Western premiers want national disaster prevention program after floods, fires

Canada’s western premiers are calling on Ottawa to develop a new long-term national disaster mitigation program.

Premier Brad Wall

Premier Brad Wall

YELLOWKNIFE — Canada’s western premiers are calling on Ottawa to develop a new long-term national disaster mitigation program.

The provincial and territorial leaders emerged from their annual meeting in Yellowknife on Wednesday saying that rebuilding after a natural disaster is far more costly than investing in preventive measures.

“One of the things we found is that we need the disaster financial assistance program to change, to have a greater commitment to putting money into mitigation projects, projects that will prevent families and homes, individuals and property from being damaged,” said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.

Selinger said dikes have prevented some “catastrophic” flooding in Manitoba communities.

For example, he said the Red River floodway cost $1 billion but has prevented about $30 billion in disaster claims over the years.

“So $1 billion gets you $30 billion of savings but just a whole lot less disruption of peoples’ lives and disruption in the economy,” he said.

“These are good investments and I’m pleased to note that the federal government and the prime minister have recognized this, so we’re encouraging that dialogue to proceed rapidly because there’s just so many things that we have to do.”

The western premiers are asking for help after a devastating spring of floods and forest fires.

There’s been unprecedented flooding in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec, and one-third of the community of Slave Lake, was destroyed by wildfires.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall abandoned plans to attend the meeting at the last minute because of a flood emergency. Saskatchewan deputy premier Ken Krawetz went in Wall’s place.

“There has been major damage to structures, as well as to the livelihood of others,” said Krawetz.

“Of greater concern in the Bakken play, which is an oilfield area in the province of Saskatchewan, is the fact that oil companies have oil in storage and we can’t move it. The (flooded) road systems will not allow the oil to be moved.”

The ongoing flooding in parts of the Prairies has hit farmers and the entire rural economy hard.

The Canadian Wheat Board has estimated that somewhere between 2.4 million and 3.2 million hectares of farmland will go unseeded, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Cattle producers may have to reduce their herds because of pasture damage.

Key agencies involved in disaster management will meet in Manitoba this fall to review the flood and forest fire outlook for 2012 and the premiers want Ottawa at the table.

A lot of ground was covered at the three-day long meeting.

On Monday, the premiers talked about the trade. Northwest Territories Premier Floyd Roland said the prosperity of Western Canada depends on efficient trade with the United States and Asia, including China and India.

On Wednesday, they said governments, educators and employers must work together to help the labour force. Western Canada will face skills shortages in the next decade and in order to maintain the West’s strong economy, it is expected the region will need more than one million additional workers.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said one way is to work with the federal government to reduce the time it takes to get approval for foreign workers.

“I know we lose a lot of people to Australia, which does not take as much time to approve applications as Canada,” Stelmach said.

He also encouraged federal flexibility for 130 temporary workers in Slave Lake who lost their jobs when the fire burned many of the town’s businesses.

“We’re just asking the federal government to simply rewrite their visas,” Stelmach said. “There’s no sense sending people back to their respective countries when there are over 300 job postings in Slave Lake alone that cannot be filled today.”

The premiers also expressed concern about possible federal funding cuts to the National Police Service, a business line of the RCMP that provides services to over 500 Canadian law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.

They called for Ottawa to include the provinces and territories in an upcoming review of the agency.

The premiers also agreed that violence against aboriginal women and girls needs more attention. They’re telling their respective justice ministers to look at the root causes of such violence and provide a progress report by December.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said it’s been an issue that’s drawn attention in her province because of the cases missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

She also noted the ongoing investigation along the so-called Highway of Tears. Eighteen women have either been murdered or disappeared in recent years along Highway 16 in northern B.C.

“It is not just a British Columbia problem though. The violence that aboriginal women and girls face is a national problem in scope,” said Clark.

Clark said the premiers discussed increasing co-ordination between jurisdictions to better address the issue.

“If we can start with western Canada where … we’re blessed with a large aboriginal population, we can set an example, I think, for the rest of the country.”