response agency. In setting this up, Ottawa should be sure that any effort to respond to disasters is not duplicated, and that a primary focus of the agency should be working with the provinces and territories to pool resources including first responders and funding. The federal government can look to the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, established in 2001, for insights and best practices for managing Canada’s federated system of governance, as the EU brings together the resources of many sovereign states. Creating a new agency would also allow the government to more efficiently channel resources into preventative actions, allowing for a proactive approach to building resilience to climate – something Operation Lentus does not allow for.

Similarly, a disaster response agency can provide a dedicated post-disaster focus, ensuring residents and communities have the funding and resources needed to rebuild. A natural home for this agency would be under Public Safety Canada, which could subsume many of the disaster response tasks undertaken and administered by the agency, such as the Federal Disaster Assistance Initiative, while shifting the burden from the CAF.

It might seem easier and more attractive to just increase the funding afforded to the CAF, potentially even earmarking it for Operation Lentus, rather than commit to the serious work involved in creating an entirely new agency. But this approach has serious shortcomings. First, the CAF is facing a staffing shortage of about 16,000 members, driven in part by a lack of competitive pay and reports of a toxic work culture. Relying on CAF members to stretch beyond their core purview and respond to climate-induced disasters would only increase resourcing strain and further compound the staffing challenges facing the CAF; providing additional funding for disaster response without solving these structural challenges will not be a sufficient fix.

While CAF’s focus should be on deterring threats and working with Canada’s allies and partners for a secure world and a secure Canada, climate change is a threat that knows no boundaries. The CAF should continue to lead the charge in delivering Canada’s humanitarian and relief aid internationally, but here at home, the CAF’s logistical skills should be relied on to coordinate aid in the initial parts of a disaster, and Operation Lentus should operate explicitly as an option of last resort. A new agency that would allow us to make these changes will improve our response to the increasing number of disasters in Canada, and produce a more ready CAF.

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