Understanding the evolution of emergency preparedness in Canada


Canada is no stranger to disasters. The Regina tornado of 1912 caused extensive damage in Saskatchewan province and killed 28 people. In 1914, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland killed more than 1,000 people. The Halifax explosion of 1917 killed more than 1,800 people.

In more recent times, a train derailment in Ontario in 1979 saw nearly a quarter of a million people evacuated. In 2003 the country suffered a SARS scare that led to the creation of the Public Health Agency. The country has suffered fires that have destroyed cities, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and even tsunamis.

Climate change has increased the frequency of emergencies and disasters. Between 2020 and 2021, while helping Canadians cope with the COVID pandemic, public safety officials had to deal with numerous wildfires. The town of Lytton was burnt to the ground. Fortunately, the country is rather adept at handling emergencies. Disasters that would leave some countries in dire straits are relatively well handled by Canadian authorities.

Public Safety Canada is the government department mandated with handling public disasters and overseeing emergency preparedness. It coordinates emergency response by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board of Canada.

If you are interested in emergency preparedness and disaster management as a career, all these are possible future employers. With the right qualifications, you can join any of these government agencies in a senior capacity and help shape disaster response.

A Wilfrid Laurier Master of Public Safety, for example, qualifies you to work in disaster management in any of these organizations. The degree imparts skills that can be immediately incorporated into the workplace. The courses are taught by highly qualified professionals with plenty of experience in the field. The curriculum covers topics like contemporary public safety, intelligence and analytics in public safety, leadership and ethics, research methodologies and statistical analysis.

The course can be completed in under two years, and those who qualify can go on to work as emergency managers, environmental health and safety managers, fire chiefs, emergency team leaders and even law enforcement officers.

A quick history of emergency preparedness in Canada

Initially called civil defense, the emergency response system in Canada was not very active before the Second World War. Provinces dealt with emergencies as they occurred, and the federal government only stepped in when it was needed. Its mandate was passive defense, and it was tasked with making sure that there were no national threats on air, land or sea.

Just before WWII, the federal government created the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organization. Running it, however, was a complicated affair. While it was supposed to work in theory, many in the federal government felt that provinces were mandated to fund their disaster and emergency management systems, and secrecy surrounding war issues hampered cooperation and proper consultation.

It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that the three levels of government agreed on the need to establish a federal civil defense agency. The government’s biggest fear at the time was a possible air attack, and how the civilian population could be adequately protected. As the dangers were likely to be health related, it was decided to incorporate the Department of Pensions and National Health. A committee was created, comprised of eight federal departments, to investigate and report on non-military measures in the event of gas attacks.

The Canadian federal government had taken an active role in planning for air attacks, but it was limited, mostly by lack of funds, disunity and lack of coordination between the provinces. However, by the beginning of the Second World War, it was clear that there was a need for an agency that could coordinate a national response to disasters and emergencies on a federal level. The ARP took charge and managed emergency responses during this period.

Several disasters in the 1970s necessitated a robust response by the Canadian government. In early 1970, a shipwreck caused an oil spill in Chedabucto Bay. In 1971, a mudslide in Saint-Jean-Vianney in Quebec caused extensive damage, and a hurricane caused widespread destruction in Nova Scotia. In 1978, a Soviet nuclear satellite crashed and spread radioactive debris in the northern part of the country. A train derailment in Ontario in 1979 released poisonous gas and led to the evacuation of more than 200,000 people.

All these events led to a revival of public interest in disaster management, and it became a politically attractive proposition. The federal government soon instituted emergency measures to deal with different types of emergencies, and an emergency planning order was passed that allocated responsibility to various government departments. It also outlined how they were to be funded to ensure they could carry out their mandates successfully.

How current trends have shaped emergency preparedness in Canada

Today’s emergencies and disasters are a little different from those that the country had to deal with during WWII and thereafter, and they require a swift response from the various agencies that are in charge. Four main themes have guided the creation of the current emergency preparedness and disaster management responses:

  • National security

This is considered the priority of the Canadian government whose job it is to make sure that all Canadians at home and abroad are protected. The government must ensure that every community’s interests are guarded and respected. It coordinates the activities of various departments and agencies to develop policies and advise the relevant authorities in the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

National security issues range from counter-terrorism to cybersecurity and the counter-proliferation of all types of weapons.

  • Border strategies

One of the ways to help ensure that Canadians are always safe is to protect the country’s borders. By tackling cross-border crime and having strong customs and immigration enforcement, the federal government can mitigate risk and be better prepared in the event of an emergency.

  • Countering crime

Public Safety Canada is charged with leading and coordinating programs and activities that help prevent crime, enforce the law and rehabilitate offenders. It works with provincial and municipal authorities to design community-specific interventions aimed at reducing crime rates and apprehending criminals.

Of note is the indigenous policing program. It supports communities in different territories in crime prevention, while upholding and respecting the beliefs and traditions of First Nations tribes.

The department is also involved in countering organized crime, illegal drugs and money laundering.

  • Emergency management

This is guided by the Emergency Management Framework for Canada. It covers four main areas: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. These components of disaster management are treated concurrently, and they are interdependent.

Public emergency responses in Canada are based on evidence-based risk assessment. They rely on public awareness and community engagement.

How can you become an emergency preparedness and disaster management expert?

If you are a working professional, the quickest way for you to get a management job in emergency preparedness is to take a master’s degree in public safety. The Laurier Master of Public Safety is a good example of a course that will help you secure excellent employment and participate in different areas of disaster management, including public policy.

Before you enroll in such a program it is important to know how much time the course requires. As you have to work every day, it will involve carefully balancing your priorities and carving out time to attend to your studies.

It is a good idea to talk to your employer about your plans. Many are happy to support staff members who are pursuing higher education, and they may offer to give you time off for exams. You may even qualify for certain benefits. If you have a family, think about how you will manage as you take your course. Remember, although it is an online course, it can be extremely demanding on your time.

Online courses tend to have a higher drop-out rate than in-person classes because people sign up without anticipating how much is required before they can qualify. When classes begin, they find that the demands of work and family get in the way, and they do not have time to study and do the assignments.

Before you enroll in any online program it is important to verify that the university is accredited. This means that it has been vetted by the relevant authorities and its qualifications are recognized by employers.

Find out whether all material is uploaded online. Some colleges require online students to attend some in-person classes. You should also confirm that you can get all the necessary course material on the college server.

Tips for completing a master’s degree in public safety 

Although online degree courses require a high level of commitment, there are certain things you can do to ensure that you are successful the first time around:

  • Be prepared before you start the course. Know what is expected of you and find out whether you will be required to complete any projects.
  • Get to know your course instructors and use them to your advantage. If there is anything you do not understand, or concepts you need explained further, do not hesitate to ask.
  • Early in the course, join class discussion groups and become an active participant. Your fellow students are a rich source of diverse perspectives.
  • When you register for your course you will be given a list of requirements. Buy whatever materials and textbooks you will need in advance.
  • Carve out a study area where you can get some quiet time at least once a day to attend to your coursework. It can be at home or in the office, or even in the public library.
  • If you know anyone who has taken the course they can help with guidance and advice especially when it comes to career choices.
  • One of the most common reasons for dropping out of online college is incomplete assignments. You should make sure to complete your homework on time. If you are not able to meet a deadline let your instructor know in advance.
  • You may need to familiarize yourself with the law. When you get employed, you may find yourself providing advice in areas like personal injury, disaster insurance or how people can find the right attorney for their compensation claims.

What is the role of an emergency preparedness worker?

After you complete your master’s program you will likely be hired as an emergency preparedness coordinator. How well you do in that role determines how fast you rise through the ranks. As a coordinator, your duties will include:

  • Emergency planning — you will be involved in examining various hazards and how they affect people and communities. You may be required to work out how much people, businesses and communities stand to lose based on the scale of a disaster.
  • Emergency preparedness — after you understand the risks that affect a given community, you will be involved in finding ways to mitigate those risks. You will work closely with community leaders to educate the public. You will also coordinate with the relevant agencies to harness resources that will be used for disaster response.
  • Emergency response testing and training — this involves making sure that people do what they are supposed to do during an emergency. A big part of it is public awareness. Everyone must know what is expected of them during an emergency so that they can reduce risk to themselves and others.
  • Emergency response — should an emergency occur you will be on the frontline, helping affected communities and individuals. First responders will be relying on you to give them overall direction, and you will coordinate with other government agencies to ensure that each affected person is assisted promptly.
  • Creation of emergency preparedness policies — as you climb up the career ladder and join management you will be involved in coming up with effective policies that will be used in the event of a disaster. You may be required to educate others about those policies and address any concerns that they may have.


Compared to many other countries, Canada responds to emergencies quite well. The government has created various agencies to deal with disasters, and they are properly funded and managed. You can join one of these agencies if you have the right qualifications.

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