The alarming story that Canada's military is severely under-funded and, consequently, unable to adequately fulfill its responsibilities is not new. We've been hearing it here in Canada for years now.
What many of us didn't realize, however, was that it is not just the Canadian military that is unprepared and lacking in the support it would need to take action in the face of a crisis. The entire country's first responders -- those who would react in the case of a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or a public health emergency (or even some combination of the three) -- are also poorly equipped to deal with such events. So says a disturbing new 800-page report issued by a Canadian Senate National Defense committee. The country is woefully unready to communicate and act efficiently during a disaster, the report warns, and many lives are stake. But the question is, is the Canadian government ready to listen?
In the wake of 9/11, Canada has assumed a surprisingly blasé pose. Despite being so close (both physically and symbolically) to the World Trade Center attacks, Transport Canada has done little to meaningfully improve security in Canadian airports. Airport workers' passes frequently aren't checked, and airport staff members aren't being searched.
The federal agency that is supposed to be overseeing and correcting such lapses has spent the three years since its inception doing a lot of nothing. The Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Preparedness (OCPEP) may have a sweeping title, but it has proved itself to be covering little ground. During last summer's blackout, OCPEP couldn't help because its phone lines were down. OCPEP says it has spent considerable time consulting with provinces to develop an intergovernmental strategy that will allow more teamwork among the players, but there's still no sign of any such strategy being in place. It's not surprising, then, that only 10 percent of Canadian cities are satisfied with OCPEP's performance. Half haven't even heard of it.
Communications are no better between Health Canada, the agency that would take the lead in a health crisis or bioterrorist attack, and Canadian cities. One of the most astounding details in the Senate report is that Health Canada has stowed caches of millions of dollars worth of emergency supplies at more than a thousand locations in the country, but hasn't bothered to let anyone know about them. Sixty-seven percent of the cities that responded to the Senate committee had no clue the emergency caches even existed.
This news of the level of Canada's ill preparedness would be alarming under any circumstances. But it causes particular concern given that we know Canada has been placed fifth on a target list found recently on an Al Qaeda website. Much as Canadians would like to believe that the country's head-in-the-sand-act during the war in Iraq will keep them out of Al Qaeda's sights, this is clearly not the case.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal government has its work cut out for it filling the gaping holes that the Senate committee has exposed in the country's state of emergency preparedness. Doing so will no doubt take a great deal of money. But more importantly, it will take a great deal of will. And this is the ingredient that may be lacking.
Why do I say this? When news of Canada's appearance on the Al Qaeda target list broke, Public Security Minister Anne McClellan responded with bland, bordering on indifferent, reassurance: "We are a named country, that is very clear. That is not new. Osama bin Laden named us. We know that we are a named country and we act accordingly."
If McClellan's idea of acting accordingly is the current state of poor communication and scant national emergency planning, Canadians could be in trouble, indeed. Appalling and scary as they are, the glaring inadequacies in the system that the Senate committee highlighted can be fixed. But they won't be until the federal government decides to acknowledge that there is a serious problem. And it's currently showing no signs of doing so.
The reality is that Canada has a prime opportunity to vastly improve its ability to respond to a natural emergency now that the Senate committee has so thoroughly and clearly articulated the current areas of weakness. Let's hope that someone in the Martin administration wakes up and seizes this chance to take what, at this point, would still be proactive measures. If they don't, we probably will see the committee's suggested changes implemented at some point. But they will be sad clean-up measures executed only after Canada has suffered a devastating loss of life.