The Canadian Safety and Security Program supports efforts to engage youth in disaster resilience

August 4, 2016

Large-scale natural disasters have been on the rise worldwide, and while the exact cause is unclear, there is something most scientists, policy-makers, and legislators can all agree with—the increasing global need to invest in disaster preparedness, prevention, and recovery. Canadian experts are constantly evaluating and improving Canada’s emergency preparedness and the most effective ways to keep people safe. But some experts are taking a different approach to disaster resiliency: they’re engaging youth. 

In Alberta, a major effort is underway through the Alberta Resilient Communities (ARC) project funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions. This project builds on the experiences of children, youth, and their communities in order to inform and strengthen child and youth mental health and enhance disaster resilience in Southern Alberta. It represents an impressive collaborative partnership between academics of the University of Calgary (Dr. Julie Drolet), Mount Royal University (Dr. Caroline McDonald-Harker), and Royal Roads University (Dr. Robin Cox), along with community-based partners from Calgary, High River, and the Foothills region.

“We know that children and youth are often cited as a vulnerable population to disasters because of their dependency on adults and their developmental stage, but we also know that young people are motivated and want to contribute to the conversation around disaster resiliency. They have the capacity, strength, and intelligence to do so,” said Dr. Robin Cox, Director of ResilienceByDesign Research Lab, Professor and program head of the Disaster & Emergency Management (DEM) program at Royal Roads University.

Disaster resilience, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, is the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions. The question is: what role can youth play in a world under pressure from environmental degradation, population growth, unsustainable development in hazard-prone areas, and widening social and economic disparities?

“I think youth are more excited about the topic, which brings an added level of passion and a willingness to change things. Being a young person, you see things and think ‘That’s not the most efficient way of doing that’ and look for ways to improve it,” said Zachary Cox (no relation to Dr. Cox), 26, one of the learning lab participants.


“Youth bring a citizen voice that is unique based on their age and perspective. They have capabilities that are underutilized. They’re often catalysts for change, they’re more prone to want to invest in positive social change, because that’s their future”

The Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), in partnership with Public Safety Canada, supported the project by funding various deliverables, such as work done in the ResilienceByDesign (RbD) research lab. Public Safety Canada also provided support during the scoping phase of the project and during the review of the deliverables.The researchers at the RbD research lab have been engaging with disaster-affected youth from Southern Alberta to explore and contribute to disaster risk reduction, climate action, and community resilience.

The ARC project’s focus here in Canada aligns with the goals emphasized by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which was adopted at the third United Nations (UN) World Conference in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015. Members of the RbD participated and contributed in Sendai, and continue to work with international partners and collaborators who are also invested in the ways youth can help in disaster resilience and climate change adaptation.

In a series of “learning labs”, youth have been developing skills in community research, design thinking and visual storytelling. In the process, they have been generating data, broadening understanding, and developing new ideas to address social-environmental problems. Funding from the CSSP also supported the development of the Resilience Innovation Skills Certificate, which is a youth-centred learning process that builds knowledge and mental capacity for social innovation and resilience.

As noted in the project’s final report, research shows that younger people can demonstrate exceptional resilience in the face of disasters. They are creative, motivated and interested in how they can become resilient themselves and contribute to building resilient families and communities.

 “Youth bring a citizen voice that is unique based on their age and perspective. They have capabilities that are underutilized. They’re often catalysts for change, they’re more prone to want to invest in positive social change, because that’s their future,” adds Dr. Robin Cox.

As part of the CSSP-funded activities of the project, social media was used to help recruit young participants, who then answered a few questions about demographics and their extent of disaster exposure, to ensure the study would include a wide variety of people. The eight learning labs are designed to engage youth in the design and testing of methods and practices that promote disaster resilience. From data collection and brainstorming to the creation of solutions and policy outreach, the youth are engaged in every aspect of the process.

The labs involved the participants in community action research, the world of design thinking, generating data, digital storytelling and analysis, and even working on creating prototype solutions to improve community disaster resilience.

After completing these labs, youth will meet with local community organizations, youth groups, researchers, industry, or other stakeholders to pitch ideas for community resilience projects. They will be able to use their new skills to develop innovative approaches to complex social challenges. The ultimate goal is for the youth to implement these projects in their communities and participate in the evaluation and assessment of their impacts.

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