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colin kenny

Police officers talk in front of a emergency services tent next to the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 24, 2012.Chad Valiquette/The Canadian Press

The shopping-mall tragedy in Elliot Lake, Ont., got a dose of irony Tuesday when Stephen Harper's office announced that the Prime Minister was willing to send in emergency assistance.

That would be a noble gesture – if the Conservative majority in the Senate weren't about to approve the omnibus budget bill that will kill federal assistance to front-line emergency relief teams across Canada, including the Toronto-based Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Unit (HUSAR), currently on the scene in Elliot Lake.

If the federal government does find a way to help in Elliot Lake, God bless it. Alternately, God may wish to damn the government for shutting down its contribution to a co-operative federal-provincial-territorial program meant to ensure that Canadians across the country have access to competent, timely assistance at times like this.

The Joint Emergency Preparedness Program was established in 1980 to create infrastructure and provide equipment for front-line emergency workers. The five HUSAR units, located in large cities across the country, are meant to ensure that help gets to communities like Elliot Lake in a hurry. The Canadian Emergency Management College in Ottawa offers invaluable classroom and field training to emergency workers. Federal funding is being withdrawn from all of them.

Canada has suffered countless disasters since Confederation, and these joint programs recognized that response capacity has been fragmented across the country, without a clear definition of the roles of various branches of government or the necessary resources to respond, particularly in small towns and rural areas.

The federal government has invested more than $170-million in these joint programs. In its 2008 report Emergency Preparedness In Canada, the Senate committee on national security and defence argued that even more funding and sophisticated co-ordination were required, with Ottawa taking the lead. Instead, the Harper government is abandoning the field. It argues that, in terms of providing equipment, "the objectives of the program have been met." That statement is laughable, if one can laugh through tears. Equipment is in constant need of upgrading.

When Vancouver fire chief John McKearney heard that the city's HUSAR unit was being stripped of federal funding, he declared himself "shell-shocked." The Vancouver team provided valuable assistance in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the chief argues that it needs continued federal support if it's to be ready for earthquakes in B.C.

These cuts fit nicely into the Harper government's belief that the provinces' constitutional responsibilities should be funded by the provinces alone. Why that mantra applies to emergency relief when it doesn't apply in areas like education and justice is a question Canadians should be asking. When a person who matters to you is lying under a heap of rubble, waiting for rescue, you need help from whomever can best provide it. In most cases, the best response is a well co-ordinated effort with every possible level of government involved.

Elliot Lake is not an isolated incident. Think about 1987 (Edmonton tornado), 1996 (Saguenay River floods), 1997 (Red River floods), 1998 (ice storms in Eastern Canada), 2003 (SARS epidemic in Toronto, power blackout in Ontario and Hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia). The list goes on.

The HUSAR squad's arrival in Elliot Lake on Monday may well not end up saving a single life. But how reckless is Ottawa's gamble that federal support won't be crucial in all the disasters to come?

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence.

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