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A freight train travels past the remains of houses and businesses destroyed by the 2021 wildfire, in Lytton, B.C., on June 15.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In the weeks after a deadly heat wave swept western North America last summer, staff from the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF) program reached out to housing providers, community organizations and tenant advocates to learn how to better prepare for another extreme heat event like the one that killed more than 100 people in Oregon.

Across dozens of groups, the staffers heard similar requests for cooling devices to protect the city’s most vulnerable. By the fall, the group convened the PCEF Heat Response Program and sought equipment purchasing and community distribution partners. Earlier this month, contractors with the program installed a portable air conditioner at a Portland home free of charge – the first of an expected 15,000 over the next five years, including about 3,000 units this summer.

Magan Reed, public information manager for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which houses PCEF, said the community groups had identified the cooling devices as an emergency response to a crisis that disproportionately affected elderly and low-income people.

“And so this Heat Response Program, from conception to launch, was built in about six months – which, for government, is extremely speedy,” she said.

In British Columbia, 619 people died in the same heat wave. A coroner’s death review panel found that the majority of victims were older adults with compromised health, who lived alone without air conditioning. The panel recommended, among other things, that the B.C. government conduct a review by Dec. 1 into issuing cooling devices as medical equipment for people most at risk. While air conditioners are only one component of a larger response needed to adapt to more frequent and extreme weather events, advocates say they are a crucial and urgently needed response to protect the most vulnerable.

Stateside, governments in Washington and Oregon – which recorded at least 112 and 116 deaths, respectively – leveraged existing programs and created new ones to direct funds to distribute air conditioners to vulnerable populations. But no similar action on cooling devices has taken place in B.C., where government has pledged only to review the issue over coming months.

The coroner’s review panel did suggest that access to air conditioning was important. The review found that only 7.4 per cent of the 619 people who died had air conditioning present, while 24.1 per cent had fans in use.

A 2020 BC Hydro survey also found that 36 per cent of customers in the Lower Mainland – where the majority of heat deaths occurred – had some type of air conditioning, such as a central air conditioning system, portable or window air conditioners, or heat pumps. This compared with 70 per cent of customers in the Southern Interior, 33 per cent on Vancouver Island and 25 per cent in northern B.C.

Asked about the panel’s recommendation, a Ministry of Health spokesperson pointed to comments made by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth earlier this month, in which he said his government is committed to looking at each of the recommendations as thoroughly and efficiently as possible.

The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said in a statement that it already has a program through which, in extraordinary circumstances, British Columbians on income assistance can receive an unspecified amount of “crisis supplement” funding, such as to purchase a fan during a heat wave. Asked how many people accessed this funding for a cooling device last summer, or ever, a ministry spokesperson said in an e-mail that there was no way to track crisis supplement funding related specifically to weather or cooling devices.

Daniel Stevens, director of emergency management for the City of Vancouver, said city staff have raised the issue with the province.

Rowan Burdge, provincial director of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, who sat on the coroner’s panel, said the Dec. 1 deadline needs to be moved up.

“I think we need to be fast tracking that and making sure that’s an acceptable benefit for people this summer, because we’re worried about heat events happening sooner than December and there really isn’t any infrastructure in place at this point to support people,” she said.

Gabrielle Peters, a member of the Vancouver City Planning Commission, was on the death review panel but withdrew her name from the final report in protest. She noted that a program to provide medical equipment already exists, and that government could add air conditioners as a temporary item immediately while it investigated longer-term solutions.

“There is a lot of existing infrastructure that they are deciding not to use,” she said.

Both Ontario and Toronto have similar programs that do include air conditioning. In Ontario, Ontario Works administrators have the discretion to approve, on a case-by-case basis, discretionary benefits for people receiving social assistance.

Meanwhile, Toronto Employment and Social Services can provide up to $300 to social assistance recipients for an air conditioning unit or fan every four years – if the recipient has a prescription stating that a cooling device is required as part of a treatment plan, and failing to provide it would result in hospitalization or severe risk to life.

Canadians can also claim up to $1,000, or half of the amount paid for an air conditioner – whichever is less – as a medical expense on their tax returns if they have a prescription documenting a severe chronic ailment, disease or disorder for which it is required.

Ms. Peters called access to such programs inequitable, as the ability to claim an air conditioner on a tax return is dependent on one’s ability to purchase in the first place. But the fact that it’s an eligible medical device demonstrates that policy makers recognize it is a medically required or essential accessibility need for some, she said.

She added that the requirement of a prescription also means some people who need air conditioners won’t get them.

“I think the public is learning a bit about the barriers to diagnosis in real time with long COVID. There are many disabled people who are not yet diagnosed,” Ms. Peters said, noting that nearly a million British Columbians don’t have family doctors. “Any time we add in layers like this, we add in openings for discrimination and, thus, inequitable access.”

According to 2019 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 79 per cent of homes in the Portland metro area have air conditioning, while 44 per cent of homes in the Seattle metro area do, making it the least air-conditioned metro area in the country.

Portland’s heat response program was born from community activism. In 2018, voters approved a citizen ballot measure to create the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, a municipal grant program that imposed a 1-per-cent business licence surcharge on large retailers, generating tens of millions of dollars a year to invest in initiatives to fight climate change, prioritizing low-income residents and racialized people. Grants are awarded by a nine-person committee and must be approved by Portland City Council.

Under the PCEF Heat Response Program, air conditioners are prioritized for people who are low income, racialized, elderly or otherwise vulnerable, Ms. Reed said. No prescriptions are necessary. PCEF staff also plan to solicit grant proposals to mitigate greenhouse gases associated with the program.

“Having pieces in place, having a community that raises their voices and expects action and caring concern from government and people who represent them, it’s really put us in a great position to be able to implement these programs and make meaningful change so that stuff like this doesn’t happen in the future,” Ms. Reed said.

The U.S. also has the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), administered by state social service agencies, which assists low-income families with paying energy bills, covering energy-related home repairs and weatherizing their homes.

Brian Sarensen, the LIHEAP program manager in Washington, said the program has traditionally been used for heating assistance in his state, but that is now changing.

“Last year, we had over 100 people pass away from heat-related stress, many of them vulnerable populations, elderly, those with disabilities and low income. That was not something that should have happened,” he said. “So we took the idea to core leadership, submitted a request to [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] to make adjustments to our plan, and they allowed us to. So this program year, we’ve offered air conditioning as part of our energy assistance program for the very first time.”

To be eligible for Washington’s LIHEAP program, a household’s income must be 150 per cent of the federal poverty level or less. The lower the income and the higher the energy burden, the larger the benefit, Mr. Sarensen said. The program then makes the majority of payments, which range from US$100 to US$1,000 annually, directly to utility providers.

The White House said funding allocated for the program reached a record US$8.3-billion in fiscal year 2022 – the largest investment in a single year since the program was established in 1981. This includes more than US$151-million for Washington and US$93-million for Oregon.

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