Trudeau targets firefighting, says Meta News ban degrades safety while generating billions

Canada’s dispute with Meta is a “testing moment” for the country to confront the social media giant that is making billions of people, but without taking any responsibility for the well-being of the communities it benefits from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Trudeau made his comments in West Kelowna, one of several British Columbia communities involved in the evacuations of thousands of people last summer, while information about wildfires and escape routes was blocked on Meta’s Facebook platform.

He called Meta an “irresponsible web giant,” which had previously been making huge profits by sharing information from local journalists who worked hard to make sure people were properly informed.

“This is a testing moment in which countries will have to realize that either we defend journalism and the profession against the Internet giants who refuse to participate in it, or we bow to them and allow them to make thousands of millions of dollars more, while degrading the security, well-being and communities that thrive in our democracy.

Meta has blocked Canadian news on Facebook and Instagram because of the federal government’s Online News Act, which seeks compensation for news outlets whose stories are used on social media.

Trudeau said he knows there are many people trying to find ways to keep everyone informed, especially in emergency situations, but that countries must defend journalism.

He noted that his government had the same disagreement with Google, but the company “stepped up” its contribution with $100 million to ensure local journalism thrived.

BC Premier David Eby announced last month that the province had reached an agreement with Meta and had received assurances that it would work with BC emergency officials to deliver and expand public information in the event of natural disasters such as forest fires.

FILE – The Meta logo is seen on a sign at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on Nov. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez, File)

Meta began blocking Canadian news content on its platforms in August, just before fires ravaged British Columbia’s southern interior.

Trudeau was in West Kelowna last August, just days after a wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes.

On Friday, the premier said he met with mayors and fire chiefs from those same communities, along with several families who lost their homes in B.C.’s interior and are still affected by the situation.

“We know from forecasts in western and northern Canada that because of the dry winter… it’s likely to be a very bad wildfire season,” he said during a news conference at the West Kelowna fire station.

He said lessons learned last year would help minimize the impacts of fires expected this summer.

BC’s snowpack is at the lowest level ever recorded and drought levels are already high in the province’s northeast.

Drought conditions in British Columbia date back to 2022, and forecasters have said the province is heading into this summer with “multi-year” rainfall deficits.

West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund met with Trudeau before Friday’s news conference to make some requests.

Brolund became the face of the British Columbia wildfires last summer as she described the battle against the fires and the losses they suffered. The chief later spoke at a United Nations conference on climate change and said the shooting was the toughest three days of his career, as entire neighborhoods burned.

He said fire crews were facing fires they were finding nearly impossible to extinguish, in part because of climate change making it easier for fires to burn.

Brolund said he thanked Trudeau for doubling the tax credit for volunteer firefighters, which adds an extra $425 for each volunteer, but wants it to be even larger.

He said they asked him to reinstate joint emergency preparedness grants for training and equipment for fire departments, and they want the Fire Smart program to be implemented on a national scale to have measurable impacts on communities.

“I felt like his ears were open,” Brolund said of Trudeau.

Temperatures could reach record highs in interior British Columbia this weekend, and Brolund said they are watching the weather closely.

June is historically the wettest month and firefighters were hoping to get it this year, the chief said.

“If we don’t, our departments are ready. We have new equipment, we have new training, we have firefighters on the scene,” he said.

“What we have most is a spirit of cooperation between the region. And we saw that today when the mayors and fire chiefs met to share our experience with the prime minister.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2024.

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