A Whole-of-Government Approach

The Canadian military is just one piece of the disaster-relief puzzle.
By: /
May 16, 2012

Under the leadership of the foreign affairs minister, the Government of Canada has a solid track record in quickly and effectively responding to natural disasters abroad. Whether we are reacting to massive earthquakes or typhoons or floods, Canada ensures critical humanitarian needs are met.

History has taught us that we are at our best when we take a fully integrated whole-of-government approach to disaster response, drawing on a wide range of tools and assets. To that end, we have a number of tested standard operating procedures that clearly outline roles and responsibilities of government actors in the minutes, hours, and days that follow a catastrophic event. While the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force leads in co-ordinating the overall response, many departments and agencies play an essential role in this effort. For instance, in response to last year’s earthquake in Japan, some 14 departments and agencies were actively engaged.

Canada does not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to disaster response, recognizing that needs vary from crisis to crisis, and that our mechanisms must do the same. Financial support, for instance, may include funding through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), civilian-led efforts, the United Nations, and/or, other humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. This is often the most effective means of providing life-saving assistance, as these operations are on the ground, able to recognize the most urgent needs of the affected areas. However, Canada also maintains emergency relief stocks that can be shipped quickly, and can deploy pre-identified Canadian civilian technical and humanitarian experts – including a Canadian Red Cross field hospital – when additional support is needed.

In certain situations, when local and international capacities to respond are overwhelmed, Canada can, and does, deploy Canadian Forces personnel and assets. In specific contexts, the Canadian Forces bring unique capabilities and can provide valued logistics support (including airlift), or medical, engineering, and communications expertise to assist in responding to natural disasters.

In the past decade, the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) has provided emergency medical services, water-purification capability, and engineering expertise in several challenging contexts. While the DART is needed only for the most catastrophic disasters, it has repeatedly demonstrated that it is a key disaster-response tool for the Government of Canada.

Canada’s response to the devastating Haiti earthquake is a case in point. The Canadian Forces were mobilized within hours of the earthquake, alongside civilian assets, and were able to rapidly deploy in support of a DFAIT-led humanitarian-assessment mission. Officials from DFAIT, CIDA, and the Department of National Defence arrived in Port-au-Prince within 20 hours of the quake. For the two months that followed, the Canadian Forces – working alongside their civilian colleagues from DFAIT, CIDA, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Border Services Agency, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada – supported international humanitarian relief efforts through the provision of emergency medical services, engineering expertise, and air, land, and sea mobility. At its peak, Canada deployed 2,050 military personnel divided between Port-au-Prince, Léogâne, and Jacmel.

The whole-of-government team deployed in Haiti worked together daily to ensure that the Haitian people received the humanitarian assistance they needed to survive. Canadian officials also facilitated consular service and care to Canadians affected by this disaster, including evacuating more than 4,600 Canadian citizens and permanent residents back to Canada. Canadian Forces’ Hercules and C-17s would arrive with relief supplies and leave with Canadian evacuees. All Canadians can be proud of this effort.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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