Canadians are known to be polite and courteous, qualities that in social settings can be beneficial. However, these same qualities can inhibit our ability to have substantive discussions around race and class — which can have dire consequences when it comes to policy-making.

Statistically, policy-makers in Canada tend to be white, and they have traditionally been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring equality — not equity — when developing policies and programs. Governments often don’t have the means or opportunity to meaningfully engage with key stakeholders before the policy development process begins, and public servants may try to shoehorn considerations related to vulnerable communities into previously established frames, leaving the door open for glaring omissions.

We see this with natural disasters — a devastating effect of climate change that tends to disproportionately affect marginalized groups, including people with disabilities, women, Indigenous peoples and those who are economically vulnerable, to name a few. As policy-makers develop their strategies to address climate change, they must specifically consider how racialized and other vulnerable communities will be affected.


The disproportionate effects of disasters

Climate change makes natural disasters more intense and more frequent, as we’ve seen with recent news stories ranging from forest fires in Australia to flooding in British Columbia. The past two hurricane seasons have wreaked havoc across the southern United States, and the effects of these hurricanes have had a disproportionate effect on those most vulnerable due to decades of systemic oppression — for instance, through geographical segregation, a practice which negatively impacts the health and safety of poor and racialized communities due to their proximity to toxic fumes (from highways and industrial areas) and a scarcity of emergency services, and widely divergent levels of infrastructure spending. The racist practice of redlining has also been found to increase the climate burden on racialized neighbourhoods, which are more likely to experience extreme heat.

Indigenous communities have also been affected by recent flooding, with several in the Fraser Valley and B.C.’s interior required to evacuate. This has left some spread out across different towns, which can negatively impact community cohesion and intergenerational knowledge transfer.

Couple these policy decisions with concurrent events, back-to-back disasters and the cyclical nature of hurricane, wildfire and flood seasons and it can be difficult for people living in these communities to fully recover — on both an economic and a mental-health level.

With the recent catastrophic floods in B.C. and the devastation that’s come across our TV screens and social media feeds, we’re seeing, in real time, the consequences of a lack of investment in climate change adaptation measures. Initial estimates of the cost of the damage across the province are totalling $7.5 billion. But the effects of such disasters are particularly acute for our most vulnerable.

For instance, migrant workers in B.C. have faced a couple of challenging years with restrictions due to COVID-19, plus extreme heat and wildfires in the summer of 2021. But this racialized and precarious workforce faces yet another hurdle with these floods affecting the agriculture sector in the Fraser Valley and other parts of the province, with some farms not expected to fully recover from these events for almost a year. In addition to the loss of income, some workers have also been displaced, losing their belongings, identification and travel documents in the flood waters.

Indigenous communities have also been affected, with several in the Fraser Valley and B.C.’s interior required to evacuate. This has left some spread out across different towns, which can negatively impact community cohesion and intergenerational knowledge transfers. Further, these floods — along with the wildfires and other extreme weather events they experienced this year — adversely affect local traditional resources (flora and fauna) and access to traditional sites.

Other vulnerable groups face added risks from disasters: women are more susceptible to gender-based violence post-disaster and people with disabilities are often forgotten about. And as we saw in B.C. this past summer, extreme heat is also a threat, as nearly 600 people — 70 per cent of whom were seniors — died from the heat.


Overcoming jurisdictional barriers

What makes climate change challenging to address as a policy matter is that it crosses multiple orders of government, making space for governments to pass the buck back and forth. However, this also presents an opportunity for the issue to be addressed by all levels of government in order to ensure a robust and equitable recovery. This is particularly salient as some cities start to take up the mantle of fighting climate change themselves, which could be as simple as planting more trees to improve tree cover as a means to combat extreme heat and to mitigate against soil erosion and urban flooding.

Provincially and federally created land-use policies, and regulations that require municipalities to have certain percentages of land available for development, need to be examined so that social housing projects aren’t built in areas that are susceptible to flooding, while also ensuring that these structures are resilient to the effects of climate change.

Provinces and territories need to ensure that their early-warning systems work, particularly for those in rural areas that may be more susceptible to disasters or who risk being isolated in the event critical infrastructure is damaged — such as Indigenous communities.

We should also take a closer look at federal funding programs that support climate-change adaptation, such as the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities-administered Green Municipal Fund, which can have burdensome application processes or funding thresholds that make it difficult for smaller communities to access necessary funding.

At the same time, governments should do a better job gathering and sharing the kind of data that allows us to weigh the potential negative or positive impacts of policy decisions on different communities. The level of disaggregated data required to adequately assess how many racialized families will be protected by changes to land-use policies, or how many seniors or people with disabilities will benefit from a new dike, is hard to access or doesn’t exist.


Lessons from the pandemic

While not a one-to-one comparison, the impacts COVID-19 has had on vulnerable groups are illustrative of the ways in which the decisions of policy-makers during crises — such as climate-related disasters — can have unintended consequences. These vulnerable groups, particularly women and racialized people, are the ones who have helped support Canada’s economy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been the front-line workers who put themselves at greater risk of contracting COVID-19; who worked throughout lockdowns and in long-term care facilities. Further, these groups often live in communities with higher rates of COVID-19 and lower vaccination uptake which, when you’re more likely to live in a congregate setting, can increase the likelihood of spreading viruses both in the community and in the workplace.

As we continue to economically recover from the pandemic, we should ensure that we are maximizing opportunities to create jobs, particularly better alternatives to jobs with low wages and poor working conditions that continue to go unfilled. Job creation related to climate change presents a perfect opportunity to double dip on shifting toward a green economy and recovering from the pandemic.

Climate change is a complex and chaotic problem and needs a whole-of-society approach in order to make a meaningful impact. We need to view it as a system that needs to change, rather than taking a whack-a-mole approach based on individual portfolios or orders of government. If we don’t, marginalized communities will continue to experience the effects of systemic discrimination as they bear the brunt of climate crises or natural disasters.

Yes, we can help mitigate the effects of climate change. But unless we become comfortable with discussing systemic inequities, our most vulnerable will be left behind.