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Ottawa initially refuses request for more troops to aid Quebec flood victims

Gerald Racine, the lone resident staying in his his flooded neighbourhood looks out his street in St-Paul-de-I'Ile-aux-Noix, May 6, 2011.

christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

At a time when distressed flood victims in Quebec's Richelieu Valley were urging the federal government for more troops to help deal with the crisis, Ottawa refused to send in additional soldiers, saying it would put them "in competition with the private sector."

In a letter sent to the Quebec government last Friday, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews explained that the Canadian Forces were too busy with "defence activities" to respond to their demands and denied the province's request for more troops.

The province said more soldiers were needed to help communities deal with water levels that were receding more slowly than expected and also to eventually remove heavy sandbags.

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"As you can appreciate the role of the Canadian Forces is mainly centred on defence activities and therefore they must maintain a capacity in this area to deal with other events should they occur in the country or abroad. Moreover the services you are requesting, if they were authorized, would place the Canadian Forces in competition with the private sector at the local and provincial level which could accomplish this type of reintegration work," Mr. Toews stated in a letter dated May 20 in response to his Quebec counterpart Robert Dutil's request for more help.

Questions were also being raised as to why Defence Minister Peter MacKay or Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't tour the flooded communities to examine the extent of the damages.

"Mr. Harper went to the flooded communities in Manitoba and toured the damages caused by the fires in Alberta but never came here. Why did he avoid us?" a senior Quebec government official said asking that he remain anonymous.

It took a week for Mr. Toews to respond to Mr. Dutil's original request that Ottawa maintain a majority of the more than 800 troops that had been deployed in the region. The Canadian Forces recalled about 600 troops in mid-May and left 250 soldiers to help communities deal with the crisis.

Mr. Toews's letter didn't mention the high winds being forecast on Lake Champlain for the holiday weekend, which threatened to bring water levels along the Richelieu River to record heights. Municipal leaders and residents had repeatedly called on the Canadian Forces to send in more troops to help sandbag and protect their homes ad communities.

If the situation dictated an emergency response, more troops could be sent in on eight hours notice, Mr. Toews explained in his letter.

Weather conditions deteriorated rapidly over the long weekend. On Saturday and Monday, Premier Jean Charest intervened to urge Ottawa to send in more troops. His requests were finally answered Monday afternoon as Canadian Forces doubled the number of soldiers to more than 500 deployed in the 15 communities ravaged by the floods, located just southeast of Montreal.

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But by then, floodwater waves that were whipped up by winds as high as 70 kilometres an hour crashed into properties and shorelines had left distraught residents even more demoralized. Some of them had been dealing with the floods for almost a month.

On Tuesday, the opposition Parti Québécois demanded to know why so many troops had been recalled in the first place when it was obvious that exhausted residents were in dire need of help.

"What happened?" PQ Leader Pauline Marois asked the Premier. "If I understand, it is the army or at least the federal government that didn't respond to the Quebec government's call for help. In this case, is the federal government to blame?"

Mr. Charest wouldn't pass judgment on Ottawa's role in dealing with the disaster but said that it was a mistake for the Canadian Forces to withdraw the troops at a time when residents needed their presence.

"On May 13, we has already formally written to the federal government to tell them that their presence needed to be maintained. Why? Because the fact that the Armed Forces withdrew under the circumstances that we know, created insecurity and anguish for the population. … Our evaluation is that under the circumstances they should have maintained their presence," Mr. Charest said in the National Assembly.

In an interview, Mr. Dutil said that although the Canadian Forces were never very far away and could always be counted on to respond to emergency situations, "the impression it left with the residents is that security was being jeopardized as water levels continued to rise."

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Weather conditions are expected to improve in the coming days and many of the 1,400 residents who were evacuated should be returning to their homes. But Quebec government officials expected that it could take weeks before the flood waters fully recede and damages can be properly assessed.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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