Canada needs a new civilian force to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies as such events become more frequent and severe, the head of the Canadian Red Cross said Tuesday.
In an interview, CEO Conrad Sauvé compared Canada’s current approach to responding to emergencies to fighting a fire without any prior planning or preparation.
“We are trying to figure out who does what after the fire starts,” he said.
Right now, Sauvé says, “we’re not paying for the fire station.”
The result is that governments at all levels across Canada increasingly rely on the Red Cross and the military whenever a disaster or other emergency strikes, putting a strain on both.
It is in this vein that Sauvé is advocating for greater emergency preparedness as well as the creation of a dedicated civilian force that is ready to act as the volume and scale of emergencies hitting Canada continue to grow. .
“We need to build that spare capacity,” he said. “This civilian capability needs to be strengthened so that we have a deployable capability that is not military.”
Governments at all levels are increasingly turning to the Armed Forces for assistance after various disasters, most recently following Hurricane Fiona in Atlantic Canada where over 700 soldiers are currently deployed.
While the military is meant to be the force of last resort, such nationwide deployments have become commonplace as the number of emergencies continues to rise alongside the scale of the devastation.
The situation has reached such a point that the Chief of the Defense Staff, General Wayne Eyre, has expressed concern that the tension is affecting the readiness of the Armed Forces to defend Canada against attacks and to carry out missions abroad.
Sauvé said the COVID-19 pandemic has also demonstrated that the military is not always properly equipped to respond to certain emergencies. He specifically cited the deployment of troops to long-term care homes in 2020.
“It’s a blunt instrument not necessarily made for that,” he added of disaster response. “And they have very specialized equipment. I was on a panel with a Canadian general who said they used an attack helicopter to transfer hoses…into the fires in British Columbia.
Creating a dedicated emergency response force would not mean the end of military assistance, Sauvé added, nor should it be run by the Red Cross. He also highlighted the importance of building the capacities and capabilities of local communities.
The point, he said, “is clearly in the civilian role. The army has another role and (must) intervene as a last resort.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government is already taking action, with $150 million committed in May to the Red Cross and three other organizations to build their capacity to respond to humanitarian needs in Canada.
“We are committed to strengthening Canada’s humanitarian workforce and my mandate letter includes a commitment to strengthening Canada’s all-hazards approach to emergency management,” Blair said in a written statement.
“The importance of these organizations cannot be overstated. Every day, 24 hours a day, often at short notice, they bring relief and assistance to people who are going through the most difficult times in their lives.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 4, 2022.