A retired army commander has advised the Canadian government to launch an agency that would be specifically dedicated to responding to natural disasters, throughout the country, citing the impact of climate change.

On Thursday, retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie told CBC News that Canadians are being put at risk by the fact that Canada does not have a task force that is devoted to helping with disasters like wildfires, floods and evacuations.

Leslie believes that such a task force should be “built into ” or “adjunct to” the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) as soon as possible, so long as it can get the proper funding it needs without putting any added stress onto Canadian troops. 

“The impact of climate change is irrefutable — it poses dangers to us all,” said Leslie. “What has the current government done to prepare for what they knew was coming?”

“The answer is nothing. They continue to go to the armed forces and allocate troops and resources in penny packets, in dribs and drabs, more for the political optics.” said Leslie. 

A spokesperson for the federal emergencies ministry told the CBC that the federal government is preparing for future natural disasters in a number of ways, one of which is spending $700 million on wildfire management, some of which will go to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. The centre helps to coordinate aid between provinces and territories in times of crisis. 

In addition to spending on things like training, and buying equipment, Ottawa also has plans to update its Federal Emergency Response Plan.

Defence Minister Bill Blair said the federal government’s commitment to national security is “ironclad” when it comes to increasing military funding. 

“While the primary responsibility for response to natural disasters rests with provinces and territories, Canadians can expect to see the military continue to respond to emergencies when the capacity of provinces and territories is overwhelmed,” said Blair in a statement.

Provinces are ultimately responsible for managing environmental emergencies, however the CAF have been deployed multiple times over the past several months to aid provinces like Quebec, Alberta and now B.C. in their emergency management, following the provinces’ requests to do so. 

The Royal Canadian Air Force were also of great help in evacuating residents from the recent wildfires in the Northwest Territories. 

“In Europe, it’s hard to find a significant country … which doesn’t have a standalone emergency response force,” said Leslie. “Do you have it as standalone, per se, or do you nest it within the armed forces so they can leverage heavy equipment to transport their stuff?

“We already have military infrastructure bases spread across our country; we already have [CAF] transportation hubs which are well established.” said Leslie. 

Mike Flannigan is the innovation research chair in predictive services for B.C. and he has called for a national wildfire response force in the past. 

Flannigan said that there are several options, with the armed forces most likely being the best choice, especially if they can be trained on how to fight several different types of natural disaster.  

There is also the option to create an agency similar to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) model, with a greater focus on prevention.

“Using the military as a special branch with appropriate training, and being able to address the emergencies before, during and after … should be explored,” said Flannigan. “And broadening it beyond fire is appropriate, like a FEMA organization.”

The problem with using the CAF in disaster relief and emergency management is that they are already heavily underfunded at a time when Canada is $20 billion dollars short of meeting their NATO obligation to invest 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) into the CAF. 

“In a democracy, I think we need to be careful with the use of armed forces,” said professor Christian Leuprecht, who teaches at Royal Military College and at Queen’s University. “This is an organization set apart for special purpose … whose ultimate purpose is the application of the use of force.”

“It’s probably not your optimal first-responder organization,” said Leuprecht, who noted that the CAF are already close to a “breaking point” as a result of the country’s overseas commitments. 

Currently, thousands of Canadian troops have been deployed to Latvia and Ukraine and many others are also currently in domestic deployments throughout Canada.

“It is seriously imperiling the organization from operating,” said Leuprecht. “The armed forces have become the easy button for the government … every time somebody cries for help.”

“People always have the impression if there’s no war to fight, the military just kind of sits around, but quite the opposite is true. This is an organization that is massively overstretched because it’s under-equipped, and under-resourced, for what it is being asked to do by politicians.”

Leslie shares the concerns expressed by Leuprecht, saying that relief from natural disasters cannot come at the hands of further underfunding the CAF.

“They’re called upon by the government because they have nowhere else to go to provide essentially brute force,” said Leslie. “Those tasks could actually be done by almost anybody.” 

Leslie said what the country needs is a full-time, highly trained specialized force to fight these natural disasters and one which will focus as much on prevention as it will on post disaster relief.