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Environmentalist Gerald Kutney recently observed: “The summer of 2023 … the season that Canada burned … and burned … and burned.”

Similar observations about the “record-setting wildfire season” (and beyond) are being noted in Ottawa. Three days after Labour Day 2023, federal Minister for Emergency Preparedness Harjit Sajjan was pointing to what has been called “a more national approach to disaster response.”

Mr. Sajjan went on : “We’re looking at all different types of disasters, doing the lessons-learned, and we’ll come out with the appropriate response … I would say all options are currently on the table but we don’t have an answer for you yet.”

The pondering of options has been going on for a few months now. And in thinking about Mr. Sajjan’s “appropriate response” one obvious example has loomed  — the sometimes fabled Federal Emergency Management Agency (or FEMA) in the United States next door.

Early this past June 2023 The Canadian Press was reporting that “Ottawa looking at options for a national disaster response agency as wildfires rage … FEMA has coordinated the response to disasters in U.S. for decades.”

A few days later York University Disaster & Emergency Management Professor Ali Asgary was arguing that “Canada urgently needs a FEMA-like emergency management agency.”

For good and bad reasons it is almost certainly not appropriate to talk too exactly about any “Canadian FEMA”! Just to start with, provinces (10) are stronger in Canadian federalism than states (50) in American federalism (thanks in part to the ongoing example of Quebec?).

The US federal bureaucracy is similarly very sprawling and diverse. FEMA is at least a perhaps unusually effective expression of the Washington alphabet soup syndrome. The Ottawa scene is tighter, more disciplined by Canada’s UK-style parliamentary government.

Even today FEMA is far from perfect. It has been claimed that middle-income Americans tend to get more from its financial and other disaster assistance than low-income Americans.

Republican administrations have also intermittently compromised FEMA’s professional competence with old-school political appointments. George W. Bush’s choice of Michael Brown as head of FEMA in 2003 is a case in point. (Brown was a lawyer who had unsuccessfully run for Congress as a Republican, with at best limited disaster management experience. He resigned from FEMA in 2005, after  harsh criticism over the handling of Hurricane Katrina.)

At the same time, Canada’s 1960’s prime minister (and 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner) Lester Pearson once told a TV interviewer that in his youth he thought the only good models for government in Canada came from the United Kingdom. In his more experienced old age he had also come to admire some models from the United States!

As York University Professor Ali Asgary similarly urged this past June, in the 2020s there is a strong argument, that, alongside much other more troubling news stateside, FEMA remains an impressive national disaster response institution.

Canada, again, is not the same as the United States, despite all contrary rumours. The FEMA model cannot just be copied up north. As a new age of more frequent disasters haunts the horizon, however, Lester Pearson would almost certainly advise that FEMA’s long experience does have useful  lessons-learned for Canada.

One example may be especially important. President Jimmy Carter created FEMA in 1979. But it was not until President Bill Clinton appointed his former Arkansas emergency manager James Lee Witt FEMA director in 1993 that the agency began to develop its modern reputation as a model emergency management organization.

James Lee Witt brought a kind of disaster management evangelism to the culture of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the USA. And this energized the professionalism he also brought to the organization, in a way that has somehow endured.

As explained by a subsequent Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial “FEMA has developed a sterling reputation for delivering disaster-relief services, a far cry from its abysmal standing before James Lee Witt took its helm .. he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better.”

One lesson-learned would seem to be that it’s not enough to create some organizational structure for “a more national approach to disaster response.” You also need a James Lee Witt to get the structure up and running effectively.

Does such a person exist in Canada today? (Maybe right now fighting a fire or a flood somewhere, in BC or Nova Scotia or northern Quebec?)

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

If there existed a political “Ten Commandments” carved in stone tablets, the very first one on the list would likely be “Thou Shalt Not Alienate Thy Base.”

After all, it’s hard to win an election when even your own side doesn’t like you.

Sounds pretty basic, right? Sounds like a concept any leader worth his or her salt would understand.

So why is it then Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole seems intent on making himself as unpopular as possible with his grassroots base?

I mean, just think about what he’s done since taking over the leadership.

For one thing, on a whole range of issues from carbon taxes to gun rights to deficits, O’Toole has blatantly abandoned conservative principles and values to take on policy stances that are essentially indistinguishable from what the Liberals offer.

How could his conservative base, which tends be ideologically-oriented, not feel snubbed by this? The sense of their betrayal is likely even more acute, since during the Conservative Party leadership race, O’Toole had branded himself as a principled conservative and as a champion of the party’s grassroots.

Talk about false advertising!

At any rate, I guess if O’Toole had won the last election, all would have been forgiven.

But, of course, he didn’t win and now discontent with his leadership is simmering within the Conservative Party’s ranks.

In response to this growing anger the wise move for O’Toole, it seems to me, should be for him to offer some sort of olive branch to the base, just to reassure grassroots party members that he’s willing to win back their support.

Instead, however, for some inexplicable reason, he has decided to try and bully his base into submission.

Just recently, for instance, O’Toole, pour encourager les autres, booted Senator Denise Batters from the Conservative caucus after she had the audacity to launch a petition calling for an earlier than scheduled leadership review.

In announcing her expulsion, O’Toole sounded a tough note saying anyone “who’s not putting the team and the country first will not be part of this team.”

Basically, his message seems to this: “It’s my way or the highway and if you don’t like it, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yet, if he thinks such heavy-handed action will stifle dissent, he’s likely in for a rude awakening.

In fact, it could make his situation even worse, since he’s turned Batters into a martyr, someone who disaffected Tories can now rally around.

On top of that, keep in mind, angry party members have effective ways of protesting against an unpopular leader.

For example, they might start redirecting their party donations to right-wing advocacy groups, or they might stop volunteering for the party or they might stay home on election day or they might end up voting for the People’s Party.

So, in a way, O’Toole’s decision to openly antagonize his base is like a military commander ordering his artillery to bombard his own supply lines.

It just doesn’t make strategic sense.

Mind you, some might say, O’Toole’s acting no differently than former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who also jettisoned certain conservative principles and who also ruled the party with savage discipline.

Yet, O’Toole is no Harper.

True, Harper didn’t always give the party’s ideologues everything they wanted, but he always treated his base with respect.

And for that, he won the loyalty of the rank and file.

That’s a lesson O’Toole should heed.

At any rate, the one possible explanation for O’Toole’s behaviour is that there’s actually a method to his madness, that he actually wants to dig out the party’s ideological roots, that’s he hoping hard-core conservatives will abandon his party.

Indeed, it has been suggested to me that O’Toole’s overall game plan is basically to water down the party’s ideology until it’s nothing but an idealess, wishy-washy, non-confrontational, conservative-in-name-only political entity; a Conservative party, in short, that lacks conservatives.

This he hopes will make his party more appealing to the media and more attractive to Liberal voters.

If that indeed is O’Toole’s plan, then he is taking a mighty big gamble.

As American conservative activist Morton Blackwell once noted “you cannot make friends of your enemies by making enemies of your friends.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.