As wildfires raged last summer, municipalities rebuffed the province's pleas for help, saying they were stretched too thin already.
A Ministry of the Solicitor General slide deck from July 21, 2021, marked "confidential," contains notes from the deputy solicitor general's meetings with Toronto, Mississauga, Peel Region and Caledon. QP Briefing got the deck through a freedom-of-information request.
Toronto, Mississauga and Peel were "Priority One" for the government to contact, with the goal of getting them to agree to host a "contingency hotel" at Pearson Airport.
Each local government told the province it couldn’t provide any help.
The Region of Peel "indicated that they are fully tapped out with services and human resources. Their staff are exhausted after all the overtime they have put in during COVID-19," the notes read.
Toronto said its services can't support many more people, even if the province were to reimburse the city.
Mississauga offered to help with daycare and recreation, but as a tier 2 municipality said it couldn't provide "normal social services."
The same went for Caledon, which also noted that it's far from the airport, "which could be logistically complex" for helping with an evacuee hotel there.
The pandemic had put a lot of strain on municipalities, Barrie emergency services consultant Darryl Culley noted.
But Ontario needs to change its strategy of relying on municipalities to tell the province how many people they can take in each time evacuations are needed, he said.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation had called for the province to declare a state of emergency (which two experts said wouldn't have done much). The slide deck's stated purpose was to discuss whether the Ford government should do so.
It estimated that 2,037 people in northern First Nations could require evacuation — but found that there were only 837 spaces in host communities left.
What would have helped is more preparation, Culley said.
Extreme weather events are only going to become more common as climate change takes hold, he said.
"This is going to be an annual event," he said. "In the springs you've got flooding and in the summers you have wildfires."
Mass evacuations are hard to plan on the fly, he said. People need health and social services, plans for food and dietary requirements, and recreation.
"It's not just, 'Can you put some people up in a hotel for us?'" Culley said.
Municipalities need funding from the province and the federal government to establish permanent programs they can turn on like a light switch, he said — "a community within a community."
That funding could go toward building fire shelters and fireproof home upgrades, installing more air filtration and creating specific response plans, experts say.
New Solicitor General Michael Kerzner's office passed questions to the Treasury Board Secretariat. Spokesperson Kyle Richardson didn't say whether the document illustrated a need to rethink the province's evacuation systems.
Richardson said the government helped evacuate and return about 4,000 people last year to 14 locations.
Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) piloted a contingency hosting model in Sudbury, London and Mississauga, he noted.
"EMO maintains a list of all recent and potential hosts to reflect community hosting status and any factors that might impact a community’s ability to accept evacuees at any given time," he said in a statement. "The list is continually updated through regular communication between EMO and the leadership and band councils of First Nations communities and municipal emergency coordinators across Ontario."
The Town of Caledon said in a statement that it is "pleased to offer our facility locations and amenities that offer a rural experience for evacuees within the Greater Toronto Area."
The other three GTA communities didn't comment by press time.
Ontario has had a relatively quiet fire season this year, with 2,416 hectares of land burned compared to the 10-year average of 174,196, according to a Canadian Press report last month.
In 2021, a record 782,119 hectares had been burned by mid-August.
"We're going to be seeing more wildfires on an ongoing basis," Culley said. "And so it is really time to get these plans in place before we have another season like 2021."
The fires were largely concentrated in the North. Many First Nations had to be evacuated, and many people ended up far away from their homes, sometimes in substandard living spaces like high school gyms without enough showers or toilets.
Even if GTA communities could have helped, it would've meant flying thousands of kilometres from home for some people. Being able to stay closer could mean local First Nations governance structures could stay in place during the disaster, Culley noted.
"One of the First Nations that we dealt with that had to evacuate a wildfire a couple of years ago — they said to us, we wanted to be able to have our chief and council and that whole structure still function" and be involved in the decision-making while set up in a new place. "And so I think, (being) closer to home ... there's more opportunity for that engagement."