The Canadian Forces say they will charge provinces and municipalities whenever the CF are asked for help in natural disasters, which is sort of like asking Canadians to pay twice for a critical service -- once with their taxes and again when it is needed.
The Department of National Defence claims it has always had the authority to recover costs, but that it stopped doing so 15 years ago, or around the time of the Flood of the Century in Manitoba.
That's a surprise, since there's no obvious example of a municipality or province ever paying for military service in a crisis, but it's possible.
It's not known if the military charged Manitoba for the aid it provided during the 1950 flood, but it seems unlikely that it did, considering lives and property were clearly threatened.
The army claims it spent nearly $4 million helping Manitobans during the 2011 flood, but the figure probably includes fixed costs, such as salaries, which would have been paid if no one came to the province's rescue. The true incremental cost would be much lower.
It would be unjustifiable for the military to charge Canadians for necessary services, although it might be fair to levy a bill if it was for assistance that was frivolous.
The City of Toronto, for example, once asked for military aid following an unexpected snowstorm that was mild by Winnipeg standards.
A bill in that case might have been justified, but if the army's heft wasn't truly required to save lives and property, then the obvious question is: Why was it even provided? So Torontonians could get to work that day?
The Manitoba government wasn't informed of the new policy, but every province should be concerned.
The federal government, for example, normally provides relief in natural disasters. It is covering many of the costs in the 2011 flood, although not the price of buying out some cottagers, which was not considered a legitimate expense.
But if the military's help was truly needed in a future flood, then presumably Ottawa would cover the cost as a bona fide disaster expense. The problem is it's not clear, which is why the province should seek clarification.
The other complicating factor is the vague way in which the military can be deployed for domestic operations.
Under the aid-to-the-civil-power provisions of the National Defence Act, provincial justice ministers have the authority to call the chief of the defence staff (CDS) and request assistance. It's up to the CDS whether to provide it or not.
There also are provisions in the Emergencies Act, which replaced the old War Measures Act in 1988, to allow the Canadian government to deploy troops during emergencies, but it requires cabinet approval, followed by a review by Parliament, a cumbersome process.
In the 2011 flood, however, Premier Greg Selinger simply called the prime minister and the troops were deployed. When more troops were needed near Souris, Emergency Services Minister Steve Ashton called Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, bypassing the official routes.
It seems odd that Ottawa would permit the military to issue a bill, when the tab would simply be turned over to the federal government as an expense under disaster assistance.
In any event, the idea of charging Canadians for military assistance in true emergencies is offensive. If the Canadian Forces can provide help to people around the world without submitting a bill, then they should be able to do the same at home.
The first responsibility of the Armed Forces must be to protect Canadians, not just from external threats, but also from the wide range of perils that Canadians face from time to time, and which local authorities cannot handle alone.
The Harper government should take responsibility for the issue rather than leaving it to the Defence Department, which has always been happy to help Canadians.