The long-awaited update to the Emergency Program Act (EPA) was finally introduced to the British Columbia Legislature.
While there are many of the recommendations from reports over the past twenty years in the new legislation, the BC NDP continues to use enabling legislation to achieve their ends. This means that rather than legislating many of the changes, the new Act outlines the powers of the Minister to provide the detail in regulations which is a process that comes after the Bill is passed, and importantly, without the scrutiny of legislators. This makes it difficult to understand much more than the intent of government.
This new legislation defines the powers of the Minister and the responsibilities of local and Indigenous governments in emergency and disaster planning, mitigation, response, and recovery. How the various governing entities and their service providers relate to each other, remains to be seen. How the new responsibilities and programs are paid for remains to be clearly understood. In the end, this could be an expensive download on local and Indigenous governments with no new resources to fund the work.
In my response, I broadly outline the content of the Bill and place markers on areas that need further information that will hopefully be available from the Minister in the committee stage of the process where we look at each clause.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to Bill 31, the Emergency and Disaster Management Act, here at second reading. It’s important, I think, just to acknowledge the social disruption, the disruption on people and communities that occurred this summer as we experienced the biggest fire season — it used to be called summer — in the history of the province.
That would be enough, except for the fact that we’ve experienced out of the last five years…. I think four years of the last five top that list. We’re seeing the disruption and the impact on people’s lives happening more frequently, and we’re seeing that impact happen to a level that we have not experienced before in our province. As someone who’s been around this place for a little while now, when those disruptions happen, we and the members here feel those disruptions in a fairly unique way. We hear those stories from our constituents and the experiences that they have firsthand.
We are not on the front line, in this case, of fires or during the atmospheric rivers of floods. We’re on the front lines of the work that we do with our constituents to understand the impact that these disasters are having on people and on their communities. It’s our job to articulate that impact to the government, to the minister, to those delivering the services, to, in this case, the wildfire response. It can get pretty tough to be representing communities that are under emergency orders or to be representing communities that are experiencing this level of disruption.
I think that it’s important, first, to acknowledge all of the British Columbians across our province that have gone through the experience of intense smoke, intense fire, that have lost their property, that have lost their livelihoods, that have lost all of those important things that people accumulate and that have special memories, good feelings that are in those items. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge that, the impact that this past summer has had on many, many hundreds, thousands of British Columbians. It’s, I think, important to acknowledge our colleagues here who represent communities that have faced that disruption.
There’s this perception that when this Legislature adjourns for the summer, that the MLA’s go on the barbecue tour. While that might happen to some extent, I think it’s important to recognize that when MLAs leave this place, when we adjourn, that we have a whole other part of the work that we do.
I could not imagine that I was sitting as one of those privileged MLAs from Vancouver Island. Thankfully, we were left untouched from the disasters, the fire disasters that we felt this summer, we saw this summer — to be thinking of my colleagues who were right in the middle of it and whose communities were being impacted and the representation that they did on behalf of their constituents, so to acknowledge them, as well, and to acknowledge the work of the minister, who communicated and who was very much put to work this entire summer season being the voice and the face of the government’s response in some very, very technically challenging areas of the province and under an incredible amount of pressure to be able to deliver the best outcomes on behalf of British Columbians.
In those situations, we’re always going to be able to identify mixed results. Part of the work that we do here is to be able to bring that information back to the minister and to the ministry and hope that the response from a policy perspective is that we’re improving our policy, improving our systems, improving our infrastructure, improving our response.
It’s at those moments where the partisan differences in this place melt away, and we become truly colleagues operating in the same House to protect the greater house of British Columbia, the people of British Columbia as best we can.
I appreciate the vulnerability, the honesty and the forthrightness with which Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, I think it is, did her work this summer. So I raise my hands to her for being that this summer and being there for British Columbians this summer.
Bill 31 repeals and replaces the Emergency Program Act, EPA. It was last updated in 1993, a long time ago, and much has changed since then, including the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen unprecedented floods, wildfires, heat domes.
At least the latter, we didn’t even know existed. We didn’t know about atmospheric rivers before the first atmospheric river. We didn’t know about heat domes. Part of the framing of it…. We didn’t know it in that language. We knew that they existed, but British Columbians didn’t really understand the impact that those have on communities and on people.
But we’ve been introduced to those concepts and to the severity, that when it gets really hot, oppressively hot for a long period of time, that’s a heat dome. This legislation was promised a couple of years ago, and I know that it’s been worked on by government over that time. It’s not an easy change. These changes are not easy to make. It’s all-encompassing, and the government needs to be very thorough when you’re constructing a new emergency and disaster management act. This Bill 31 that we’re going to be debating over the coming weeks, that we’re debating here in second reading, but where we really start to understand the bill will be in committee stage for this particular bill.
We continue to see the government using enabling legislation and a lot of the details left out of the actual legislation that’s in front of us. And so the best chance that we have as opposition members to understand what the bill is in front of us and what the intention of the minister and the ministry is in the forthcoming regulations comes at the committee stage where we have an opportunity to ask questions.
Our staff have prepared a large number of questions for us to try to get to a deeper understanding of how some of the ideas that are expressed in this legislation, in Bill 31 here, how they work, how they are implemented, how they are executed on the ground. How British Columbians are informed about the changes. How British Columbians understand their role going forward.
This summer, some of the more challenging aspects of the current framework were British Columbians wanting to be there in support, British Columbians wanting to be a part of the solution, and an ever-evolving culture that we have that excludes people. In some cases, for good reason, and in other cases left me curious as to why it was that community members could not be involved in the protection of their communities.
Bill 31 incorporates lessons learned from recent disasters, the Abbott-Chapman report 2018, and it implements the Sendai framework and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It recognizes the self-governing authority of First Nations when it comes to preparing for and responding to natural disasters by creating individual agreements between the province and First Nations to coordinate the jurisdictional authority and emergency management, including prevention, response and recovery.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that this bill accounts for all four phases of emergency management. I just outlined them: mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. That comes from the Sendai framework and streamlines and clarifies the powers and duties of the minister, the provincial emergency management organization, ministries, public sector agencies, local authorities. It broadens the definition of emergency to include security threats, for example terrorism, transmissible diseases, something that we’ve become quite familiar with over the last few years, and environmental toxins.
It also expands the definition to be updated to include the impacts to cultural sites. We’ve seen this summer and the previous summers, whether it be by flood or by fire, the devastating impact that those have on sacred sites for Indigenous people right across the province.
So part of this program that is being put forward here in this bill is the new responsibility for communities to create thorough risk assessments. Now, there’s some of this that happens, and I don’t want to suggest that there are no risk assessments that are going on in our communities, but I think that it is important to understand that that responsibility is changing and that there is a responsibility for the local, provincial and Indigenous governments to develop these plans and to coordinate the efforts of these plans on the ground locally and in an agreement locally and that the role of climate change will also need to be a consideration in these risk assessments and an important evolution of it.
The risk assessments must, among other things, identify all hazards and evaluate the degree or risk related to each hazard as well as the potential consequences on a variety of different interests — people, animals, places and others who might be disproportionately impacted by disasters and emergencies. Emergency response plans will be there to address the four phases of the emergency management — preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery — and will be based on the completed risk assessments. There will also be a requirement for business continuity plans to ensure that the business of local government can continue to function and that those services that British Columbians need from their local governments can continue to be delivered during that time of emergency.
There’s also a new and emergent aspect of this that didn’t exist before, and that is the involvement of local Indigenous governing bodies and Indigenous people within this consultation and cooperation that is consistent with the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. But this is one of those areas where I am going to have many questions, I think, because I think that it’s important to acknowledge that while there is consent required from some First Nations, there is only a level of consultation and cooperation — or a consideration, which is a word that frustrates me to no end because it means that all of the work can be done, and the minister can dispense their duty by considering and then moving on.
We have a great deal of effort, a great deal of energy invested and expended on Indigenous governing bodies coming to the table with their information, coming to the table with their recommendations, coming to the table with their interests and their rights. And the minister or the ministry or some statutory decision–maker considers them and then goes right along with whatever it is that the government had already decided.
We live in a in a changing world, and I think that it’s important that our laws and our legislation reflect that changing world that we’re living in. As I said, it’s been since 1993 that a major renovation has been done to this legislation. I think that there is going to be….
Rather than going into too much detail here on each of the areas of questions that I’m going to be asking, I think it is important for us to leave as much time as possible for that committee stage. Because actually, what is written in the law here that we’re looking at in front of us isn’t necessarily exactly how it’s going to play out on the ground. And I think part of the challenge that we’ve had as we’ve analyzed this bill is understanding and being able to see how it takes shape on the landscape; how it changes the relationship between the provincial government, local governments and First Nations; where the money is coming from in order to do this.
How much of the ministry powers are retained, and how much of those powers become municipal responsibilities that are then unfunded, like we see this institution do willingly for local governments? How much of the responsibility or the power that the minister has turns into a responsibility for First Nations, Indigenous governing bodies to be volunteering and donating their time to the provincial government in the development of their plans, in the development of all that work, only to maybe not be even adopted, for it to be considered and then for everybody to move on as if it never happened.
So it’s important that we understand exactly how those relationships evolve, how those relationships play out on the ground. It’s important, I think, for local governments to understand, as they’re going to be responsible for implementing a lot of the disaster management. How much are they going to have to shoulder of the cost and the expenses of this important work?
How often are the risk assessments? How often are the business continuity plans, the comprehensive management plans going to be updated and reviewed? What’s that process? How does…? Doing it once — that’s fine. But as I just said, times change. Things on the ground evolve. Nature evolves. How often are those going to have to be done?
I think the response from the minister about why it is that so much of this was brought forward, but yet so much of it is going to be left to regulation…. So much of it is going to be left outside this legislative process. Yet another situation where the government says: “Just trust us. We will. Just trust us. We will.”
I’d love to get to a point where, when the government says, “Just trust us. We will,” I could say: “Absolutely. No problem.” But unfortunately, I’m not there right now. I haven’t arrived at that spot. I feel that when we are taking a framework that has existed since 1993, and we’re replacing it…. Now, this is not an amending bill. This is replacing the system that we have. I think that the government replacing it owes it to British Columbians to put the details. I think that’s where the committee stage of this bill is going to be so important, where the minister has the opportunity to provide clarity.
If the minister can’t provide the specific clarity about the exact regulation, then hopefully the minister will come prepared to be able to provide a broad sketch, an understanding of where the direction is, what we can expect to see. The more detail that we have, the better. The more detail we have, the easier it will be for British Columbians to understand what their responsibilities are in the success of this.
Finally, I think that it’s important to recognize that when we take a look at this bill, it’s difficult to understand what role fire departments…. Like, some of the specific, really important service delivery operators — what role do they play in this at this stage? I understand that partly, it’s going to be developed from risk assessments. It’s going to be developed by these continuity plans. But the reality is that I think people are going to look at this legislation and say: where do we fit in this? Where does nature fit in this? Where does our relationship with nature fit? Where do…?
We heard this summer about the way that we are harvesting trees — harvesting our forests, for an example — and how we are replanting those landscapes and making sure that the landscapes that are being planted are fire resistant. How are the different ministries within government coordinating? How is the Minister of Forests involved in this? How is the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship involved in this? Does the Minister of Indigenous Relations have any responsibilities in this?
I think that there needs to be clarity found within the roles and the policies that other ministries are drafting about landscape management plans, about biodiversity plans that the minister of walrus, as we call it — the work that they’re doing…. I think that some of that clarity…. I’m hoping that the minister comes to that committee stage debate prepared to elevate it.
With that, I just want to acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of work that’s been done to get the bill here, to this stage. I really hope that as we get out towards the end of this autumn session that British Columbians are able to look at the legislation that we have. I feel pretty certain that this bill is going to pass at the end of the session.
I just have a feeling that it’s going to be supported, but what I hope is that when that bill is supported, the people that are watching this and the people that are paying attention are able to say we have a more fulsome understanding of what it is, the law that is going to be guiding emergency and disaster management in our province, how it’s going to look and how it’s going to be, because right now, we’re really feeling that we’re challenged to be able to clearly identify some key areas of this that the government has known about since 2003 and that they have known about since the Abbott-Chapman report in 2018.
We see elements of it. We see elements of the relationship with Indigenous governing bodies that I think we like. However, I think the detail is still lacking, and we’re hoping that that starts to crystallize and becomes more available for British Columbians going forward.
With that, I appreciate this opportunity to speak to this bill, and I’ll take my seat.