Trudeau, Horgan announce joint fed-provincial committee on climate-change disaster response

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the joint news conference with B.C. premier John Horgan (not pictured) in Abbotsford on Nov. 26. | Government of B.C. photo

Ottawa and the B.C. provincial government have agreed to establish a joint committee of ministers dealing directly with disaster response and climate-change resiliency – including the ongoing response to the ongoing massive flooding in B.C.

The new committee was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. premier John Horgan Friday evening – after the former visited the sites of B.C.’s recent rainstorm-induced flooding, mudslides and washouts earlier today.

“We need to rebuild more resilient infrastructure that’s going to be able to handle 100-year storms every few years, because that seems to be the pattern we are on,” Trudeau said at a joint press conference with Horgan from Abbotsford. “It’s going to be expensive, but it would be far more expensive to do less or not to do enough.”

Ottawa so far has sent about 500 members of the Canadian armed forces to help with disaster relief in southwestern B.C., adding about $4.5 million in funding to relief First Nations communities and $4.1 million to support the Port of Vancouver’s container traffic bottleneck caused by the rail and road washouts.

“Everywhere across the country, extreme weather events are going to become more frequent,” Trudeau said. “And the fight against climate change remains extraordinarily important, but the fight to build a better future – resilient infrastructure – in ways that are going to require our governments... to work together, always tighter and better, is going to be really important.”

Trudeau and Horgan also promised the federal and provincial governments will match any Canadian donation to the Red cross – tripling the effect of any private donation made towards disaster relief in the ongoing B.C. weather crisis.

In his comments, Horgan said he has received many calls from other premiers and federal officials from across Canada because the disruptions to the Port of Vancouver – Canada’s busiest port and its prime gateway to the Asia-Pacific – affected everyone’s ability to deliver and receive goods, maintain quality of life and generate business activity.

The atmospheric river rainstorm Nov. 13-15 created massive flooding in the region unseen in decades, shutting down not only the CN and CP rail lines linking Vancouver to the rest of Canada, but also every highway link serving the same purpose – the Coquihalla (Highway 5), Highway 1, Highway 3 and Highway 99. That’s something that – unfortunately, like many climate events in B.C. this year – that has never been seen before, Horgan said.

“I think it’s important for Canadians to understand that the resilient community of Merritt was facing drought conditions in May, wildfire conditions in June and July, and now flood conditions in the fall,” Horgan noted. “It’s unprecedented to be evacuated at one time of the year due to wildfires and smoke, and then in another time in the same year – just months later – because of flooding.”

In addition, Horgan mentioned that the province and Ottawa are now discussing taking over the responsibility of diking the Fraser River from municipal governments, since there is now the urgency to build flood-prevention infrastructure that’s more resilient to the degree of rainfall seen in the era of climate change.

“One of the issues previous governments have done is to devolve the responsibility of diking to municipalities,” Horgan said. “The intent there was to give local control and autonomy, and I support that in principle. But the consequence of that is, the local ratepayers have had to take on an extraordinary burden that were historically handled by the other two orders of government.” 

Both Trudeau and Horgan also noted that the newly formed committee will be engaging the United States more than ever on joint solutions for fighting these type of cross-border disasters. One of the main contributors of flooding in the Fraser Valley was the overflow from the Nooksack River – which runs its entire length within Washington State but, once breached on its north bank, sends most of its excess floodwater towards Sumas Prairie.

And Horgan emphasized that these conversations will start right away – since there is no guarantee that the most recent flooding will be the last seen by B.C. this year.

“My message to British Columbians is, we have more storms ahead of us,” he said. “It’s only November. There are challenging months and days ahead of us, and we need to protect each other. We need to be prepared.”

Environment Canada has already issued a “red alert” this weekend for much of southwestern B.C. as more rainstorms are expected.