Rocked by extreme weather, climate change exposes `infrastructure gap’ in Canadian communities

Photo by Jens Aber

Canada’s changing climate has rendered a crucial ice bridge to a small municipality near Montreal unreliable, and even studying possible fixes is costly for the small community, the mayor says.

Until there is an alternative, residents must take a 50-kilometre detour to see a doctor at the village just across the Richelieu River, said Jonathan Chalifoux, mayor of Quebec municipality Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu.

Chalifoux told the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities on Thursday that his village can no longer rely on the bridge that connects his community to the village of Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, northeast of Quebec on the Richelieu River, during the winter months.

“It’s an art to create an ice bridge. With the changing climate conditions, it’s impossible to create the bridge,” said Chalifoux in French. The two communities want to have a year-round crossing, but he says it’s expensive to study the options and that the private company the community deals with doesn’t want to offer a ferry service over the winter.

The detour without the winter crossing is “too long,” he says. Chalifoux’s side does not have a medical clinic, and the detour deters people from making doctor’s appointments across the river or seeking jobs in the neighbouring village.

“For vulnerable people, it’s more difficult for them to travel, and also for services, it has a huge impact,” he said, referring to fire and police services and the general need for the two villages to pool their resources.

Fires, floods, funding, data collection, insurance and water management dominated the conversation in the committee’s June 1 meeting studying how to best adapt Canada’s infrastructure to the inevitable impacts of climate change as wildfires continue to rage across the country.

This was the third time the committee met to study climate change and infrastructure adaptation. MPs heard from more than half a dozen witnesses, including mayors from two municipalities in Ontario and Quebec, two representatives from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, one salmon conservation charity, a Western Canada think tank and a former chief of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band.

Patrick Michell, a resident of Lytton, B.C., and retired chief of the nearby Kanaka Bar Indian Band, attended via Zoom video conference. He began his remarks by pointing out that it is almost the two-year anniversary of the fire that “wiped out the entire town” and killed two people.

The devastating fire , and the atmospheric river that flooded the region in November 2021 , were no surprise to his community, said Michell, testifying before the committee as an individual.

“We’ve been warning the people that come to our region , the north end of the Fraser Canyon , for years, that the infrastructure that they had built ? needs to be upgraded,” said Michell, specifically referencing culverts dating back to 1957. Culverts channel water past obstacles; for example, the pipe-like structures guide small streams and water flow underneath roads.

The atmospheric river “wiped out the roads, which are still not rebuilt because nobody expected that much rain,” said Michell. “We did. We warned people to change the culvert sizes.”

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated insured costs of the Lytton fire at $102 million and flooding from the atmospheric river at $675 million. A 2022 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that non-insured damages from the flooding are between $1.5 billion and $4.7 billion, depending on how much private insurance companies covered.

Canada is one of the few G20 countries not to regularly engage in long-term, 10- to 30-year national infrastructure planning, said Carlo Dade, director of the trade and investment centre at the Canada West Foundation.

Amy Martin, mayor of Norfolk County in southern Ontario, described the “growing infrastructure gap” and associated climate concerns as alarming and “largely unfunded.”

Only $102,000 of Norfolk County’s $119-million annual operating budget is earmarked for climate initiatives, Martin told the committee.“We simply cannot afford to fulfil our routine infrastructure upgrades, such as keeping our taps on, let alone switching our focus to climate change initiatives that we fundamentally agree with,” said Martin. She said the community climate adaptation plan identifies Norfolk County as high-risk for things like flooding, power outages, contamination of drinking water systems and more, but “municipalities aren’t equipped with financial resources to update our infrastructure.”

Upgrading all the municipal waste, water and transportation infrastructure Statistics Canada identifies as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition would cost more than $175 billion, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimated in its 2023 budget priorities.

In her opening statement, Martin called on the federal government to provide local governments with dedicated, ongoing and additional funding to support critical infrastructure projects that respond to climate change. She also pointed out that rural and urban municipalities of similar size to Norfolk County are typically competing against the Greater Toronto Area for funding and resources, and urged the government to level the playing field by “having them judged fairly.”

On the flood front, Chris Rol and Craig Stewart of the Insurance Bureau of Canada commended the federal government for announcing Canada’s National Flood Insurance Program in Budget 2023. The budget allocated $31.7 million over three years for the creation of a low-cost flood insurance program, to be developed by Public Safety Canada, Finance Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

They also strongly supported the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ recommendation for the federal government to inject $2 billion into the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund by the end of this year, followed by $1 billion every year for 10 years thereafter.

“The Canada Infrastructure Bank should be allocated a further $2 billion for disaster mitigation and challenged to find a further $4 billion in matching private capital: The challenge is too great for the public sector to meet alone,” said Rol.

On the local level, Michell highlighted the importance of having accurate data.

“One of my recommendations is to create a new system of weather stations,” he said. “If we’re going to have a climate change adaption strategy, we need site-specific data, we need to know your wind, we need to know your temperature, we need to know your precipitation.”

Invoking the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out,” Michell warned that if communities and governments continue using data that is out of date, “we’re not going to come up with a proper plan.”

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