Residents of communities threatened by natural disasters may have to consider moving, minister says

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said residents of communities prone to natural disasters caused by global warming may have to consider moving.

« If we know an area is going to be flooded or very prone to hurricanes, is it a reasonable thing for us as governments – not just the federal government but other levels of government – to work with people, to maybe have to move them? Guilbeault told CBC News in an interview.

« What we don’t necessarily have at this stage is all the analysis to be able to try to anticipate where these natural disasters will occur. But we may have to tell people, ‘Your region is a region who are very exposed to these disasters and it would be better for you to move.

« Now can we force people to move? I mean, obviously, planning is not a federal jurisdiction. »

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said communities threatened by increasingly powerful weather events may have to consider moving. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ottawa is expected to release its National Adaptation Strategy in just under a month, ahead of the United Nations COP 27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

But the idea of ​​relocation is already making headlines in some communities hit by post-tropical storm Fiona in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

« Not the whole community has to move, of course, » said Brian Button, mayor of the Newfoundland town of Port aux Basques, which has seen many homes destroyed or washed away by the sea.

« We have a bunch of people where there’s nothing left here for them, their homes have been destroyed, their property has been destroyed… They don’t want to live here anymore. »

stanley bridge fiona
This image was sent to CBC PEI by Barbara Doiron, who called it the « Stanley Bridge wharf disaster. » (Submitted by Barbara Doiron)

Barbara Doiron, who runs an antique store on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, said relocation is not an easy option to accept.

She said the two-story building housing her business “just got lifted up by the floodwaters and was thrown against the fence at the top of the hill.”

She said she intended to move the building and raise it above the reach of the flood waters.

Doiron said many people who own homes in the area depend on the sea for a living.

« [There] is a wharf that is used by lobster fishers, oyster fishers and mussel fishers, about ten months of the year. So it could never be moved, » she said.

Doiron said the federal government should instead provide funds to rebuild the sand dunes that were destroyed by Hurricane White Juan when it hit Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in February 2004. .

« It’s the compromise »

The federal environment ministry recently acknowledged spending the bulk of the $3.3 billion it had allocated on disaster mitigation.

Ryan Ness of the Canadian Climate Institute said a lot more money will need to be spent each year to protect Canadians and their property from the disastrous effects of climate change.

« The funding they provide comes from taxpayers’ money. More disasters, more reconstruction means more taxes or less services. That’s the trade-off. A slowing economy also means fewer jobs. « , did he declare.

Ness said while moving away from fossil fuel use is key, so is prevention.

« Every dollar you spend to proactively adapt can save you up to $15 in avoided damage costs, » he said.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, who currently chairs the Big City Mayors’ Caucus for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, told CBC News that government money could be used for infrastructure adaptation projects, such as burying power lines, raising buildings above flood water levels, and constructing new structures from more fire-resistant materials.

« It’s affecting communities large and small across the country. It’s the biggest issue of our time and we have to be serious about it, » Savage said. « I’m not saying it’s easy. There are a lot of requests for money. »

Guilbeault said the government is still determining how much is left to spend on mitigation.

Relocation efforts must strike a balance: expert

The Expropriation Act allows the federal government to take control of lands and property if « required by the Crown for a public work or other public purpose. »

Provinces and territories have their own expropriation laws.

Anneke Smit, a professor at the University of Windsor Law School, said expropriation is generally a « last resort » measure that should not be used lightly, especially to displace entire communities.

“The impacts of this are obviously very extreme, and not just [the] economic, but really the social fabric of communities is often destroyed by doing these things,” Smit said.

But more severe natural disasters brought on by climate change may warrant expropriation in some cases, she added.

“If these are communities that are at risk of disappearing, that is something that we have to think of as a forecast, and also think, from an economic point of view, of what it will ultimately cost the government and the public purse. to be able to maintain these communities where they are,” she said.

anneke smit
Anneke Smit, a law professor at the University of Windsor, says the expropriation of communities is an extreme measure that could be justified if severe natural disasters are a recurring threat. (Radio-Canada News)

If the government chooses to expropriate a property or land, Smit said, the owner typically negotiates a sale to the government — and they don’t have many legal options to challenge the decision.

« The ability to legally challenge these types of expropriations is relatively limited, and is often limited to more questions about the amount of compensation than the validity of the reason for the expropriation in the first place, » he said. she stated.

Cherie Metcalf, a professor at Queen’s University Law School, said any attempt to expropriate a community could prove more of a political challenge for governments than a legal challenge.

« The government has quite extensive legal powers to expropriate property, » she said.

Metcalf agreed with Smit that there might be instances where the benefits of government relocation outweigh the costs. She said such a decision would be even more difficult if it affected indigenous communities with long ancestral ties to the land.

“There are obviously some communities that are at high risk of severe climate impacts that are indigenous communities, and I think that’s a whole different conversation and a different relationship with the land,” she said.

« So obviously for those communities, removal and expropriation…that’s not a feasible response. »


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