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Three years - three major disasters, and all of them north of the 49th parallel! 1996 - The Saguenay Floods. 1997 - The Red River Floods. 1998 - The Great Ice Storm. And the uncertain consequences of the ‘Millennium Bug’ await us in 2000. Being prepared is still necessary, but not sufficient to cope with the increasing frequency of expensive disasters in Canada. Following the lead of FEMA and Emergency Management Australia, Canadian officials are beginning to explore the role of mitigation in emergency management, and the potential for a National Mitigation Strategy to realize a significant reduction in losses. What follows is a brief discussion of disaster trends in Canada and a preliminary report on how a Canadian mitigation policy is beginning to evolve. Three years - three major disasters, and all of them north of the 49th parallel! 1996 - The Saguenay Floods. 1997 - The Red River Floods. 1998 - The Great Ice Storm. And the uncertain consequences of the ‘Millennium Bug’ await us in 2000. Being prepared is still necessary, but not sufficient to cope with the increasing frequency of expensive disasters in Canada. Following the lead of FEMA and Emergency Management Australia, Canadian officials are beginning to explore the role of mitigation in emergency management, and the potential for a National Mitigation Strategy to realize a significant reduction in losses. What follows is a brief discussion of disaster trends in Canada and a preliminary report on how a Canadian mitigation policy is beginning to evolve.

Disasters in Canada

Communities and businesses are facing unprecedented threats from all quarters. The most recent interruption to businesses in Eastern Ontario and Québec, due to an unprecedented series of ice storms, is causing organizations to reassess their response capabilities to such wide-spread events and consider mitigative measures. Protecting one’s own operation is distinctly different from ensuring the continued operation of the infrastructure we all depend on. As risk managers and continuity planners we need to begin thinking beyond our own operations, to the implications of regional/wide spread disasters.

Moreover, the Canadian government is reeling from the cost of these recent events. The frequency of weather-related disasters such as cold waves, heat waves, droughts, floods, hurricanes, storms, and tornadoes is increasing (see figure 1), while the cost escalated dramatically during the 1990s (see figure 2). In fact these figures do not include the full cost of the 1996 Saguenay floods, and have yet to account for the Red River flooding and the losses due to the most recent ice storm in Eastern Canada. In three years (1996-1998) the total expenditures of the Federal Disaster Assistance Arrangements will have quadrupled from $262M CDN to over $1.2B CDN. No wonder the value of a mitigative approach to loss reduction has taken on greater appeal!

Understanding the character of disastrous events is crucial to making wise decisions and taking appropriate actions. Disasters are not isolated from the social structures within which they occur; rather, they are a social phenomena, the result of human-environment interaction. To achieve tangible results, well-developed partnerships directed towards the achievement of mitigation will be required. To underscore the importance of partnerships, consider the argument that mitigation activities occur, first and foremost, at the local or individual level. Movement towards partnerships is crucial, to share responsibility, minimise risk, and maximise return on the investment of limited resources. Consequently, mitigation becomes a compelling component of federal disaster policy (see figure 1).

The economic and societal costs of natural disasters are also driven upward by the increasing complexity and global dependencies of North American society. The need to engage in a dialogue to achieve a variety of timely, cost-effective means to reduce the consequences of future disasters has never been more apparent. A mitigation policy with national leadership, and the goal of natural hazard loss reduction, seems quite appropriate (see figure 2).

The Importance of Perception

Perceptions of mitigation require exploration to create a common foundation from which to address the nature, direction, and structure of mitigation policy and programs. Clarity of purpose, awareness of context, and acknowledgement of limitations and conflicts represent crucial aspects in the evolution of mitigation strategies. Through awareness, understanding, and a willingness to engage in dialogue new ways of thinking can be employed to decrease the impact of natural hazards on society and environment.

The inability to grasp the context of events represents one of our greatest barriers to understanding the cause of natural disasters. To view all the factors contributing to a disaster, by cutting across professional and disciplinary boundaries in both time and space, is difficult. The resulting tendency of federal, provincial, and territorial agencies has, for some time, been to address mitigation of natural hazards from the perspective of individual departmental responsibilities. In many areas, such as fire suppression, these actions have been effective, but the same cannot be said for wide spread, complex disasters. Thus we can say with confidence that progress has been made to varying degrees in mitigating the impacts of some hazards. What is missing is a coordinated National Mitigation Strategy that cuts across jurisdictional boundaries, and encourages participation by all levels of government, the private sector, and individual citizens.

Experience in Canada demonstrates a diversity of response capabilities and readiness within the institutional organizations responsible for emergencies. Continued focus on preparedness and response follows naturally from these established capabilities, but will show diminishing returns for future investments. The contradiction, here, is that beyond a certain level of preparedness and response capability, additional investment to further enhance response may save lives, but only after lives have been lost and property damaged in the primary impact. These underlying limitations of a response-oriented approach have drawn attention to the social character of disasters, and the potential of mitigation to realise loss reductions.

A New Direction

Choosing the road less travelled is not without risks, but then neither is standing still amid the currents of change. Undoubtedly the character of mitigation initiatives in Canada will differ from the evolving structure in the United States and Australia. To ignore the potential contribution of mitigation, and the added benefit of forging partnerships to share responsibilities and risk, would be imprudent in light of trends in losses, changes in the social composition of Canada, and the uneven geographic distribution of the population.

This being said, the way forward must evolve in concert with a broad range of existing commitments and contentious jurisdictional issues. How then to proceed during a period of fiscal restraint, and with uncertainty of the benefits to be realised through mitigative actions? In response, natural disasters must be seen in their true societal context, and mitigation initiatives must be designed to reduce, not increase, overall expenditure. As with other emergency initiatives in Canada today, mitigation practices must be horizontally and vertically integrated1  and incorporate iterative design features to achieve the loss reductions promised. A process based on thoughtful, reflective input combined with a willingness to share ideas and listen to others represents the best chance of achieving an effective, long-term mitigation strategy.

The basis of a National Strategy can be found in the growing acceptance by Canadians of the need to take personal responsibility for making their communities safer. The lessons learned from the recent Ice Storm underline the willingness of individuals to take an active hand in the destiny of their communities. Similarly, Project Impact has been designed by FEMA to engage communities in taking responsibility to alleviate the consequences of disasters. In Canada, I see the ultimate goals of a National Mitigation Strategy to be fourfold:

(1) To minimize human deaths and injuries; (2) To reduce the direct and indirect economic consequences of disasters; (3) To improve public awareness and understanding of natural, human, and technical threats; and, (4) To encourage public-private partnerships designed to implement mitigation initiatives.

Movement towards the attainment of these goals will result in safer working and living environments for all Canadians. In addition, the broad-based acknowledgment that mitigative actions are prudent fiscal measures for all agencies, communities, and organizations will directly influence the resilience of the Canadian economy to future unplanned perturbations. The question is not whether as a society we embark on this new direction, but when; for waiting is more costly than acting.

The Mitigation Symposium

To address these goals an initial two day Mitigation Symposium was convened on November 28 & 29, 1997 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. The symposium sessions were organized and coordinated by the Disaster Preparedness Research Centre at UBC and were jointly sponsored by Emergency Preparedness Canada and the Insurance Council of Canada. Focus sessions were designed around the above mentioned goals to probe each area from diverse viewpoints and engage in constructive argument. The areas of focus were: building safer communities; developing public participation; enhancing government and industry action; and, establishing partnerships.

Thirty-two leading practitioners in emergency management and disaster recovery took part in the two day event. Representatives came from all three levels of government in Canada, academia, the private sector, the insurance industry, the banking sector, and non-governmental agencies. In addition, significant contributions were provided by FEMA, the National Hazards Research Center in Boulder, and Emergency Management Australia.

Potential components of a National Mitigation Strategy that were investigated and discussed at the symposium covered a diversity of interrelated subjects considered crucial to the achievement of a workable strategy. The scope of this article does not permit a full accounting of these deliberations, however, five of the primary components proposed by the symposium organizers are mentioned briefly. For those interested in greater detail a full documentation of the Symposium is likely to be available in the Spring of 1998.

(1) Hazard Identification, Vulnerability Analysis, and Risk Assessment. First, agencies, businesses, and communities throughout Canada need to identify their exposure to hazards and then assess the vulnerabilities and risks associated with those hazards. Second, there is a need to establish an operational framework for the consideration and evaluation of mitigation initiatives. This effort must be undertaken within the context of four different, and often conflicting perspectives of coping: (i) eliminate the hazard; (ii) reduce the occurrence of a hazardous events; (iii) reduce the consequences of a hazardous event; and, (iv) share the risk.

(2) Research and Technology. Applied research and development of the latest disaster response and hazard suppression technologies represents an integral component of strategic planning. Essential to the long term objective of this initiative - to realize a reduction in overall losses - will be the need to promote the transfer of promising procedures and technologies to decision-makers and end users (i.e., provincial, territorial and municipal governments, the private sector, and individual citizens).

(3) Public Awareness. A broad-based public awareness campaign will be needed to secure public support for, and participation in, actions to mitigate risks. Such a campaign will be designed to increase societal understanding of hazards and their inherent risks to life and property. An example would be the use of regionally specific mitigation training programs in schools and communities.

(4) Incentives and Resources. In new policy areas, incentives will likely be required to encourage mitigation activities. In addition, resources from public and private sectors will need to be realigned to support loss reduction initiatives. However, such fiscal decisions will only occur where long term cost-effectiveness can be proven. It is evident that achievement of the National Mitigation Goals will depend on commitment of financial and human resources. Goodwill will not be sufficient.

(5) Leadership and Coordination. Implementation will only occur at provincial, territorial, and local levels, if federal leadership champions the cause through facilitation of a cooperative achievement of the National Mitigation Goals. This involvement will include coordination among federal agencies to promote hazard mitigation throughout federal programs and policies, and coordination with other levels of government and the private sector.


Further exploration of a mitigation strategy in Canada, and specifically the five elements mentioned above, might productively employ a three-pronged concurrent approach, encompassing: (1) the development of a knowledge base for elected officials, businesses, and citizens; (2) the generation of political will across jurisdictional boundaries; and (3) the encouragement of public-private partnerships. Entwining these three approaches will strengthen the concept, engage individuals and organizations, and begin construction of a sound foundation on which to build. With leadership and commitment, a mitigative attitude can evolve throughout government agencies and private organizations. The result anticipated will be the reduction of long-term risk to human life and property. The measure of success will not only be strong evidence of loss reductions, but also inclusion of mitigation activities in the everyday life of individuals, families, communities, and corporations. Through this approach the attitude of loss reduction will become embedded in society, resulting in a more resilient economy.

In the years ahead, mitigation strategies must evolve to complement preparedness and response, reduce deaths and human suffering, realise reductions in loss expenditures by governments, insurers, businesses, and individuals, enhance the sustainability of settlements, and improve the quality of Canadians’ lives. Moreover, the inevitability of natural disasters and the broad base of societal consequences, reinforces the value of developing public-private partnerships for the implementation of mitigation strategies to benefit all Canadians.


John Newton, Ph.D., P.Eng. is the Principal of John Newton Associates, a business continuity consulting and research firm. John is a current member of the DRJ Editorial Advisory Board. Contact: 416-929-3621; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.




 1 Horizontal integration refers to the coordinated effort of government departments and agencies at one jurisdictional level, as well as cooperation among private companies across different industrial/commercial sectors. Vertical integration refers to communication within national hierarchical structures, generally, but not exclusively intraministerial liaison. The overall objective is to enhance information flows and facilitate broadly based decision-making in a trans-organizational setting.