It was my husband’s idea to tape tin foil on our windows. We found it reflected some of the heat that had effectively turned our 550 sq foot Vancouver apartment into an oven. That week, there were times we gave up on the apartment entirely and headed to the beach, hoping a dip in the ocean water would offer some much-needed relief.

We didn’t realize then that we were living through the deadliest extreme weather event in Canadian history. A high pressure system had formed in the atmosphere trapping heat close to the Earth’s surface the same way a lid traps heat in a pot and driving temperatures to new extremes for days on end. We would remember that time, June 25 to July 1, as the 2021 Heat Dome.

At its peak, temperatures hit 20 degrees C above normal, soaring into the mid-40 range across Western Canada. Heat-related illnesses mounted so quickly that the entire healthcare system was brought to its knees. Then, on June 30, after breaking the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada three days in a row, the entire town of Lytton burned to the ground.

I have no doubt that everyone in BC has their own Heat Dome story. That time has been permanently seared into our memories.

A BC Coroner’s report would later confirm that the Heat Dome killed 619 people in our province. The mass deaths that climate scientists had warned us about for decades had hit home. And yet, three years later, it seems like this massive, preventable loss of life has barely registered on the radars of our political decision makers.

As the BC Coroner explained, it wasn’t just the heat that killed so many people, it was the lack of access to cooling. Most of the people who died in the Heat Dome were elderly or vulnerable people who didn’t have access to fans or air conditioning systems. These were entirely preventable deaths. There's a simple measure the federal government should have taken in the aftermath to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again: give a free heat pump to everyone who needs one.

Heat pumps are like air conditioners, but they’re more energy efficient. In the winter, they can reverse their function and act as heaters powered by electricity. Crucially, by helping to replace furnaces that run on gas or oil, heat pumps allow us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels that are cooking our planet and making disasters like the 2021 Heat Dome much more likely. Buildings are the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and we need mass adoption of heat pumps to change that.

Heat pumps can also play a big role in keeping vulnerable people healthy and safe during extreme heat events.

Urban and rural communities are pushing their MPs to champion a Universal Heat Pump Program, writes Atiya Jaffar

In fact, they likely saved lives back in 2021. One such example is the H. W. Flesher Housing Co-operative in Vancouver that mobilized, after some particularly hot summers, to ensure that all 100 units in their community had a heat pump.

Luckily, they acted just in time to ensure that the entire co-operative, including many elderly members, were protected when the 2021 Heat Dome hit.

A Universal Heat Pump Program administered by a national entity that builds, distributes, and installs them, is the kind of bold, transformative action we need our leaders to take as the climate crisis accelerates. And there's a precedent right here in Canada: PEI has installed over 7,000 free heat pumps since 2021. The federal government can learn from this program and take it further.

Creating a new publicly owned entity would allow us to build up a cheap domestic supply of heat pumps and bypass private sector price-gouging while creating tens of thousands of good, unionized jobs. A public entity would set a road map to ensure that no one is left behind, especially those most vulnerable to extreme heat events including seniors, low-income tenants, and residents in high-density buildings. It would be one of many “big, bold moves” that Seth Klein proposes to meet the climate emergency at the speed and scale it demands.

My team at 350 Canada has seen tremendous enthusiasm for our new Heat Pumps for All campaign. Constituents are rising up in urban and rural communities from coast to coast to push their MPs to champion a Universal Heat Pump Program, all under the backdrop of yet another brutal summer. It’s not lost on me that I am writing this as communities across Eastern Canada battle their own extreme heatwaves and I find myself explaining the tin foil trick to loved ones out East.

So the question remains: will federal leaders listen to us and act in time to prevent the next mass death event?

Atiya Jaffar is campaigns manager for 350 Canada, an organization focused on building a people-powered movement for bold, ambitious climate action. Atiya’s team is focused on a campaign to win a universal heat pump program: you can learn more about Heat Pumps for All here.

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