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'Are we developing an Urban Flooding Policy?' Emails reveal confusion in minister's office

After a years-long back-and-forth, the government has now convened an urban flooding working group
2019-04-22 flood flooding ottawa
Flooded property near Buckham's Bay, April 22, 2019. Jenn Pritchard/

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

In April, Ontario promised to create a working group on flooding. In June, the responsible minister's office appeared to have never heard of it.

But yes — as of October, it does exist, the ministry now confirms.

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) then-deputy minister Monique Rolf von den Baumen-Clark made the pledge on April 3, saying her ministry would take the lead on an intra-governmental working group to address urban flooding. The group was to be a response to the auditor general's 2022 report, which found a lack of leadership on the file.

In a legislative committee discussing the AG report, Rolf von den Baumen-Clark said the group would be made up of the Ministries of Natural Resources and Forestry, Environment, Conservation and Parks, Municipal Affairs and Housing, Infrastructure and Transportation, and some municipalities.

It would "identify roles and responsibilities related to urban flooding, determine new or emerging urban flooding issues and develop a provincial framework for urban flooding policy," she said.

"To fulfil that recommendation, MNRF will be leading the flood strategy commitment to establish a provincial urban flooding work group," Rolf von den Baumen-Clark told the committee. 

NDP climate critic Peter Tabuns asked when the working group would be convened and when it would start writing reports. Rolf von den Baumen-Clark initially refused to offer a timeline but said, "We will start this year," after Tabuns pressed her.

Just two months later, the minister's top policy staffer appeared not to have heard of the project.


According to internal emails received through a freedom-of-information request, a ministry staffer contacted several employees in Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Graydon Smith's office on June 1. She was looking for approval to get back to the legislative committee with a more specific timeline.

"Proposed Answer: 'The provincial urban flooding working group will be established this summer, with deliberations to be held through this fall and winter and a final framework/report to be completed in the spring of 2024,'" the ministry staffer wrote.

A response came the next morning from Smith's director of policy, Matthew Stubbings.

"I don't know what the Urban Flooding Working Group is?" he wrote. "Are we developing an Urban Flooding Policy? Please advice. [sic]"

A couple of hours later, Stubbings asked the ministry to tone down its proposed committee answer because Smith and his staff didn't know enough about the group.

"I don't think we offer any time commitments without the [minister's office] and [minister] being briefed on this group's terms of reference and broader policy objectives," he wrote. "I propose we change the language to something like the... Ministry will be considering establishing a working group in the coming months..."


On Thursday, ministry spokesperson Richard Mullin said the group has been established and will indeed meet this fall.

Ontario's 2020 flooding strategy pledged to "establish a working group with provincial agencies to identify custodians for flood mapping information, including base data, with clear roles and responsibilities."

In the auditor general's report, she notes that the ministry had drafted terms of reference and invitations to participate in the group back in 2020, following a report from a Special Advisor on Flooding that recommended its creation — but it still hadn't been created as of 2022. 

"The province is well aware of the need to do more to address this issue," then-auditor general Bonnie Lysyk wrote, noting that four reports and plans had made recommendations. "Yet the province has never clarified provincial roles for addressing and co-ordinating actions needed to alleviate the risk of urban flooding, with the result that gaps in responsibility persist and actions and commitments have never been implemented."

The government seemed to backtrack on its plan to create a flood group after Lysyk's report. Four ministries told her they'd work within their own mandates on flooding, but "none agreed to develop a provincial framework that clearly identifies and assigns roles and responsibilities for urban flood management," Lysyk wrote.

Flood-prone communities have called for more help from higher levels of government, singling out the "siloed" nature of support. Some say governments could learn something from the Americans, whose Army Corps of Engineers is creating a plan to protect the shorelines of eight states along the Great Lakes.

Then-environment minister David Piccini promised in August to call on the feds to create a similar plan. He also said there would be an announcement from Ottawa on that front in the fall, but the feds said they weren't sure what he was talking about.



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Jack Hauen

About the Author: Jack Hauen

Jack has been covering Queen’s Park since 2019. Beats near to his heart include housing, transportation, municipalities, health and the environment. He especially enjoys using freedom of information requests to cause problems.
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