Mr. Speaker, I want to say from the outset that we support this bill, even though some minor amendments might be in order. I would be ill-advised not to support a bill, which essentially seeks to group within a single department the three responsibilities of police, prisons and disasters. This is how I used to summarize the activities of my department in Quebec, when I was in charge of it. I also believe that these activities complement each other.
The bill is very short. It essentially establishes this new department. However, this is not a completely new department. Rather, it is a department that will consolidate duties that were fulfilled in other areas. It is a useful restructuring and, therefore, we do not object to it.
As regards the department's name, again, I would be ill-advised to criticize it. The term “solicitor general” was definitely no longer appropriate. This was not a very adequate title for someone in charge of prisons. For once, the French approach was used and the department is accurately named. Indeed, it is a department that groups together activities that ensure public safety and emergency preparedness. There was really no need to add the expression “emergency preparedness” to the department's title, but if this is the minister's or the Prime Minister's wish, so be it.
We are dealing here with areas of shared jurisdiction. I hope that the establishment of this department will not be another opportunity for the federal government to invade jurisdictions that are well exercised by Quebec.
In Quebec, I had the privilege of introducing in the National Assembly and moving through the adoption process a complete overhaul of the emergency preparedness system. We are not starting from scratch when dealing with emergency preparedness at the federal level.
In dealing with emergency preparedness, one thing is obvious: those who are in the best position to respond, at first, are the local authorities. That is true to a certain level of disaster where higher authorities with more resources at their disposal than the local authorities have to be called in.
Indeed, there are extremely expensive things and tools that even provincial authorities do not have. I can think of a number of helicopters or means of transportation, ships, ice-breakers and others that can be put into service. The federal government must not, however, tromp on an organization that is already very functional.
The principle of emergency preparedness organization applies to a rather large community. In Quebec, we decided on the regional county municipalities and urban communities. There are more than 100 RCMs in Quebec, each encompassing several municipalities, and the urban communities encompass several urban municipalities.
At the urban community or RCM level, an emergency preparedness plan is developed. What does developing an emergency preparedness plan involve? It involves taking an inventory of two things: risks and resources.
For the risk inventory, more often than not, the local authorities are the most efficient. For one thing, they have a smaller base of voters. So, they very often go door to door and are familiar with the area. They learn a lot along the way about where their voters live. In fact, they themselves generally live in the area they represent.
For instance, they know if there are potentially dangerous reservoirs on some farms. They know their territory. They know if there is a railway going through it. They have noticed that the railway is used to ship goods, so they are aware that a train derailment could be dangerous. They know about the plants in operation in their area. They know their region very well and are able to identify all these things. And if we get them involved in the development of the emergency preparedness program, they find out that they like it, they feel useful and competent, they are pleased to be of some help and usually do a very good job. By taking stock of the risks, they realize that some can be avoided.
So, there are already some prevention and emergency preparedness initiatives under way. After examining the risks, they go over the resources. For example, if there is a flood and 300 people have to be evacuated, where could they find shelter? They take an inventory of all available resources. If they have to do without power for some time, is there a plant nearby where they can have access to generators?
They discover their local resources, as well as their needs. They realize that they could buy this piece of equipment or that one or, if it is too expensive, that they can join with the neighbouring RCM to buy what could be useful in case of an emergency.
There has to be preparation, so that when there is a disaster, even unpredictable ones, they are not totally unprepared. They know what to do. Once these two inventories have been taken, intervention plans are prepared and implemented at some point, with exercises and simulations. This way the quality of communications between the various stakeholders is tested, the speed with which people can be reached, brought together, action taken and so on. This uncovers shortcomings in the plans, and as a result, the community is generally far safer.
Then there are specific projects. For example there have always been floods. I learned something odd about Quebec that I may be able to pass on to some others. I had never realized that we never had any flooding problems with the rivers on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, only the south. Why is that? Because, of course, when the spring thaw comes, it starts in the south and proceeds north. So water courses run high in the south and there are ice jams in the north, where the thaw has not yet arrived. This is why there are always more flooding problems with the rivers on the south shore. There are a few exceptions, north shore rivers that are particularly winding in particular. Since the thaw moves from south to north, the ice where the river empties into the St. Lawrence melts before what is upstream of it, and so the flow is generally better.
That said, there has to be provision for flooding. It is predictable. There is a need to know, because Quebec has a history of flooding. But there are also far bigger dangers, such as industrial dangers, dangerous gas emissions for example, major explosions setting off fires and so on.
The most important preparation is still the preparation that has to be done locally. It is a fact. That is why the Emergency Preparedness Organization is very important and, as far as I know, it might be unique to Canada. However, when the government comes barging in with the broad powers it often gives itself in statutes, it has to realize that throughout Quebec and in Canada, there is a place that is well prepared that deserves his respect.
This concerns primarily the public safety aspect. The department is already aware of what we do in Quebec.
I can also say that over time, we have noticed in Quebec it is true that the federal government has equipment that is useful to us, or could be. When I was saying earlier that resources are inventoried, I was talking about resources used for other purposes. It is important to know that these are things we can use in an emergency. For example, in disaster, people are often sheltered in gymnasiums. To welcome them, someone needs to know where the beds are, if there are beds, and so forth.
There is also some equipment that falls under federal jurisdiction. For example, we work in close cooperation with the Coast Guard. However, I do not see why this body comes under public safety.The Coast Guard has marine equipment that allows us to respond quickly to catastrophes on the St. Lawrence. It is most useful in preventing floods and breaking up ice jams.
For example, the Coast Guard bought hovercrafts, and that is easy to understand, given the difficulty of marking out with beacons the navigation channels on the St. Lawrence River. These crafts run on an air cushion, and they can move very well over water and could do as well on snow. They can also go ashore, provided the incline is not too steep. They are multipurpose vehicles. But experience helped us find out they could have another use they were not designed for originally. When a hovercraft moves over ice, it breaks it. So, a hovercraft being used to set the beacons that mark out the channels on the St. Lawrence River can help prevent flooding by breaking ice jams.
The hovercraft did not sell as well as hoped. There are relatively few of these craft in the world, making them rather expensive. Like all such equipment built some 20 years ago, they have to be taken apart and rebuilt every year. Good relations helped convince those responsible for this maintenance work to do it during the winter so that the craft can be used when ice jams are more likely to occur.
In the field, I know there is a generally good cooperation between the Quebec public security and federal agencies, especially the army. We have also noted that there is generally excellent cooperation between the various federal agencies.
The establishment of this new emergency preparedness department would facilitate this cooperation. Clearly, very useful means to be used in case of natural disasters can be found in many other departments. I hope this new department will allow for better cooperation and communications between the federal agencies that could be useful in emergency preparedness.
It is not obvious from reading this bill, but I think it would be important to include in this legislation some reference to the assistance provinces receive in case of a disaster. When a province suffers a disaster, such an enormous disaster that it causes great damage and endangers the fiscal health of that province, there is legislation to provide financial assistance.
This assistance is a function of the province's population, which seems to me to be a good criterion. The province is completely responsible for the first dollar per person. Then the federal government adds 75 cents per capita of the second dollar. Then it is 50%, then 25% and so on, right to the end.
Logically, these provisions that make it possible to provide relief to the victims of natural disasters would, we thought, have been incorporated naturally into the legislation for which the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is responsible. That is one of the things that seems to have been forgotten in this bill, but it would be good legal logic for this legislation to come under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness as well.
I take this first opportunity to speak to a bill, as a federal member of Parliament, to remind the legislator that the last section of each piece of legislation is a section that, given the courts' interpretation—at least 25 years ago, I think—allows the government to legislate not by adding to legislation, but by taking away from it.
We are in a Parliament with a minority government. It is possible that, on some occasions, we will introduce amendments to this legislation.