July 27, 2015, Toronto – On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper posed in Kelowna, B.C., with wildland firefighters working the Westside Road blaze, ostensibly to show support for wearied crews.
No announcement, no big news, just a pre-election campaign photo op. And rather a shameless one at that (similar to former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ visit to flood-ravaged Alberta in 2013).
Ottawa has a minimal role in wildland fire fighting, or most other types of fire fighting, for that matter – save for military. It provides one-third of the operating funding for the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre – a private, non-profit corporation that tracks and disseminates forest-fire management information. Federal bureaucrats sit on the centre’s boards of trustees and directors.
My politics lean slightly left of centre, and, as a reporter/editor who used to work in Ottawa, I have little patience for Harper and his media policies (and some other policies, but we won’t go there today), so you’ll forgive me for saying that the PM looked ridiculous in a sport coat and dress shoes in July, in front of a line up of sooty firefighters, while the hill behind him smouldered.
Clearly reporter Adam Proskiw, who writes for Kamloops InfotelNews, doesn’t have much time for Harper either – although his story was a straight-up news account. Proskiw refused to get sucked into the vortex around the PM’s visit.
“After more than an hour wait, the press conference was over in less than five minutes,” Proskiw wrote. “The prime minister would not take questions about why he was there, how much time the photo opportunity took from firefighters, or what resources were used in the photo effort.”
What’s more, InfotelNews declined to name Harper, posting a headline that said simply, “Man in blue suit thanks firefighters.”
Proskiw’s editor, Marshall Jones, told The Huffington Post that the event wasted everyone’s time.
“The photo op smelled like electioneering and we didn’t want to play a part in that,” he said.
“We didn’t go to B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s media show the day before, even though that seemed appropriate since she is the local MLA and the premier of the province responsible for fire fighting. We thought she could thank them without the photo op.”
Clark and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall have asked Ottawa for a national wildland firefighting strategy after weeks of fires, and Harper alluded to that.
"We know these are tough and dangerous jobs and these efforts really are appreciated by everybody," Harper said.
"When the dust settles, so to speak, on all of this we're obviously going to sit down and assess what new or different needs to be done in the future, what we can do in terms of better co-ordination of resources, mitigation, we'll look at all those things."
I’m not holding my breath. First, as I said, Ottawa has a minor role in wildland fire fighting, which is a provincial responsibility. And its record on the fire side of emergency management isn’t so hot either. The Harper Conservatives cut funding for Canada’s HUSAR teams, cancelled the Joint Emergency Preparedness program, closed the Emergency Management College and effectively told the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) to shelve its requests for a national fire advisor.
Yes, a meager $850,000 in federal funding has been allotted for a national fire incident database – it’s a three-year pilot project that may or may not even begin as planned in the fall. And Transport Minister Lisa Raitt – a fellow Cape Bretoner who was three years behind me at Sydney Academy – has tackled the dangerous goods file, but only after countless derailments, Lac-Megantic, and a lot of work by CAFC and others.
What about the abysmal state of fire fighting and fire prevention on First Nations? What happens when there’s an earthquake in B.C. and there aren’t enough trained urban search and rescuers?
Many of you won’t remember a blunder by Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who hefted a sandbag at a dike in Winnipeg in 1997 as the Red River raged and asked, “What do you want me to do with this?”
As Winnipeg Free Press reporter Dan Lett (a fellow Carleton journalism grad) wrote in a lookback piece in 2011, “Several locals no doubt thought of several things Chrétien could have done with that sandbag, but they were too polite to say anything.”
Even then, editorials called for politicians to stay away from disaster zones, just like former Alberta Fire Chiefs Association president Brian Cornforth lambasted Toews for disrupting the work of emergency responders in High River two years ago.
“Coming into the site, it’s pretty hard to deal with those guys because they require a lot of resources to provide them security,” Cornforth told PostMedia. “Unless they’re directly in charge of the military and have a functional role, it’s really just posing.”
Which is exactly what Harper did.
As the anti-Tory website pressprogress.ca asked on Friday, is it ethical to use firefighters as props while a forest burns in the background?
Not in my book.