A former army commander says Canada is behind its allies in not having a dedicated agency that can deploy personnel to disasters nationwide.
Retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie told CBC News the lack of a national rapid response force to help with wildfires, floods, evacuations and other emergencies is putting citizens’ lives at risk.
In an exclusive interview with CBC News on Thursday, he said a dedicated national force is needed urgently, and could be “built into” or “adjunct to” the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) — but only if it comes with increased funding and doesn’t further strain the country’s already-stretched troops.
“The impact of climate change is irrefutable — it poses dangers to us all,” Leslie said. “What has current government done to prepare for what they knew was coming?
“The answer is nothing. They continue to go to the armed forces and allocate troops and resources in penny packets, in dribs and drabs, more for the political optics.”
A federal emergencies ministry spokesperson told CBC News there are multiple ways Ottawa is preparing for future natural disasters, including $700 million spent on wildfire management, where the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre — which co-ordinates mutual aid between provinces and territories — is key.
Ottawa says it is also pumping millions into training, equipment and planning, plus plans to update its Federal Emergency Response Plan. Defence Minister Bill Blair said he’ll continue deploying the CAF when needed, calling Ottawa’s commitment to national security and increased military funding “ironclad.”
“While the primary responsibility for response to natural disasters rests with provinces and territories, Canadians can expect to see the military continue to respond to emergencies when the capacity of provinces and territories is overwhelmed,” Blair said in a statement.
This summer has seen the CAF deployed to multiple natural disasters at the request of provinces, which are ultimately responsible for emergency management and natural disasters. These include Quebec, Alberta and now — until at least Sept. 15 — in B.C.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Air Force helped the unprecedented evacuation of Northwest Territories residents. Previously, soldiers were essential in the wake of catastrophic floods in B.C.’s Lower Mainland after an atmospheric river in 2021.
Scientists agree such natural disasters are becoming more devastating and more frequent as a direct result of a warming climate.
“In Europe, it’s hard to find a significant country … which doesn’t have a standalone emergency response force,” Leslie said. “Do you have it as standalone, per se, or do you nest it within the armed forces so they can leverage heavy equipment to transport their stuff?
“We already have military infrastructure bases spread across our country; we already have [CAF] transportation hubs which are well established.”
‘Broadening it beyond fire is appropriate’
Mike Flannigan, the B.C. innovation research chair in predictive services, emergency management and fire science, has called repeatedly for a dedicated national wildfire response force.
He sees several options for what authority might oversee such an agency, but the armed forces have an obvious appeal — especially if they can gain specialized training, and respond to multiple types of climate disasters quickly.
Another option is to emulate the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but with a greater emphasis on prevention and mitigation before disaster strikes.
“Using the military as a special branch with appropriate training, and being able to address the emergencies before, during and after … should be explored,” the wildfire science professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., told CBC News.
“And broadening it beyond fire is appropriate, like a FEMA organization.”
Military already ‘under-equipped and under-resourced’
But continuing to send in the CAF for the growing number of disasters would have some major drawbacks, several military experts warned.
Already, experts say, the country’s military is severely underfunded, and struggling to maintain operational readiness — let alone coming close to Canada’s NATO obligation to invest two per cent of its Gross Domestic Product into its armed forces. According to NATO, Canada currently falls $20 billion short a year of that pledge.
“In a democracy, I think we need to be careful with the use of armed forces,” said Christian Leuprecht, professor at Royal Military College and at Queen’s University. “This is an organization set apart for special purpose … whose ultimate purpose is the application of the use of force.
“It’s probably not your optimal first-responder organization.”
He said Canada’s overseas commitments — including thousands of troops in Russian neighbour Latvia, and training and supplying Ukraine — combined with multiple domestic deployments this year alone have pushed the CAF to the “breaking point.”
“It is seriously imperilling the organization from operating,” Leuprecht said. “The armed forces have become the easy button for government … every time somebody cries for help.
“People always have the impression if there’s no war to fight, the military just kind of sits around, but quite the opposite is true. This is an organization that is massively overstretched because it’s under-equipped, and under-resourced, for what it is being asked to do by politicians.”
‘Proud of the work the armed forces does’
That concern is shared by the former lieutenant-general. As tensions with Russia and China escalate, Leslie said, domestic disaster relief must not be allowed to further stretch an underfunded military.
“They’re called upon by the government because they have nowhere else to go to provide essentially brute force,” Leslie said.
But, he asked, is soldiers filling sandbags during floods, felling trees to create wildfire breaks, and going door-to-door during ice storms going to actually mitigate the worst to come with climate change?
“Those tasks could actually be done by almost anybody,” he said, adding what is needed is a full-time, highly trained specialized force — one with as much a focus on prevention as it is on disaster relief.
“I’m very proud of the work the armed forces does … they respond at the drop of a hat,” he said. “We desperately need a focus on emergency and disaster preparedness.
“Stop talking about climate change and actually start doing something to help Canadians faced literally with threats to their lives, certainly their homes, and most certainly their livelihood.”