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National wildfire incident response group meets ahead of cabinet retreat

More than 50,000 in B.C., NWT facing evacuation orders
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes a statement about the wildfires in Western Canada in Charlottetown, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The Liberal cabinet is in Prince Edward Island’s capital this week for a retreat as it gets ready for the next sitting of the Parliament. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brian McInnis

The “apocalyptic devastation” of wildfires in British Columbia and Northwest Territories is a chief concern for the federal government as a cabinet retreat gets underway in Charlottetown, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday morning.

Affordability and the country’s housing crisis are set to headline the three-day retreat but he said the fires are a “pressing concern.”

More than 30,000 people in British Columbia are under evacuation orders as multiple fires threaten communities including the Central Okanagan city of Kelowna. Homes and a historic resort in West Kelowna have already burned, though there was hope Monday things may be improving as cooler weather helped firefighters beat back the flames.

More than 20,000 people were forced to flee Yellowknife and several other communities near Slave Lake in Northwest Territories last week.

“This is a scary and heartbreaking time for people,” Trudeau said.

The cabinet’s incident response group, including Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, was set to meet again in Charlottetown Monday afternoon to discuss ongoing co-ordination of the fire situation.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Harjit Sajjan, who represents a Vancouver riding in the House of Commons, will attend that meeting and the retreat remotely. He is staying in B.C. to help with the response to the fires.

More than 1,000 fires are still burning across Canada, and 60 per cent of them are in B.C. and N.W.T.

This has by far been Canada’s worst fire season on record. More than 5,800 recorded fires have burned 141,000 square kilometres, an area greater in size than all of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island put together.

The cabinet retreat comes a few weeks before members of Parliament will return to the House of Commons. It has also been less than a month since Trudeau announced a major shuffle of his cabinet.

There are seven new faces among his 38-member governing team, and 19 others have new jobs.

All of them have spent the summer getting an earful from friends, neighbours and constituents about housing, which is the number 1 item on the government’s agenda for the fall.

The cost of housing, whether buying or renting, has increased far faster than wages in recent years. It is estimated that Canada needs to at least triple the rate of building new homes to try to get the issue back under control.

The authors of a recent national report on housing will be in Charlottetown to brief cabinet ministers on their findings and what needs to be done.

Ministers will also hear from the founder of the Generation Squeeze think tank from the University of British Columbia about ways to help young Canadians who are feeling economic despair as prices rise.

The Liberals have been struggling in opinion polls of late, losing ground to the Conservatives under leader Pierre Poilievre as more than a year of budget-busting inflation has made their lives much more expensive.

Poilievre has spent recent months attacking Trudeau and the Liberals for breaking Canada, a message he reiterated Monday in a press conference on Parliament Hill.

Liberal strategist Susan Smith, principal and founder at Bluesky Strategy Group in Ottawa, said the Liberals need to push back harder against that, and to be better at explaining some of the affordability policies they have implemented. That includes the move to a $10-a-day child care program that has already reduced the cost of daycare significantly for thousands of Canadian parents.

“They need to remind people that the country works, that democracy is strong and that a broken Canada is not a hopeful future for Canada,” she said.

“But they can’t do that by default. They actually have to tell people that.”

Trudeau’s social media accounts have been heavily focused on such programs in recent weeks. On Monday morning he made an appearance at a Montessori school in Cornwall, P.E.I., alongside Premier Dennis King, to highlight investments in child care and an expansion of available child care spaces.

The retreat is also Trudeau’s first public appearances since he and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, announced they would be separating after 18 years of marriage. The two spent 10 days in British Columbia with their children: Xavier, 15, Ella-Grace, 14, and Hadrien, 9.

Trudeau thanked Canadians for being generously respectful of the family’s privacy, saying it made things easier for them.

“I got a really good 10 days with the family to focus on the kids, to focus on being together and moving forward,” he said.

READ ALSO: New cabinet shifts focus to economy and housing ahead of next election

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