Q&A with Ontario’s President of the Treasury Board and Minister responsible for Emergency Management, the Hon. Prabmeet Sarkaria, part 1
May 19, 2023
By Haley Nagasaki
Better support beneath the new emergency management strategy plan
Avert: June will be a year in your role as minister responsible for emergency management. What has the last year been like for you with that portfolio?
Minister Sarkaria: I think the last year has been great. I think emergency management – after having the pandemic – it’s really taken on a new meaning for people, for the citizens. And I think as governments, we need to be better prepared for emergencies across this province.
The last year has really been about learning about different parts of the province, their challenges, and how we can support them. For the first time this year, our search co-ordination team is on the ground in the North, that is in Fort Albany, and it’s happening today, trying to support evacuations in advance of flooding season. So, we’re really trying to bring a different type of approach to emergency management.
When the Premier gave me this responsibility at Treasury Board, it provided an opportunity for a whole government approach, where we all get to, as a government, ensure that emergency management plans are in place for every ministry, and that everyone is taking it seriously.
On top of that, we’ve invested $110 million over three years that will support for emergency management.
Avert: The new provincial emergency management strategy and action plan (PEMSAP), launched in February, seems to have re-written the entire file. What were the motivators for that overhaul?
Minister Sarkaria: It was a great opportunity for us to engage with stakeholders across the province. Our team led consultations with First Nations communities, with different municipalities, municipal leaders, government officials, non-government first responders, and put together the PEMSAP, which is the first of its kind in all of Canada.
This is a document that is reviewed publicly every year. Every five years, we do a significant review as well. But really the motivation behind it is to have transparency and accountability, and also an ability to ensure that everyone is part of the management program. It’s something that we wanted into ensure was taken seriously; that everyone was at the table. And today you have a great example of over 30 ministries agencies coming together to practice a train derailments scenario, which I believe hasn’t happened to this scale in about 20 years.
It’s so important for us to be safe practiced and prepared. And the motivation behind that was to ensure we have a plan in place, a framework in place for everybody to be able to access, look at, and develop their own plans.
Avert: The “single window” is highlighted in the plan, what’s the goal of that change and why was it needed?
Minister Sarkaria: The goal of that was just better co-ordination and communication. What we heard during our consultation was when there’s an emergency, who does somebody call? And whether you’re a municipal partner, whether you’re a First Nations community, whether you’re a municipality, you really don’t know where to go to get your support or your answers.
The single window is really about, the first part is bringing [emergency management] under the guidance of the Treasury Board Secretariat, where you get to oversee all of government. Secondly, it’s about having access to all the resources. So, whether it’s from a funding perspective, whether it’s how to deploy specific search teams into specific areas in the province, whether it’s how to get supports from a specific part of government – we want everybody to have access through the emergency management commissioner and our team.
And in the past couple of weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to sit down with many stakeholders. Some of the evacuations that are now happening up north has been something that has been very appreciated – that there is a single window not only for response but also for coordination. Bringing everybody together, the communities, the stakeholders, to then put forward or execute a plan of where to go and how to deploy it. It’s been very well received, and we want to continue building on that progress.
Avert: The new plan committed to annual progress reports. Are those going to be individual incident reports or entire EMO (Emergency Management Ontario) reports? What’s the goal behind those?
Minister Sarkaria: So those the progress reports are going to be a bit of both. Those are opportunities for us to learn and we can take broader learnings from all of our incident reports and combine them into general EMO specific strategies and processes.
Then from a specific point, such as a train derailment exercise like today, and earlier in the year we did a nuclear incident practice exercise, each of those will have their own findings that we can then look at, learn from, and then build on so we’re better at our preparedness and our approach.
The goal behind that is just to be better prepared and practiced. And if we can do that practice and then implement the learnings from those tabletop exercises, then some of those incidents if we do undertake them, gives us a better opportunity to – hopefully they never happen – but we should be ready when an incident occurs.
Avert: This is a relatively new role for you, how did you get to be where you are today?
Minister Sarkaria: It’s interesting, I think, when the cabinet shuffle happened in June of last year, this was something that the Premier had asked me to take on. And it’s been a great journey ever since.
Along with my responsibilities for Treasury Board Secretariat, which is from an expenditure management side, looking over the budgets and expenditures of government, and along with also being responsible for the Supply Ontario file, which is about the modernization of procurement for government, emergency management was also a responsibility given to me. I think it really has to do with having a whole of government approach.
I think Premier Ford wants the government to take emergency management very seriously; he wants it to be a coordinated approach. And that’s also why we’ve committed in our latest budget over $110 million dollars over three years to ensure that it’s not just a plan, but there’s some teeth behind that plan, and that we’re getting the support where it needs to be.
That’s why we’re investing in training and we’re investing in emergency management across Ontario: whether it be building capacity, doing exercises like this today, or joining and making partnerships across the province to support better outcomes on emergency management.
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