As Wildfires Rage, Trudeau Says Feds Looking at Creating National Disaster Response Agency

As Wildfires Rage, Trudeau Says Feds Looking at Creating National Disaster Response Agency
A woman walks her dog along the Ottawa River in Ottawa as smoke from wildfires obscures Gatineau, Que., in the distance on June 6, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Matthew Horwood

As wildfire smoke continues to blanket much of eastern Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is looking at creating a new national disaster response agency to deal with extreme weather events.

“We need to continue to make sure we are doing everything possible to both keep Canadians safe when these extreme weather events hit, but also make sure we’re doing everything we can to predict, protect and act ahead of more of these events coming,” Trudeau told reporters when asked about creating a new agency on June 7.

“We continue to discuss and look at new mechanisms and new ways of doing that.”

During an update on the wildfires, federal officials noted that a total of 3.8 million hectares of forest have burned, 414 wildfires are currently burning—239 of which are “out of control”—and, an estimated 20,183 people remain evacuated from their homes.

Much of Ontario has also been blanketed by smoke from wildfires in Quebec, leading Environment Canada to warn of “high levels of air pollution” in cities like Toronto, Ottawa, and Kingston.

Discussions around a new approach to natural disasters are currently underway, with Ottawa examining the idea of putting together a Canadian version of the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was created in 1979 to prepare for, prevent, and respond to events like terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Trudeau said despite the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre receiving many improvements and funding increases since its inception in 1982, there is a need to “continue to adjust and adapt to what we’re doing.”

The prime minister said an increase in floods, wildfires, and hurricanes means the federal government will need to “step up” to support Canadians.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said the primary response to events like wildfires and floods is coordinated by the provinces and territories working alongside Public Safety Canada’s Government Operations Centre. In cases where provinces face events that exceed their capacity to respond—which Blair said has happened three times in 2023—the federal government will provide additional resources, including help from the Canadian Armed Forces.

Blair said the wildfires were forcing the federal government to be “very agile” in the way they respond to weather events and deploy resources.

“We also learned from these events that if there was an opportunity to be more agile, more adept, more responsive to the needs of communities right across Canada, we were going to find ways to do it.”’

With files from the Canadian Press