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B.C. adopts new definition of emergency in the face of a changing world

Expanded legislation recognizes climate change, First Nations’ rights around emergency management
Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma said the new Emergency and Disaster Management Act tabled Tuesday recognizes all phases of emergency management. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Provincial legislation introduced last week significantly expands the definition of an emergency, recognizes climate change, and grants First Nations additional recognition and say in emergency management.

But Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma also faced questions about the practicalities of the Emergency and Disaster Management Act and a new report critical of her government’s approach to emergency support.

“We know from our experience this summer that climate change is upon us,” Ma said at a news conference. “We are seeing emergencies as a result of extreme weather events far more frequently with greater duration, greater intensity, happening closer together and it is no longer good enough for us to be only focused on response and then recovery. We must also be better at being proactive at preparing for and mitigating the impacts of disasters before they happen.”

The new legislation — which Ma hopes will pass this fall session before becoming effective in phases — replaces the Emergency Program Act, which has not undergone significant revisions since 1993. Ma said the new legislation better recognizes all four phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

The new legislation’s broader scope rings through in its definition of an emergency.

Whereas the old legislation defines emergency as a “present or imminent event or circumstance” caused by “accident, fire, explosion, technical failure or the forces of nature,” the new legislation expands the definition to include any “occurred, on-going or appears imminent” event caused by “accident, fire, explosions, technical failure, rioting, security threat, terrorist activity (as defined by Criminal Code), force of nature or a prescribed type of incident.”

The definition also includes the “presence, suspected presence or imminent spread of a transmissible disease or an environmental toxin.”

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Ma said the landscape has changed, adding that the War Measures Act of the early 20th century informed the old emergency legislation.”During the (COVID-19) pandemic, we recognized some of the gaps in our emergency management framework — no mention of pandemic, no mention of terrorist acts. Those things were not included and not clear (and) we don’t want to work those kind of things out in court.”

The old legislation also fails to recognize climate change, she said.

The new legislation also recognizes the existence of Indigenous People and the “inherent rights and jurisdictions of First Nations and Indigenous Peoples in decision-making around emergency management” with Ma calling the legislation an “enormous step forward in aligning” emergency management with UNDRIP.

Ma said the legislation will allow First Nations to strike agreements with the provincial government under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act as well as more specific coordination agreements.

“That is where a First Nation can enter into an agreement with…the ministry on the coordination and exercise of emergency powers,” she said. “These coordination agreements are a way for us to establish ahead of time who is going to be doing what in what area and some of the agreements may come to a place where I as a minister on behalf of government actually withhold the exercise of certain emergency orders and emergency powers within certain geographic areas.”

These agreements also allow for other powers, she added.

RELATED: B.C. Chamber CEO calls for urgent reforms to disaster assistance programs

Ma acknowledged that coordinating with B.C.’s 200-plus First Nations poses complexities. “But what we know is, the more work we can do in advance to work with First Nations, to develop the relationships that local governments and regional districts need with First Nations and their territory, to understand what is important to them, understand communication protocols…the better off we will during an emergency,” she said. “In the absence of that requirement to consult and cooperate, we end up with conflicts in real-time anyway.”

Ma presented the updated legislation on the same day that Ombudsperson Jay Chalke presented a report critical of provincial emergency support programs. The report looked at emergency support services providing short term financial support for basic needs like food and accommodation for the first 72 hours after a disaster and the disaster financial assistance program providing help to people who are under-insured or uninsured for specific events such as the 2021 atmospheric river.

“We have an under-resourced system in place that isn’t meeting the needs of people, many of whom are in the most significant crisis they have ever experienced,” said Chalke. “The complexity of delivering services during large-scale events exceeds the current capacity of most communities, most of which still rely on volunteers and many using paper-based record keeping.

Chalke said the province needs to modernize these two programs and give them additional resources ensure people are treated fairly and equitably during extreme weather events.

While the Chalke’s report based on the 2021 disaster season is “very valuable,” the recommendations are not surprising, Ma said.

She added her ministry has already been working on solutions to many of raised problems, adding a lot of changes have already taken place.

“But there is more to do,” she said, adding that Premier David Eby’s task force will draw additional lessons from the 2023 wildfires.

RELATED: B.C. launches task force to deal with climate emergencies

The provincial government Tuesday announced the 14 members sitting on the task force. They include several First Nations leader, including Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, Dan Derby, Fire Chiefs Association of BC President and Thom Porter, former director, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Other members represent the Premier’s Office, the emergency and forests ministries as well as municipal and regional staff.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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