New Brunswick

Report on devastating N.B. floods kept from public for two years, despite pledge

After devastating spring flooding along the St. John River Valley and Grand Lake, the New Brunswick government promised to review its response and make the findings public once complete.

Province promised report examining 2018 disaster response would be made public, but it's still under wraps

A cottage was found in Youngs Cove during spring flooding in 2018, across Grand Lake from Princess Park, where it was built. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

After devastating spring flooding along the St. John River valley and Grand Lake, the New Brunswick government promised to review its response and make the findings public once complete.

The flooding damaged homes, cottages and led to the temporarily closure of a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway near Jemseg.

"It is important for all of us to understand how well New Brunswick responded to this event, and how we can all be better prepared for future events," Carl Urquhart, the province's minister of public safety, said in a November 2018 news release.

The report was finished in May 2019, but it hasn't been made public as promised, leaving its findings and potential recommendations for improving future disaster responses unclear.

"I've heard nothing but crickets," David Coon, the provincial Green Party leader, said in an interview about the report. He said it's symptomatic of a larger issue around reviews not seeing the light of day compared to a public inquiry.

Francine Landry, the Liberal Opposition critic for environment and climate change, said in a statement the report should be released. 

"The findings in this report could help us mitigate the impacts of future floods, I see no reason why this report hasn't been made public," Landry said.

Carl Urquhart, New Brunswick's public safety minister in 2018, pledged the report would be released once complete. (CBC)

The province hired Ontario-based consulting firm Calian Group Ltd. for the review at a cost of $45,644. The review included a series of public consultation meetings in the spring of 2019.

CBC News sought a copy of the report under the New Brunswick right to information law in the fall of 2019, but the province wouldn't release it. It cited an exemption to the law that allows it to withhold disclosure for documents expected to be made public in the future.

In November this year, CBC asked the department for the report while flooding swamped parts of British Columbia. It took the province a month to respond to the request. 

Geoffrey Downey, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, said in an email the report was submitted to the province in May 2019 just as the province was responding to more flooding. 

"Preparatory work on the action plan from the report was done in Fall 2019, but soon after the pandemic began, delaying the process," Downey wrote. "While the report hasn't been made public, many findings and recommendations in the report were successfully implemented before the 2019 flood."

It's not clear what those recommendations were or why the province has decided against releasing the report once it was complete as initially promised. 

Terry Ferguson, right, got help from friend Peter McMaster to stack sandbags around his Bay Street home to hopefully keep out the flood waters of the St. John River in Saint John in 2019. The province says lessons from the unreleased report were used in the 2019 flood response. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

Downey said the province intends to release the report once it completes an "action plan," but no timeline was offered.

Coon said the way the province has proceeded has been to evade accountability. 

"The government is saying, 'Well, we didn't release the report. We've implemented some of its recommendations, which we're not going to tell you what they were.'

"So how do we hold the government to account as a public or as an opposition party to ensure that they're actually implementing the recommendations of the report properly with adequate investment?"

Urquhart, speaking to Information Morning Fredericton in November 2018, said he expected to present the report's findings in the legislature. He said he was committed to implementing recommendations.

"One thing Premier Higgs has made quite clear to us all: You do a review. If there's information on there, even if it's information we don't like, you present it, and you address each and every one of them."

Coon said the legislature's standing committee on climate change is holding hearings in January to hear from various people and organizations about improving the province's climate change plan. He hopes the province's report will be released by the time the committee holds those hearings. 

He said one key area will be about how to make the province's infrastructure more resilient. 

"What is that going to cost and why do we have to start? You know, what kind of priority should be placed on it?" Coon said.

With files from Karissa Donkin

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