Last week ,I stood up in the Legislative Assembly to speak to a new bill that was introduced in the house. It was Bill 31 and is called the Emergency and Disaster Management Act.
I used the experiences of the residents of Kelowna and West Kelowna to give context. This summer's wildfires in the Okanagan were heart-wrenching. From my patio, I watched as fires descended from the mountain (on the west side of Okanagan lake) and embers ignited across the lake. The chaos that followed is something many of us experienced firsthand.
Our fire departments, with leaders like (West Kelowna’s chief) Jason Brolund, (Kelowna chief) Travis Whiting, (Lake Country chief) Darren Lee and (Wilson’s Landing chief) Paul Zydowicz, did outstanding work. B.C. Wildfire's firefighters, our mayors, fire chiefs,and the regional district under Chairman Loyal Wooldridge and CEO Sally Ginter were all exceptional. But while their coordination was impressive, mistakes were made, particularly in how people were treated during the evacuations.
I went to the Emergency Support Services (ESS) Centre at Royal Lepage Place (in West Kelowna). Many evacuees shared with me their frustrations—some on their third or fourth visit—searching for help and answers. The repeated visits showcased a system overwhelmed and faltering.
The NDP's response to those disasters has shown clear inefficiencies.
As a local MLA, I've advocated for change. When the emergency management minister confirmed reimbursements weren't standard, I was shocked. Many people who paid for their emergency accommodations struggled with the unexpected financial burden.
The current Emergency Program Act, which this bill aims to replace, hasn't seen a significant updates in years. With our wildfire seasons becoming increasingly severe and other climate-related disasters on the rise, it's evident our province needs a more modern approach to managing these emergencies.
But the new bill falls short. It doesn’t address some of the major downfalls of our emergency response, like emergency support services or the Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) program.
They were recently noted as completely inadequate in a report by B.C.’s Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.
While his report was written based on the 2021 fire and flood season, the same issues were part of our Okanagan Valley story this last year, which meansthe government hasn’t improved over the last two years.
The Ombudsperson’s report highlighted the inadequacies in the emergency support system. It showed how certain groups, such as Indigenous people, elderly individuals and those with disabilities, faced unfair barriers when trying to access emergency supports.
Bill 31, which was promised in 2020 by the government, has only been introduced now, three years later. Despite the glaring issues from previous years, this bill does not seem to provide the solutions our community so desperately needs. The DFA program, especially, requires a complete overhaul, but the government seems to be dragging its feet.
However, I am pleased about one aspect of the legislation—the inclusion of agreements with Indigenous governing bodies. The change signifies a step towards recognizing Indigenous peoples' rights in emergency management and valuing their unique knowledge and experiences.
This was one aspect of this last summer that went exceptionally well. Local first nations were all at the table.
Despite the inadequacies, we also see the full benefit of this bill won't be seen for another two years. The government's website states implementation will begin "in late 2023 and through 2025." That timeline is too long. Our community needs solutions now.
While BC United is putting forth a comprehensive plan for wildfire management and disaster response, the government’s current approach is falling short. The fire seasons in 2017, 2018, 2021, and 2023 were devastating and we can't wait any longer for effective action.
The BC United caucus (then the B.C. Liberal Party) had a bill ready in 2017 that addressed all of these issues and it could have been used by government. It was again submitted a Private Members’ Bill last year and addressed inadequacies of the DFA model, even before seeing the Ombudsperson’s report.
There are great ideas of how to modify this bill, but it doesn’t seem like government is interested.
It doesn’t change the fact that those of us who experience fire seasons almost on a regular basis, need action now.
My question to you is this:
What would you add to the supports in emergencies and disasters for British Columbians?
I love hearing from you and read every email. Please email me at [email protected] or call the office at 250-712-3620.
Renee Merrifield is the BC United MLA for Kelowna-Mission.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.