People in communities threatened by natural disasters might have to consider moving, minister says

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is not discounting the idea of encouraging communities to move preventatively in the wake of increasing climate-change related disasters.

'Can we force people to move? ... Urban planning is not a federal jurisdiction.' — Steven Guilbeault

A broken building sits amid a pile of rubble
This apartment building in Port aux Basques, N.L., was partially demolished by a storm surge driven by post-tropical storm Fiona last month. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says people in communities prone to natural disasters driven by a warming climate might have to consider moving.

"If we know that an area is going to be flooded or very exposed to hurricanes, is it a reasonable thing for us as governments — not just the federal government but other levels of government — to work with people, to maybe have to relocate them?" Guilbeault told CBC News in an interview.

"What we don't necessarily have at this point is all the analysis to be able to try and anticipate where these natural catastrophes will occur. But it may be the case that we will have to tell people, 'Your area is an area that's very exposed to these catastrophes and it would be better for you to move.'

"Now, can we force people to move? I mean, obviously, urban planning is not a federal jurisdiction." 

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says communities threatened by more and more powerful weather events might have to consider relocating. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ottawa is expected to release its National Adaptation Strategy in a little less than a month, ahead of the United Nations COP 27 conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

But the idea of relocation is already being talked about in some communities struck by post-tropical storm Fiona in Atlantic Canada and Quebec.

"The whole community doesn't have to relocate, of course," said Brian Button, mayor of the Newfoundland town of Port aux Basques — which saw many homes destroyed or washed out to sea.

"We have a bunch of people where there's nothing left here for them, their home has been destroyed, their property has been destroyed ... They don't want to live here anymore." 

This image was sent to CBC P.E.I. by Barbara Doiron, who called it the 'Stanley Bridge wharf disaster.' (Submitted by Barbara Doiron)

Barbara Doiron, who runs an antique store on Prince Edward Island's northern coast, said relocation is not an easy option to accept. 

She said the two-storey building housing her business "was just lifted up by the floodwater and was just blown up against the fence at the top of the hill."

She said she intends to move the building back and raise it above the reach of floodwaters.

Doiron said many of the people who own homes in the area depend on the sea to make a living.

"[There] is a wharf that's used by the lobster fishermen, the oyster fishermen, and the mussel fishermen, pretty well ten months of the year. So it could never be moved," she said.

Doiron said the federal government should instead provide funding to rebuild sand dunes that were destroyed by Hurricane White Juan when it struck Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in February 2004.

'That's the tradeoff'

The federal environment department recently acknowledged it has spent most of the $3.3 billion it had allocated for disaster mitigation.

Ryan Ness of the Canadian Climate Institute said a lot more cash will need to be spent every year to protect Canadians and their property from the disastrous impacts of climate change.

"The funding that they provide comes from everybody's tax dollars. More disasters, more rebuilding means more taxes or less services. That's the tradeoff. A slowing economy also means fewer jobs," he said. 

Ness said that while moving away from fossil fuel use is key, so is spending money on prevention.

"Every dollar you spend on proactively adapting, you can save up to $15 in avoided costs in damage," he said. 

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, currently chairing the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' Big City Mayors caucus, told CBC News that government cash could be used for infrastructure adaptation projects, such as burying power lines, raising buildings above floodwater levels and building new structures out of more fire-resistant materials.

"It affects communities large and small across the country. It is the biggest issue of our time and we have to be serious about it," Savage said. "I don't' suggest it's easy. There are lots of demands for money."

Guilbeault said the government is still working out how much more needs to be spent on mitigation.

Relocation efforts must strike balance: expert

The Expropriation Act allows the federal government to take control of land and property if it "is required by the Crown for a public work or other public purpose."

The provinces and territories have their own expropriation laws.

Anneke Smit, a professor at the University of Windsor's faculty of law and director of its Centre for Cities, said expropriation generally is a "last ditch" measure which shouldn't be used lightly — especially to relocate entire communities.

"The impacts of that are obviously very extreme, and not just [the] economic but really the social fabric of communities is often destroyed by doing those things," Smit said.

But more severe natural disasters brought on by climate change may justify expropriation in some cases, she added.

"If those are communities that are at risk of disappearance, that's something that we have to think about as a foresight, and also thinking through, from an economic perspective, what it will ultimately cost the government and the public purse to be able to maintain those communities where they are," she said.

Anneke Smit, a professor of law at the University of Windsor, says expropriation of communities is an extreme measure that might be justified if severe natural disasters are a recurring threat. (CBC News)

If the government chooses to expropriate property or land, Smit said, the owner usually negotiates a sale to the government — and they don't have many legal options for challenging the decision.

"The possibility for challenging those types of expropriations legally is relatively limited, and often is limited to more questions of the quantum of compensation than about the validity of the reason for expropriating in the first place," she said.

Cherie Metcalf, a professor in the faculty of law at Queen's University, said any attempt to expropriate a community might turn out to be more of a political challenge for governments than a legal one.

"Government does have pretty extensive legal powers to expropriate property," she said.

Metcalf agreed with Smit that there may be cases where the benefits of government relocation would outweigh the costs. She said such a decision would be even more difficult if it affected Indigenous communities with long ancestral ties to the land.

"There are obviously some communities that are at high risk of serious climate impacts that are Indigenous communities, and I think it's a completely different conversation and different relationship with land," she said.

"So obviously for those communities, retreating and expropriation … that's not a feasible response."


Raffy Boudjikanian

Senior reporter

Raffy Boudjikanian is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He has also worked in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.

With files from Richard Raycraft


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