Provincial, municipal and industry leaders met behind closed doors in Ottawa on Friday morning to discuss the flooding that hit a number of communities bordering the Ottawa River in and around the national capital this spring.
Friday’s meeting was organized by the provincial government, who announced earlier this month it had created a special task force on improving the province’s resilience to flooding that would consult with affected municipalities, including the City of Ottawa and communities in the Ottawa Valley.
Municipal and conservation authority officials said Friday’s meeting in the national capital was “a good first step” in understanding the impact of this spring’s floods and how to better protect communities, but they want to see the province involve a wider group of people in the process.
Sally McIntyre, general manager of the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, said officials at the meeting were told the flooding task force is an internal one, but she would like to see the province’s conservation authorities included moving forward.
“It’s very unclear to us at this time whether this is the full extent of their engagement with the public or if they’re going to allow the public further say,” she said.
“Right now they’ve basically said it’s very much staff who are going to participate, within the ministry, and that’s a very constrained perspective.”
Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, whose ward in rural west Ottawa was hard hit by high water levels, told reporters after the session he would like provincial officials and authorities to engage directly with affected residents.
“This is my biggest concern … having those meetings open to the public, open to my community so they can come in and hear the answers directly,” said El-Chantiry, who wasn’t initially invited to Friday’s meeting.
“Are you gonna buy their homes? Are you going to help them to raise their homes? How are you going to help the municipality to build the infrastructure to be able to stay where we are? I think there are so many questions and it’s not really in the city’s hands.”
Kanata-Carleton MPP Merrilee Fullerton, one of three Ottawa-area MPPs who attended Friday’s meeting, said the government’s next steps will be guided by a report from the internal task force, based on its consultations in Muskoka late last week, in Pembroke on Thursday and in Ottawa on Friday.
“We need to have all the facts and the evidence to be able to clearly communicate and avoid confusion,” Fullerton said after the meeting.
She said striking an external task force would “create a process whereby we can communicate with the public.”
Ottawa mayor pushes for public inquiry, buyout program
Fullerton said Friday’s meeting helped get everyone at the table “on the same page.” Three local mayors and representatives from the Ontario Power Generation and the Ottawa River Watershed Council were also present.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson described the exchange on Friday as “a very frank discussion” about the challenges that flooded communities have faced and said he pushed for an independent review of the dam system along the Ottawa River.
Ottawa city council voted unanimously on Wednesday to formally request an independent public inquiry or investigation by the provincial and federal governments into the cause of the 2017 and 2019 floods.
“There’s a lot of frustration by the public as to what’s actually gone wrong, or is there anything gone wrong, with the dam system. And I think to have an independent review of the whole process, that clears it up for everyone,” he said. “If there’s nothing to hide then, open up the books and let everyone see exactly what’s going on up there.”
Guy Desjardins, the mayor for Clarence-Rockland, said he also supports the idea of a public inquiry.
“Make it clear that (dam regulators) weren’t responsible, it was because of the amount of water,” he told reporters. “That way we’ll all know, because a lot of residents are asking questions. Let’s have some answers.”
Asked whether the province would consider such an investigation, Fullerton said “that would depend on … what the report shows from the internal task force.
“I think we’re open to ways to communicate clearly,” she told reporters.
Watson said he also asked the province to consider creating a buyout program to encourage residents to move out of floodplains and raised the financial strain that the flood response has placed on the city.
“We were quite firm and direct in our position that we need the help of the provincial government. The province plays an integral role and we’re willing partners with them,” he said.
The state of emergency Watson declared in Ottawa on April 25 remains in effect. On Wednesday, senior city staff said many affected residences remain without electricity and the 155 households that self-evacuated as flood levels rose earlier this month still haven’t returned home.
The city said Friday afternoon it will begin preliminary flood recovery operations over the weekend but urged residents to leave sandbag walls up.
“My hope is that (the provincial government) understand the severity of the problem and the strain on people’s lives and their livelihoods,” Watson said on Friday.