VANCOUVER – As wildfires burn uncontrollably across northern Alberta, government leaders in Western Canada are meeting to discuss pushing Ottawa to reverse historic funding cuts to disaster-mitigation programs.
The catastrophic fires that have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes around Fort McMurray, Alta., have thrust conversations around emergency management to the forefront of the agenda at this week’s annual Western Premiers’ Conference in Vancouver.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said natural disasters related to climate change, such as floods and fires, have increased in frequency, yet at the same time federal support for disaster mitigation has waned.
“The problem is getting worse,” Clark told reporters on Thursday, stressing the importance of preventative action.
“We need to come together as a country to recognize that these problems are more and more common. It’s not going to get easier and we’re all going to need to commit more financial resources.
“Prevention is the best form of cure.”
In-depth discussions around funding renewal have yet to take place with the federal government, Clark said, adding that it was important to make sure the western premiers were on the same page before approaching Ottawa.
The leaders of B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the three territories are in Vancouver to attend the meeting, which is scheduled to run until Friday.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley dropped out of the gathering to deal with the fires in her province, and instead sent Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman in her place.
None of the other leaders was available for comment on Thursday.
In a statement following their first day of meetings, the premiers said the federal government’s $200-million, five-year commitment to the National Disaster Mitigation Program falls short of what is needed.
The economy will also play a central role in conference conversations over the next two days, including reaching consensus between premiers on renewing the softwood lumber deal with the United States, Clark said.
“We want managed trade and we want it with no quotas. Those are the most important things for British Columbia so that we have certainty and we have fairness across the country,” she said.
She also commended the federal government and especially International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland for their efforts to move the ball forward with the United States on a softwood lumber agreement.
Expanding free trade is vital to the country’s overall success, whether within Canada or internationally, said Clark, before taking a poke at the rhetoric being tossed around during the U.S. Republican party’s presidential nomination race.
“We hear this discussion in the states happening where people are talking about building walls,” she said.
“Great American presidents never made their country or the world great because they were talking about building walls. They talked about taking down walls. And that’s what trade is all about. It’s taking down walls.”
Clark also spoke about bringing Manitoba into the New West Partnership, an interprovincial trade deal between B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In a statement, the premiers present for the meeting expressed their support for Fort McMurray and other northern communities affected by the devastating forest fires in Alberta.
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