It’s a ‘failure of leadership’: Calls for changes to Canada’s climate change funding model

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WATCH ABOVE: Ralph Goodale 'surprised' Disaster Mitigation Fund hasn't been used more for flood mapping – Apr 26, 2019

Municipalities, insurers and academics are calling on the federal government to change the way it funds climate change disaster prevention.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government launched the $2 billion Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) in May 2018.

A flagship federal project, the fund provides matching dollars to provinces and territories, municipalities and other organizations for projects meant to help ward off climate change disasters – such as flooding and wildfires.

But there’s a catch. In order to qualify for funding, projects must have a price tag of at least $20 million and local communities must kick in between 50 and 60 per cent of the cost – or 25 per cent in the case of projects in the territories.

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The government says this is because the fund is meant for “large-scale” projects, but climate change experts and insurers think the program shouldn’t be limited to big projects only.

The minimum “threshold” to receive federal funds also has some communities feeling left out and has spurred calls for the government to change the program rules so that smaller communities and smaller projects may qualify.

“Municipalities don’t have $10 million in their back pocket to meet the federal government’s contribution,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who researches ways to reduce the economic impacts from extreme weather and climate change.

“You’re asking a lot of these municipalities, which all operate on shoestring budgets,” he said.

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According to Thistlethwaite, another problem with the fund is that it’s complicated. With limited financial means and expertise, smaller municipalities and communities do not always have the resources needed to undertake the lengthy and sometimes costly process of asking for money, he said.

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Craig Stewart, who runs government relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), agrees with Thistlethwaite.

“IBC has been concerned about the $20 million threshold for a while,” he said. “It excludes smaller communities in smaller jurisdictions where they simply cannot come up with the matching funds.”

Program should double in size

Thistlethwaite and Stewart aren’t the only ones concerned about this program.

Vicki-May Hamm, mayor of Magog, Que., and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), told Global News the minimum threshold for applying for funds is too high.

She says small- to medium-sized communities across Canada – which make up the majority of the FCM – cannot access funding through DMAF because their projects are either too small or because they do not have enough cash to meet the minimum buy-in.

This, she said, creates an unfair bias in favour of larger cities and towns over smaller rural communities.

Not being able to access this money also leads to communities, such as Magog, either going it alone when building climate change-related infrastructure or seeking funding elsewhere, she said.

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“We do have smaller projects that are like $500,000 or $1-million projects and we’re doing them anyway because we have to protect our citizens,” she said.

“Right now, we plan in phases,” she said. “Because we don’t have any help.”

Hamm pointed to a project Magog undertook following historic flooding in 2013, that forced hundreds of residents from their homes as an example of the type of work that should — but currently doesn’t — qualify for funding under DMAF. She said her community spent $200,000 stabilizing the local riverbank and reprofiling two streams to prevent future flooding.

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Earlier this year, the FCM recommended that the federal government double DMAF’s size by giving it a $2-billion top-up. They also asked the feds to “reevaluate” the program’s eligibility criteria so that communities of all sizes could “access critical funding and support.”

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The recommendations were not accepted – and Hamm thinks she knows why.

As more Canadians read about and live the real-world consequences of climate change – and with a federal election just months away – preparing for and preventing destruction from floods and wildfires has become a major political issue, she said.

“We have something that would probably just have to be in an election platform,” she said.

Meanwhile, infrastructure Canada, which manages DMAF, said the program was intended to fund large-scale projects and that to date, it has handed out more than $1 billion in assistance to 29 different projects.

Some of the projects funded include:

  • $247.5 million for flood management infrastructure for Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin
  • $37 million for Toronto’s midtown relief storm sewer
  • $22 million for Mill Creek flood mitigation in Kelowna, B.C.
  • $29 million for flooding prevention in Yellowknife

The government also said smaller climate change related projects may qualify for funding through other federal programs.

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“It is important to note the projects that were not eligible under DMAF, including those with smaller funding thresholds, can be eligible for funding under the Investing in Canada Plan,” said government spokesperson Lama Khodr.

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According to Khodr, eligible projects can receive up to 55 per cent of total funding through this $33-billion program. She also said smaller communities may be eligible for infrastructure funding through the federal Gas Tax Fund, which received a $2.2 billion top-up this year.

But according to the IBC, this method of funding is flawed because smaller, climate change-related projects will “get lost in the larger bucket” of applications submitted to the general infrastructure program meant to fund everything from smart cities to transportation projects.

Community left wanting

Ralph Gillis is the interim-chief administrative officer for the District of Stewart, a community of about 500 people in a remote part of northwestern British Columbia.

While he acknowledges the community has received funding from the federal government and province in the past, he’s worried that without more help, residents of Stewart could soon find themselves cleaning up from floodwaters if the glacier-fed Bear River continues to rise.

Gillis says recent years have seen higher-than-normal water levels and larger deposits of sediment (gravel) along the riverbed. This, he says, has increased the risk of flooding. He also said the town can only remove about 10 per cent of the gravel it needs to excavate from the riverbed each year to keep the river flowing properly.

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“We really do need assistance,” Gillis said. “We need some plan put in place to make sure the river is flowing nicely as opposed to hitting our dyke and one year exceeding it.”

Because Stewart does not qualify for the DMAF, municipal staff had to apply for funding to rebuild their dyke through the federal government’s National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) in August 2018.

Aerial view of Stewart, British Columbia. District of Stewart website

The money – roughly $1.5 million in federal funds – would have been used to fortify the town’s dyke and to help prevent erosion of the riverbank, which Gillis says has threatened the community’s wastewater treatment plant in the past.

But Emergency Management BC, which administers the program in the province, said the project did not meet the fund’s minimum technical requirements and was not different enough from an earlier project the community received funding for. As a result, the money was denied.

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Gillis, however, says the money is badly needed. So the town has hired a consultant to create a new, more detailed plan with the hope someone will be able to provide the funding.

Meanwhile, Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, told Global News the NDMP has accepted its final applications, adding that the program will expire in March 2020.

Still, he says the Liberal government has pursued a comprehensive approach to protecting neighbourhoods, businesses and families across the country from the worsening effects of climate change. Examples of this include investing $120 million to modernize weather forecasting and warning systems, plus integrating climate resilience into Canada’s National Building Code.

“Extreme weather is becoming more severe, more frequent, more damaging and more expensive because of climate change,” Bardsley said. “Our government is taking action to combat the rising costs of natural disasters caused by climate change, despite a mixed level of interest among provinces.”

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But according to Thistlethwaite, more can still be done.

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He says the federal government needs to invest more money in flood mapping and baseline research — which the NDMP fund was designed to do — so that residents and communities such as Stewart can plan properly.

“We don’t like blaming municipalities too much around this kind of stuff,” he said. “We do see it as a failure of leadership as a part of the upper tier governments.”

And while residents of Stewart wait for funding, Gillis hopes the type of flooding that struck eastern Canada earlier this spring doesn’t hit his community as well.

“We definitely do not want it to happen here,” he said.

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