It’s an unprecedented wildfire season in Canada, with millions of hectares burned and hundreds of structures destroyed while extreme heat has had devastating effects on people’s health, especially for those from racialized and newcomer communities.
At least 619 people died in B.C. during the 2021 heat dome when the province broke records and oppressive 40C temperatures lasted for days. Only about a third of households in B.C. had air conditioners in 2021. The B.C. Coroner’s Service reported that 98 per cent of these people died indoors. Seniors with underlying health conditions were most affected by the extreme heat.
A sizable portion of the people who died were immigrants or from racialized communities, said Holly Jones.
Jones is the Volunteer Resources Coordinator for MOSAIC, a registered charity serving immigrant, refugee, and migrant communities.
MOSAIC created “The Seniors Heatwave Project” in 2022 where volunteers reach out to vulnerable community members during heatwaves to provide wellness checks and give tips on how to mitigate the impacts of the heat. Jones says it’s crucial to educate people “because information is power.”
“It’s important to know what the dangers of heat are because if you don’t, you can’t put interventions in place,” Jones explained. “If you know how to prepare and take care of yourself, you’ll know what measures you can take to help mitigate the temperature in your own accommodation.”
Data analysis from CBC News found that immigrants and people with low incomes are most likely to live in the hottest areas of cities, known as heat islands, making them more susceptible to heat waves and their consequences. This is particularly concerning because global warming will make heat waves worse in the future.
The unexpected nature of the 2021 heat dome meant that resources weren’t widely or readily available in multiple languages, Jones says. One of the MOSAIC project’s focuses is to bridge that information gap and make information more accessible. Three-quarters of MOSAIC’s more than 500 trained volunteers are immigrants, and collectively they can speak 69 different languages and dialects.
“Many of our older seniors don’t have the English-language capacity that younger family members do. Regularly, the younger family members are the translators,” Jones said.
Beating the Heat
Jones says access to information is critical in extreme heat events because not everyone can afford interventions like air conditioning units. Just over a third of people in B.C. had units when the heat dome stuck in 2021. About 500,000 Greater Toronto Area residents live in apartment buildings that don’t have or support centralized air conditioning.
In British Columbia, the province’s health minister announced $10 million in funding last month to provide approximately 8,000 air conditioners to medically vulnerable, low-income residents over the next three years.
The City of Toronto pays for portable air conditioners for people with low incomes who suffer from certain medical conditions.
Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, says policy measures like those that address the negative health impacts of climate change are effective and necessary because extreme heat “puts an immediate threat on people’s health.”
For example, when the body is unable to cool down at night during a heat wave, it faces additional strain trying to regulate its temperature. Prolonged heat exhaustion or heat stroke can lead to muscles cramping and breaking down, as well as organ failure. Heat also exacerbates pre-existing health conditions, particularly diabetes, asthma, and heart and lung conditions.
“Anything that’s going to mitigate the internal temperatures of dwellings or facilitate cooling in the evening is going to help reduce the morbidity and mortality related to extreme heat events,” Culbert said.
Researchers in Ontario found that heat waves result in increased rates of hospitalization and death. The province estimates that a five-degree rise in daily temperature causes about four deaths per day.
“We should want a basic minimum for people that isn’t misery, that doesn’t put their lives at stake in extreme weather’ Culbert said “As a society, we should at least not have people dying because of a heat wave when there’s something we can do about it.”
In case you haven't been paying attention, we've now had 24 days in a row of record global temperatures, likely the hottest stretch of 24 days in the last 100,000+ years.
We humans have some amazing talents, not least of which is our ability to cause global suffering. pic.twitter.com/CQGQ0qoXiY
— Prof. Eliot Jacobson (@EliotJacobson) July 27, 2023
Heat Health Inequities
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the health inequities Canadians experience.
An Advanced Practice Nurse and health equity specialist, Amie Archibald-Varley, says advocacy is needed to help protect vulnerable populations.
“If we don’t pay attention, we will continue to see those inequities and disparities in those groups.”
Archibald-Varley says the key is improving the healthcare system overall to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and has an “equitable opportunity of receiving fair health benefits” regardless of their race or socio-economic status. She says this is necessary to help mitigate the worst health impacts of heat.
Culbert said the altruistic argument for policies and interventions that could mitigate or prevent the worst health impacts of climate change is also fiscally sound.
“It’s expensive to hospitalize someone with multiple comorbidities for a week or longer because their heat stroke or the extreme weather has exasperated their existing conditions, and now the only thing left is for them to be hospitalized in the most expensive form of care that we have, institutional acute care,” he said.
Heat and Housing
Archibald-Varley says built-in inequities in various systems, like housing, put already vulnerable people at greater risk.
“We know that intentional things have been done in relation to how housing has been set for folks of lower socioeconomic status. To be around more factories, air pollutants and around things that are undesirable from a healthcare standpoint,” Archibald-Varley said.
Research from Waterloo University’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation projects that between 2050 and 2080, major Canadian cities will experience an increase in maximum daily temperature between 3C and 5C. The number of days where the temperature surpasses 30C is set to increase by double, triple or quadruple — that would mean maximum daily temperatures nearing 38C, and as much as two months of temperatures higher than 30C every summer in Toronto. Some experts argue that cooling should be considered a human right.
Is this our first Extinction Summer? They're calling it a global heatwave. Temperature records are shattered. Floods roar globally, and so do wildfires.
There are 3 things everyone should understand right now about our civilization, its climate, and where we go from here. 1/6 pic.twitter.com/Xu6vWCV6Wi
— ❤️ Umair (@umairh) July 18, 2023
Archibald-Varley believes both housing and healthcare should be treated as human rights and calls the lack of protections from the heat for vulnerable people “unconscionable.” She says politicians and city planners need to be held accountable and that government needs to do more.
“We need to have stronger policies and legislation and we need to enact these policies much faster. I also think it’s important that we’re proactive when we’re looking to improve the system, but usually we’re reactive,” Archibald-Varley said.
The CBC analysis also found that building materials, the presence of dark surfaces and green space, and proximity to a body of water were all significant factors in how residents experience heat.
Cheryl Teelucksingh, professor and Department Chair of Sociology at the Toronto Metropolitan University, said that issues of climate justice, and the experience of racialized people and immigrant communities should be considered at the start of any urban or housing development.
Teelucksingh’s research focuses on examining the relationship between race, environmental justice and social inequality in Canada.
She said there’s usually a lack of integration and collaboration when it comes to approaching issues, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted attitudes. Being able to see how decisions can impact the population’s way of life. She said that same approach will play out with the climate crisis.
“There’s a little bit more of a willing audience to talk about it because of what happened in the pandemic, and people are more aware of the fact that they’re only as strong as the weakest communities,” Teelucksingh said.
“We will be more mindful in thinking about affordability and the concerns of addressing social inequality,” Teelucksingh said. “If we’re paying immigrants better salaries that would allow them to have a greater range of choices. Right now, if you’re looking at where you can afford to live, it’s a pretty narrow pocket. That’s also the issue, who has more choices?”
Climate change and the challenges cities face to adapt is an opportunity to build better cities, said Matti Siemiatycki, Canada Research Chair in infrastructure and finance at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.
“If this is done it could launch Canadian cities into a more sustainable phase but it’s going to require a lot of investment and a lot of focus and coordination, which is not typically the Canadian way of city building,” he said.
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.