Thunder Bay

How some small towns in northwestern Ontario are tackling climate change with limited resources

Some small municipalities in northwestern Ontario say they lack the resources to take as much action as they’d like to prepare for climate change, but are doing what they can. Several administrators spoke to CBC after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Feb. 28 report on the effects of global warming worldwide. 

Projected rises above 2005 levels include temperatures by 2 degrees, precipitation by 6%

Terrace Bay is known for this Lighthouse, built in 2011, that symbolizes the community’s longtime connection with the Slate Islands and woodland caribou. It's also among small northwestern Ontario municipalities using what limited resources they have to adapt to the effects of climate change. (Kirthana Sasitharan/CBC)

Some small municipalities in northwestern Ontario say they lack the resources to take as much action as they'd like to adapt to the effects of climate change, but are doing what they can. 

Several administrators spoke to CBC News after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report Feb. 28 chronicling the effects of global warming around the world. 

Across the Ontario region, temperatures are projected to rise around two degrees over 2005 levels by 2050, according to data from the Climate Atlas of Canada, and the number of days when the temperature exceeds 30 degrees will rise substantially in the west.

Kenora could see nearly 19 such days per year by 2050 — up from around six prior to 2005. Fort Frances could see more than 22, up from fewer than eight. 

The frost-free season is projected to lengthen by 20 to 25 days — closer to 25 to the east of Thunder Bay — and precipitation will increase by approximately 60 per cent, adding between 40 and 50 millimetres to the annual rain and snowfall. 

'Incredibly tough' for smaller communities

"It's incredibly tough," said Adam Smith, director of development services for the City of Kenora, describing the challenge faced by small communities.

"Often you'll see in some other larger municipalities you actually have dedicated staff around climate change, whereas it's more of a shared responsibility here at the city." 

Smith identified wildfires, localized flooding and threats to water quality from storm water run-off as potential risks to the city from climate change. 

But he said the city doesn't know as much as it would like to about some of those risks because of the costs involved in studying the issues. 

"Floodplain mapping is an example," he said. "When you have to retain the technical expertise to pull it off and to acquire that information, it's very cost prohibitive for many communities."

Volunteers place sandbags along the shore of a Fort Frances, Ont., park during a storm in 2014 that brought water levels to record heights. (Patrick Briere/Town of Fort Frances)

Smith also wishes he could do a greenhouse gas inventory to look at where emissions are coming from, he added.

Kenora did receive funding several years ago that helped incorporate climate change considerations into its plan for managing city infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, Smith said. 

It is currently working on a sustainability action plan, and recently completed a pilot that involved purchasing a small number of food cyclers at a reduced price and subsidizing the cost for residents who wanted to buy them.

The city is collecting data from the pilot and may scale it up, Smith said.

Meanwhile, Terrace Bay recently completed a community fire hazard risk assessment to determine its risk from wildfires, said John Hall, the town's chief administrative officer and clerk — but it may not be able to afford to do everything the report recommends. 

Top 10 municipal climate actions

"Something drastic would have been creating a fire break, so literally creating a space of vacant … sort of cultivated land or plowed land around the community so that the fire couldn't jump it," Hall said. 

"It's hard to say if we'll get the funding for that or if counsel will sort of jump into that pool, but we're going to do our best to implement as much as possible."

In the short term, efforts to protect the community will more likely involve removing brush on city property and encouraging residents to do the same on their own properties, Hall said.

Meanwhile, administration has reviewed a list of Top 10 Municipal Climate Actions from Municipal World magazine, he said, and is preparing to propose several to council that seem doable for the municipality. These include: 

  • Retrofitting municipal buildings for energy efficiency and climate resilience.
  • Replacing lawns with native plants or food gardens.
  • Building more and better cycling infrastructure.
  • Electrifying the vehicle fleet.
  • Protecting and restoring the urban forest. 

Overall, Hall said, about half of the items on the Municipal World list were achievable for Terrace Bay.

Travis Rob, manager of operations and facilities for Fort Frances, Ont., says he's reviewing a study of the town's storm water management system. (Submitted by Travis Rob)

The manager of operations and facilities for the town of Fort Frances said other challenges facing small municipalities when it comes to climate adaptation include the lack of technical expertise in dealing with emerging technologies and the higher costs associated with projects. 

"Our recycle programs are far more expensive. Materials are far more expensive. Construction is far more expensive," Travis Rob said.  "And so it's harder to get the council or public buy in."

Fort Frances is in a unique situation, Rob said, in that, although it is built on a floodplain, its position seems to protect it from flooding — something officials learned in 2014 when record-high lower river levels and high lake water levels caused flooding in the area but spared the town. 

That experience also allowed the town to improve its sanitary sewer infrastructure and update its wet weather contingency plan for the sewer system based on the lessons learned, he said.

However, Rob said, he's currently going through a detailed study of Fort Frances's entire storm water infrastructure network to work out where the system could fail in the event of a severe storm. 

Wildfires like this one, called Kenora 51, force evacuations of nearby communities and have a negative effect on air quality. (Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry)

"We're learning a lot of things through that," he said, "in that, yes, the municipality as a whole may be protected from flooding. However, we do have areas in town where the systems are lacking the capacity to handle those big storm events."

The next step is to address those weaknesses to help the town become more flood resistant, he said.

Global warming's health effects studied 

When it comes to addressing the health effects of climate change, local governments may get some help from their regional health units. 

The seven northern Ontario health units have teamed up on the Northern Ontario Climate Change Health Collaborative, which is studying the effects of global warming on the health of northerners so that officials can be prepared to respond. 

The collaborative is due to complete its assessment at the end of March, said project lead Robert Sanderson, who is based in Thunder Bay. 

Some of the challenges he identified include:

  • An increased risk of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease from an expanding black-legged tick population.
  • An increase in emergency room visits due to extreme heat.
  • Increased storm water run-off leading to blue-green algae blooms in bodies of water that contribute to the water supply.
  • Worsening cases of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease due to forest fire smoke.
  • Decreased food security due to changes in wild game migration patterns and growing conditions in parts of the world from which we traditionally transport food. 
  • Mental health challenges in young people caused by the stress of inheriting a planet in peril.
  • Mental health challenges in people being forced to evacuate their communities due to floods and wildfires. 

The report from Sanderson's team, called a vulnerability and adaptation capacity assessment, will summarize the health impacts of climate change and look at what can be done about them, he said. 

"That's a really important piece, because I think a lot of what we hear is these negative impacts of climate change — and yes, they are negative, and they need immediate action — but just talking about the impasses is not going to instil action.  We need to be thinking one step ahead, and really providing opportunities and education and motivation for folks to engage in this type of work so that it doesn't seem hopeless."



  • A previous version of this story identified Climate World as the magazine that contained the Top 10 Municipal Climate Actions. In fact, it was Municipal World.
    Mar 16, 2022 9:08 AM ET