Houston pitches new volunteer organization to help during natural disasters

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks during a news confernce on Thursday. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks during a news confernce on Thursday. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotians who want to help during natural disasters will be able to sign up for a new volunteer corps called the Nova Scotia Guard.

Premier Tim Houston said Thursday that anyone with usable skills can register with the province, which will build a pool of volunteers who first responders and community organizations can call on during or after emergencies.

"You kind of want to over-resource these things," he said during a news conference. "You wish you had more people doing a search, more people shovelling snow, more people fighting the fire."

Houston said there would be space for anyone who wants to sign up and a vetting process would determine how they could help in the event of an emergency. The guard will be overseen by the new Department of Emergency Management, which would replace the existing Emergency Management Office under legislation tabled Thursday.

The new department will be led by John Lohr, the minister currently responsible for the Emergency Management Office.

Houston said the reorganization will allow the province to respond more efficiently to climate-related emergencies such as wildfires and flooding.

Churchill criticizes proposal

Opposition leaders did not share the premier's enthusiasm for the initiative.

"It reminds me of [former U.S. president Donald] Trump saying he was going to create a space force," Liberal Leader Zach Churchill told reporters at Province House.

"It might sound cool, but when the rubber hits the road I don't think this is going to make a bit of difference to better prepare Nova Scotia to deal with natural disasters."

Churchill said volunteers in rural parts of the province are already pushed to the limit and some groups, such as volunteer fire departments and ground search and rescue, struggle to get enough people. It would be better for the government to increase financial support and resources for those organizations, he said.

Chender sees 'PR stunt'

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said it's ironic that Houston is positioning the organization as a way to address climate change-related problems when his government refused to proclaim the Coastal Protection Act.

"I think this probably feels like a little bit of a PR stunt, the Nova Scotia Guard. Why not just co-ordinate the resources that we have?"

Chender said the Red Cross already does "an incredible job" co-ordinating resources during natural disasters.

She said the bill's release seemed timed to distract from debate happening at Province House around a government bill that would give the health minister access to personal medical information for the purposes of planning and management of the health system and maintaining electronic health record programs and services.

Although the bill to create the Emergency Management Department and Nova Scotia Guard was tabled Thursday, it is not expected to be passed during the spring session.

The new department is expected to be established in the fall, following consultations with municipalities and community organizations.