Feds deploy more troops to Fiona-hit areas, promise compensation
About 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel are on the ground in Atlantic Canada
The federal government announced Wednesday it has deployed more Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel to Atlantic Canada to help with recovery efforts as tens of thousands of customers endure their fifth day without power.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said about 600 troops are now working in the three provinces that sustained the most damage from post-tropical storm Fiona — Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. That's double the number of troops that were on the ground on Monday.
The surge in military support is meant to help the provinces restore some semblance of normal life in a region that is still covered in storm wreckage. That debris has made restoring power difficult for utilities like Nova Scotia Power and Maritime Electric in P.E.I.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, CAF personnel are performing "wellness checks" and helping people relocate from affected areas. In Nova Scotia, soldiers are focusing on clearing fallen trees and debris to reopen roads and bridges.
In P.E.I., the CAF is helping power workers. Roughly 57,000 Maritime Electric customers in the province are still in the dark.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Ottawa will send more troops, if necessary.
"We have started with a large number of forces on the ground but of course, we can do more," he said.
Anand said that, in this period of serial natural disasters, the CAF has been at the centre of domestic emergency operation and recovery efforts — and there are limits to what it can do with its reduced troop strength.
According to military figures, the CAF is short about 10,000 people in regular force and reservist positions as it grapples with recruitment challenges.
While there's money on the books to employ 100,000 CAF members, the military is well short of that mark.
"CAF will never hesitate when called upon to do this extremely important work. It is true, as a result of a number of factors, including COVID-19, that recruitment is a very difficult issue for us at this time. We need to grow as an institution," Anand said, adding that her department has developed "additional recruitment strategies" to boost its numbers.
When asked if Canada should consider creating some sort of civilian agency to help with emergency planning and relief efforts — a Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — Anand said that's not under active discussion.
Two cabinet ministers from the region relayed details about the destruction they've seen on the ground in the wake of Fiona.
Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, who represents a riding in P.E.I., said his own property has sustained damage. He joined Wednesday's press conference by phone because he's still without power and access to the internet at this rural home.
A long-time dairy farmer, MacAulay said his barn in rural P.E.I. was destroyed by the winds. He said other dairy farmers have seen their cattle die.
"The destruction across P.E.I. is truly unreal. So many Islanders have faced unimaginable destruction," he said, adding that some of the island's wharves have been upended and whole fields of crops have been flattened, with no possibility of recovery.
"We are here for you and our government will do everything in our power to help," the minister said. "We're going to work together to put people back on their feet."
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, who represents Pictou County and surrounding areas in Nova Scotia, said the eastern part of the province where he lives has also faced catastrophe.
While Atlantic Canadians are used to powerful storms that wreak havoc, Fraser said, "the damage here is nothing like I've ever seen."
"This one is different, folks," Fraser said. "There are some real tragedies."
Fraser said farmers and fishermen in particular will need help because their livelihoods have been destroyed by this storm.
Boats have been thrown from the water and corn fields in the area have been wiped out, Fraser said.
"This is going to take some time to bounce back," he said. "Many weeks, perhaps months. There are some real human consequences to this."
Fraser said the federal government also will have to address telecommunications deficiencies that left families without access to cell service.
He said the daughter of his elderly neighbours worried for hours about their well-being because, with cell service compromised by the storm, her text messages weren't getting through.
Fraser said new federal regulations may be required to compel telecom companies to outfit their towers with generators to keep service active throughout natural disasters.
Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings — who represents the Port-aux-Basques region in the Commons, an area that was pulverized by Fiona — said the whole experience has been "gut-wrenching."
"The pictures don't do it justice. It's hard to explain, let alone describe," she said, adding that Port-aux-Basques lost five per cent of its homes because Fiona pulled some of them into the sea.
As for compensation, LeBlanc said conversations are already underway with the affected provinces. He said there are longstanding agreements in place for disaster relief, deals that allow for some cost-sharing between the provincial governments and Ottawa to "indemnify those who have suffered losses."
It's hard to know just how much damage has been sustained, LeBlanc said, because roads remain impassable and communications are limited in some areas.
WATCH: Ottawa to work with provinces to compensate homeowners affected by Fiona
Provincial authorities will take the lead on assessing the damage and adjudicating claims from people requesting compensation — but Ottawa will help pay some of those bills, he said.
"The Government of Canada will share in a very generous way the cost of compensating people based on a longstanding formula that the provinces know well," LeBlanc said.
"We certainly understand and recognize the angst and concern that people have about their homes and their businesses. We're prepared to make advance payments because we know the cost will be high."
LeBlanc, who also serves as infrastructure minister, said the federal government will make money available for some projects to make infrastructure — such as publicly owned small craft harbours — more resilient to climate change.