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Ombudsperson report reveals need for change for B.C.’s emergency support programs

Click to play video: 'Ombudsperson report finds BC’s disaster response ‘outdated’'
Ombudsperson report finds BC’s disaster response ‘outdated’
WATCH: A new report from B.C.'s ombudsperson says the province's disaster response for evacuees is in desperate need of change. As Jayden Wasney reports, the ombudsperson is calling on the province to take immediate action – Oct 4, 2023

A new report from B.C.’s ombudsperson has revealed that the province’s emergency support programs for evacuees are ‘outdated, under resourced and inaccessible.’

The study was centred around the government’s response to the 2021 fires and floods that forced thousands of residents from their homes.

“We had some 500 people reply to our invitation, and they told us their stories,” said ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

“In addition, we obtained documents from the government, we spoke to experts, local governments, First Nations, many of them in the Interior where they had been affected.”

Click to play video: 'Hay River, N.W.T. wildfire evacuees won’t know when they can return until mid-September'
Hay River, N.W.T. wildfire evacuees won’t know when they can return until mid-September

In B.C., there are two main disaster relief programs in place — Emergency Support Services and Disaster Financial Assistance — both of which are designed to provide immediate support when people are evacuated from their homes, but Chalke says the programs are past their prime.

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“We heard about a mom who had a child with Type 1 diabetes, and she needed insulin. We heard about an elderly couple, one of whom was living with dementia and yet they had to spend over a day in their car,” said Chalke.

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“The program are really just not fit for purpose anymore when we have these much bigger evacuations.”

In August, thousands of properties in the Central Okanagan were put under an evacuation order. One woman at the evacuation centre in West Kelowna echoed similar concerns about the province’s disaster response, after being told to wait four days for supports to kick in.

“There needs to be more support, I don’t understand how the government is letting that slide,” said evacuee Nicole Queen.

Click to play video: '‘It’s like driving through a war zone,’ fire evacuees return home in the North Shuswap.'
‘It’s like driving through a war zone,’ fire evacuees return home in the North Shuswap.

“There’s 35,000 people evacuated, and to tell people to wait till Tuesday when half of us are sleeping in our cars is ridiculous.

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Chalke says if action isn’t taken soon, the situation will only worsen as natural disasters become more common.

“It’s really urgent,” said Chalke.

“We have to get on with this because climate experts say that as bad as this past summer of 2023 was, that it might be one of the best summers we ever have for the rest of our lives because climate change is continuing to bear down on us.”

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The report lists 20 recommendations regarding how the system can be improved.

  • Support community-led ESS with timely and effective surge support for large-scale disasters, integrated professional mental health care and a reliable communications hub for evacuees
  • Ensure reception centres are accessible, and supports are flexible and responsive to the needs of all evacuees
  • Develop a plan to support people experiencing long-term displacement and consult broadly in doing so
  • Support Indigenous self-determination in emergency management through capacity building, adequate funding and reporting on action taken
  • Identify ways to better communicate about DFA with people who have applied or who might need it
  • Ensure the DFA program has capacity to process applications and appeals in a timely way
  • Develop a policy and process to reassess

The Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness has accepted and committed to implementing all recommendations.

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“I am encouraged that the ministry has accepted these important recommendations. This is a welcome response to our report,” said Chalke.

“As the province’s emergency support programs evolve, my office will continue to provide oversight of government’s implementation of the recommendations to ensure British Columbians impacted by future weather events are treated fairly and equitably.”

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