A “volunteer database” to combat natural disasters?

A “volunteer database” to combat natural disasters?
A “volunteer database” to combat natural disasters?

Would you be prepared to fight a forest fire? To lift pockets of sand in flooded areas? MPs suggest the federal government establish a “volunteer database” to replace the military during natural disasters.

In a report tabled Thursday, the members of the Standing Committee on National Defense are clear: the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), despite having a personnel shortage, are increasingly in demand throughout the world.

“In general, the government agrees with the report of the National Defense Committee: the resources of the Canadian Armed Forces should only be used as a last resort,” Harjit’s spokesperson said in an email. Sajjan, Federal Minister of Civil Protection and former Minister of Defense.

Dangers on the rise, an army on the decline

The deputies point to the global tensions which are emerging between the West and the bloc made up of China, Russia and “other authoritarian, revisionist and antagonistic countries”.

On the other hand, within our borders, extreme climate disasters such as forest fires and floods are increasing, both in frequency and intensity.

The historic 2023 fire season represents a turning point for the government: more than 16.5 million hectares of the country’s forests have gone up in smoke, the equivalent of the area of ​​Greece.

Thousands of soldiers were then dispatched to different provinces to push back the fires, including in Quebec.

“In this context,” explain the elected officials, “the interventions of the FAC in the event of disasters in the country harm the rhythm of their internal operations, contribute to the decline in their numbers and their material resources, and lead to a reduction in attention that they devote to training and maintaining their combat readiness, as required by their first military duty: to defend Canada.

Volunteers to the rescue

Added to the personnel issue is the cost of operations, all the more reason to rely on volunteers.

The parliamentary committee took note of the testimony of Josh Bowen, an expert from the University of Alberta. He explained that government agencies like the Red Cross “can accomplish similar tasks [à celles des militaires en cas de catastrophe naturelle] for less than $5,000 or $3,000 per day.

Mr. Bowen is not alone in proposing the establishment of a “national, government-funded, volunteer-based body” that would “coordinate civilian capacity in close collaboration with NGOs.”

Other experts consulted by the committee questioned the relevance and feasibility of such a national organization, citing possible coordination failures and legal issues.

Regardless, the committee formally recommended that the government “create a database of volunteers […] based on their profession and experience,” which would enable them to “volunteer effectively to assist in disaster response operations.”

Quebec has taken a different approach. With his new Law 50, the Minister of Public Security François Bonnardel wants to set up a “labor reserve” to support the Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire (SOPFEU) in the event of serious fires. The details of this “reserve” should be known before summer 2025.

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