After the recent flooding in Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen wondered: “Is this province, and its beleaguered capital, really ready for an important national emergency?” To which I have a simple reply: “Of course it’s not.” It’s all well and good to build freeways, city centres and highways in advance of weather, terrorist attacks, pandemics, tornadoes and earthquakes. But it’s a much bigger challenge to build ready and adequate local, regional and national disaster responses.
The Ottawa Citizen article pointed out that, since 9/11, spending on emergency preparedness in Canada has only risen from $132m in 2002-03 to $302m in 2008-09 – a rise of only about 6%. However, the National Defence Association of Canada says that, adjusted for inflation, Canada’s 2011-12 emergency preparedness budget fell from $10.5m in 2002-03 to just $6.7m in 2011-12.
For emergencies, as for budgets for building freeways and municipal arenas, Canada lags way behind the US and Great Britain. The United States spent about $20bn on all federal emergency preparedness from 2006-08 (it increased to $26bn in 2009-10 and to $27bn in 2010-11). In Britain, the National Emergency Services 2007-08 Emergency Preparedness Plan includes funding for disaster relief, emergency response, and “command and control, including information transfer; responses to and detection of terrorist activity; emergency communications; and public safety officers.”
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Statistics Canada says that, as of 2007, the figure for Canadian cities had fallen from 145,000 in 1996 to 109,000 in 2007. The Canadian Red Cross (2007) gives a range of figures for Canadian disasters in 2006: there were no deaths in Canada as a result of any of the 575 disasters; 231,000 people were injured (injuries were up from 151,000 in 2004); and £292m was spent in 2005 for medical costs, loss of life and damages.
Most of the damage may be from flooding or fires, but there is ample evidence that many Canadians are unable to respond to emergencies. According to several studies (particularly one (2004) commissioned by Human Rights Watch), on average, 87% of people lack basic disaster knowledge, and 9% of Canadian civilians lack any home fire safety knowledge.
Basic fire safety knowledge is still not well-supported, either. When asked to define “a house fire”, 44% of adults and 34% of teens (aged 15-17) answer incorrectly. Eighty-two percent of Canadians admitted that they or a family member had experienced a house fire in the last two years. And in a January 2018 study (Higgins Institute and Rosland Research, 2018), 70% of Canadians said that they don’t know how to conduct an evacuation.
There are some reasons for this. People do not know what to do. Last year, for example, about 16% of adults and 20% of teenagers reported that they have evacuated in the event of a fire without a fire department’s permission. Also, in Canada (as in many other developed countries), about 40% of people do not have complete family insurance coverage, and fewer than half of Canadian cities have emergency medical shelters.
I have no doubts about the government’s determination and ability to respond to a major emergency. My worry is that the difference in the responsiveness of the Canadian disaster response system is less about tax priorities than it is about cultural attitudes to risk.
The mere fact that Canada chose to end the “In Denial: Our Healthy Misconceptions About Health, and the Politics of Risk” study four years ago may make it even harder to tell which approach makes sense.
Catherine Crawford (2010) noted that though we tend to assume that governments have a responsibility to monitor risk and educate us about prevention, often “the opposite is actually true: the government reduces risks by actively reducing spending on monitoring and teaching people how to reduce risk”. My experience is that government expert monitoring (Canada’s Integrated Risk Management and Insurance Agency of Canada), early education of healthy choices (Better Cities, Better Health, Safe Spaces and Smoke-Free Dreams), and education programmes, such as the Ontario Emergency Management Initiative and the Ottawa-