Chantier Politique

June 9, 2017

English Edition, No. 16

Flooding in Quebec

Governments Must be Held to Account
for Damages Caused by Flooding

St-André-Avellin, in the Outaouais region, April 18, 2017

Flooding in Quebec
Governments Must be Held to Account for Damages Caused by Flooding
Governments Ignore In-Depth Scientific Investigations
into Predictable Natural Phenomena

- Fernand Deschamps

Flooding in Quebec

Governments Must be Held to Account
for Damages Caused by Flooding

Nearly two months since the start of the flooding, no serious official investigation and evaluation of the federal and Quebec governments' roles in the floods, which have caused extensive damage in Quebec, has begun. Yet media and political commentators have jumped to the defence of the ruling elite, even saying the Couillard government has "done a good job" and that it did "everything that had to be done" in this crisis. Everything is made superficial and measured in terms of the "performance" of a particular political party of the cartel system, which blocks any serious investigation and finding out what went wrong and what can be changed so that it does not happen again.

For example, Premier Philippe Couillard has been seen on a number of occasions "in the field," surrounded by ministers or military officers to give the impression that the government and the army are there to "ensure the security of population." The message is that the floods were an unpredictable natural phenomenon and the government has been there to offer support, and eventually, offer conditional compensation.

The Quebec Minister of Municipal Affairs and Public Security, Martin Coiteux, illustrated as much on June 5, when accompanied by Ralph Goodale, his federal counterpart, to "provide an update" on flood recovery efforts. Coiteux said that a wider reflection was needed, in particular with regard to measures that would have to be implemented in order to prepare for and minimize the impact of major flooding which, he noted, was bound to reoccur in the future. He also said that on that topic, announcements would be forthcoming. Coiteux added that as a society and as a government with all its constituent parts, the time had come for a broader reflection on how in the future flood zones and the kind of construction possible for such areas could be effectively managed.

The minister speaks as if this were Quebec's first flood and as if the workers and science were unable to cope. Reality shows us the opposite. The government must be held accountable for the fact that the human factor and science were unable to fully play their role in preventing the flooding and protecting the population.

Who Takes Responsibility?

Abnormally high spring runoff on the Ottawa River, as seen at the Chaudières Falls in
Gatineau, May 10, 2017

The Association professionnelle des ingénieurs du gouvernement du Québec - APIGQ (Professional Association of Quebec Government Engineers) has sounded the alarm and raised a number of questions that are definitely relevant in understanding why the spring runoffs caused such damage.

Amongst other things, the APIGQ said it obtained internal memoranda of the Quebec Environment Ministry dated 2015 and 2016. The memoranda state that the automatic discharge valves on Quebec's public dams are no longer safe and that, in whole or in part, it will be almost impossible to respect the Quebec Action Plan on Dam Management, including the Quebec Dam Safety Act.

"The documents indicate very clearly that failure to meet requested resources for the 2017-2018 budget would mean that dam operations would have to be stopped no later than Spring 2017 by opening the floodgates and by lowering the water level in light of the unsafe lifting mechanisms. This would have to be done until required resources are respected so as to ensure the mechanical maintenance required for corrective and preventive measures to the discharge apparatus," affirms the APIGQ. In an expression of the engineers' professionalism and social awareness, the APIGQ suspended their strike to provide assistance during the floods. (The engineers went on strike on May 24 and the Couillard government has been making irresponsible threats about bringing in back-to-work legislation to smash their strike and silence them for justly raising the question of the population's security.)

Also of note is the constant barrage of propaganda extolling the virtues of a balanced budget, while the governments of Canada and Quebec continue to cut investments in social programs and public services. Along with their incessant cries about the need for austerity measures, the ruling elite and monopoly media attack the public sector and transform the services and social programs required by a modern economy and society into instruments to pay the rich.  This is done through privatization and the use of public funds to prop up the private interests fo the oligarchs and by expanding those state institutions in the service of war and repression.

Included in this is the necessity to grasp the scope of the government's responsibility for nation-wrecking, destruction of public assets and the public good, and, consequently, depriving the working people of their capacity to defend themselves within the system. Not to increase investments in social programs and public services necessarily leads to natural and social disasters.

Chantier politique salutes the firefighters, municipal workers, engineers, ambulance drivers and volunteers who, within such conditions of nation-wrecking, did not hesitate for a moment to provide assistance to those affected by the floods.  It is to their merit that the public good was defended and an even more terrible outcome was prevented. The modern era belongs to those who do the work. They must become the decision-makers in control of all those affairs that affect their work and lives.

Emergency workers evacuate residents from the Cartierville neighbourhood, Montreal,
May 8, 2017, near Rivière-des-Prairies

(Photos: La Petite Nation, S. Leduc, Exile on Ontario St)

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Governments Ignore In-Depth Scientific Investigations into Predictable Natural Phenomena

After the first floods on April 5, nearly a month elapsed before the massive intervention of the federal and Quebec governments to rescue the thousands of people whose main residences had been inundated as a result of heavy rainfalls that swept across Central and Northeastern Ontario, Southwestern, Central and Eastern Quebec and New Brunswick throughout April.

For weeks, firefighters, municipal workers and volunteers worked day and night to help the disaster victims in over 125 Quebec towns and villages affected by the torrential rains.

At the request of the Couillard government, the Canadian army was called in at the beginning of May. On May 7, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre announced he was declaring a state of emergency for at least two weeks in the northern parts of the Island of Montreal affected by the overflow of the Lake of Two Mountains and Rivière-des-Prairies, two tributaries of the Ottawa River.

The Mayor of Montreal is empowered to exercise emergency powers and declare a state of emergency when one of the following conditions is met:

- the municipality is dealing with a major disaster, real or imminent;
- the municipality must act immediately to protect citizens' life, health and integrity;
- the municipality's civil security plan or regular operating procedures do not allow it to adequately carry out the actions required.

Through such emergency measures, the police and the military have the power, amongst other things, to force residents to leave their homes, which was done in some parts of Quebec,including in the Roxboro-Pierrefonds area in the island of Montreal’s west-end.

As for the requests from Quebec and Ontario for military support, Prime Minister Trudeau said his government was "happy to give it." "When Canadians are facing natural disasters, we put our energies together, that's who we are," he said.

Science in the Service of Private Interests

Location of Gouin and Baskatong reservoirs. Click to enlarge

Many of the affected residents have criticized governments for taking too long before becoming involved, claiming that the flooding could have been avoided.

Amongst others, they point fingers at state-owned Hydro-Québec, which could have released large quantities of water trapped in its Gouin and Baskatong reservoirs that flow into the St. Maurice and Ottawa rivers, simply on the basis of existing scientific data pointing to the need to do so, including:

- significant on-the-ground snow accumulation during the winter of 2016-2017;

- reduced snow evaporation from the sun's radiation due to heavy cloud cover during February and March, which normally accelerates the melting of snow on the ground, and helps to distribute water runoff over a more protracted period of time;

- temperatures in March at least 4 degrees Celsius below normal further delayed the melting of accumulated snow.

All of the above helped to create the conditions for abnormally high spring river runoffs, even before the record April rains.

A simple review of rainfall data for the Montreal area from 2011 to 2017 compared with the average over the last 30 years shows the general trend of increased precipitation in February and March, as well as an increased total accumulation of liquid and solid precipitation between January to April.

Total monthly precipitation in the Montreal area in millimetres, 1980-2010 
(* historical average). (Environment Canada)

Total monthly precipitation (liquid and solid) in the Montreal Area 
between January and April, from 1980 to 2017.

What the data seems to indicate is that during the period 1980 to 2017, total precipitation during the winter months has tended to increase over the years.

That trend is confirmed by researchers involved in studying global warming of the Earth's atmosphere phenomena. Philippe Gachon, Chair of Strategic Research on Hydrometeorological Risks Linked to Climate Change at the University of Quebec in Montreal, recently gave an explanation in an interview during the annual conference of the Association francophone pour le développement des sciences (ACFAS). He said that any average increase of one degree Celsius of the Earth's atmosphere necessarily results in an average increase of seven per cent in air moisture, thus resulting in more precipitation. In the case of southern Quebec, that increase can vary from five to nine per cent, according to Gachon. He bases his findings on the laws of thermodynamics, in particular the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, named after a 19th-century German physicist and mathematician and French engineer and physicist respectively, who established the equation governing the transition between different phases of a body of matter -- solid, liquid and gaseous -- according to the pressure and the temperature applied to that body. In this case, the body in question is the moisture content of the Earth's atmosphere. Because the density of liquid water is greater than that of its solid phase (ice), water has important and unique properties that play a special role as a thermal regulator in Nature.

Gachon pointed out that his research group does not receive any funding from the Quebec and federal governments. He also noted that the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) was established in 2000 by the federal government to address the issue of analyzing climate change to better predict its accompanying weather phenomena. The foundation's activities were greatly reduced by the Harper government in 2011 when it made significant cuts. According to Gachon, no new funding was allocated to the CFCAS in the Trudeau government's latest budget.[1]

Canada is also a leader in remote sensing. Researchers employed by Canadian government agencies contributed to the design and construction of the RADARSAT satellite, which provides quick and accurate mapping through the use of radar imagery that resolves details down to one metre in size to delineate flood-prone areas around waterways. This has all been privatized by the federal government and is now marketed to serve private interests. Instead of using this state-of-the-art remote sensing technology to assist government agencies involved in managing Quebec's territory to minimize flooding risk by monitoring the evolution of land-use planning, it becomes one more mapping tool amongst others whose merits are promoted and commercialized by the private sector throughout the Americas.

Importance of a Nation-Building Project That Defends the Rights of All


What emerges from the events surrounding the 2017 floods in Quebec and Ontario is that despite the Quebec Premier's statements that his government "did everything" to minimize the impact of the floods, the various levels of government have no interest in defending the rights of the people.

For example, those who manage Quebec's rivers within the Ministry of the Environment, Sustainable Development and the Fight against Climate Change, as well as state-owned corporations such as Hydro-Québec, must be able to predict trends as accurately as possible. However Hydro-Québec's spokespersons are silent when it comes to explaining why it did not begin opening the floodgates of its reservoirs this winter, even though all facts pointed to exceptional spring floods. Was it because Hydro-Québec was concerned that by lowering the level of its reservoirs too soon, it would not be able to supply the water that flows downstream to its hydro-electric power plants during the summer season? At the same time, it is well known that each year, Hydro-Québec is required to hand over to the Government of Quebec a significant portion of the profits it makes from its power generating operations. Those same profits are re-routed to the moneylenders of Wall Street and elsewhere for so-called debt repayment.

The Quebec Ministry of the Environment, Sustainable Development and the Fight against Climate Change did not take the necessary measures to prepare the people living close to major rivers for the spring floods, a predictable natural phenomenon well known to all and now worsened by climate change. It could have requested that Hydro-Québec open the floodgates of its reservoirs located upstream from the Gatineau, Ottawa and St-Maurice Rivers as early as March. Before spring arrived, it could have called on a local business located in Victoriaville, Quebec that designs and manufactures a system of pontoons called "Water-Gate" that transforms into dikes within minutes to stop the flow of water. The effectiveness of the pontoons is recognized worldwide, even by the U.S. Army, which certified them for its own use. Instead, the Couillard government waited for the floods to occur and then declared that it was "forced" to call in the Canadian army for sandbagging and transportation, a slow and costly operation which, for many, was "too little too late."


 1. For the Radio-Canada interview with Gachon in French, click here.

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