Climate Change and Health Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment for Northern Ontario Public Health Units

The project, “Climate Change and Health Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment for Northern Ontario Public Health Units,” was funded by Health Canada’s HealthADAPT program until March 2022.

The project established the Northern Ontario Climate Change and Health Collaborative. a community of practice that is made up of the seven public health units in Northern Ontario. The health units involved are Algoma Public Health, North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, Northwestern Health Unit, Porcupine Health Unit, Public Health Sudbury & Districts, Thunder Bay District Health Unit, and Timiskaming Health Unit. Within this project, the Collaborative targeted a number of climate change hazards that are impacting Northern Ontario communities, namely air quality, extreme weather events, heat events, and heat-related illness. The project was mainly coordinated through the Northwestern Health Unit, who served as the administrative lead.

The project area included the catchment areas of the public health units involved. Climate change impacts in northern Ontario are expected to be different from southern Ontario due to variations in geography and population density. The northern Ontario region has many rural and remote communities and dozens of First Nations communities living in remote areas. Remote communities, particularly, are more resource-dependent, have less access to healthcare, and are therefore at greater risk to the impacts of climate change.

This project greatly enhanced the capacity of Northern Ontario Health Units and partners to address climate-related hazards. It developed a range of tools including the Climate Change and health in Northern Ontario report, a literature search with results available to project members, a vulnerability and adaptation assessment template, a collaborative data framework, and an adaptation framework. While climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation (V&A) assessments were not completed for each public health unit due to COVID-19 related challenges, meetings with each health unit over the course of the project identified locally relevant work relating to the V&A assessment.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Climate change impacts are expected to be more severe in northern Ontario than southern Ontario. Northwestern Canada has experienced greater warming since 1948 – with annual temperatures increasing around 0.4°C in the east and 1.4 °C in the northwest. Along with extreme heat and increased burden of heat-related illness, impacts to air quality will also affect the health of communities in northern Ontario. Northern Ontario is geographically dispersed with more rural and remote communities that have less access to healthcare services. First Nations communities also live in remote, fly-in areas in northern Ontario and are especially at-risk.

As climate change work is relatively new for public health units in northern Ontario, this project involved a collaboration with all seven public units to build capacity and establish the Collaborative. Together, the public health units worked to develop a vulnerability and adaptation (V&A) assessment template and tools useable by each public health unit to understand climate change vulnerability and adaptation from a northern Ontario perspective. This template and tool included a collaborative data framework that provided data on population health indicators related to climate change hazards prevalent in northern Ontario. The framework did not provide data on each municipality because this data would change over time, but the framework was intended to be updated by the public health units as needed. A literature search was also completed in mid-2019 to inform the project, and an adaptation framework was developed that focused on rural and northern settings and identified best practices for climate change and health adaptation. As part of ensuring a health equity perspective in the project, the Collaborative engaged stakeholders from across northern Ontario including Indigenous partners and communities.

Identifying Actions

With a timeline of three years, the project was intended to produce climate adaptation plans for all participating public health units. However, due to COVID-19 related challenges, timelines shifted and goals were realigned so that the public health units and participating stakeholders could better handle the impacts of the pandemic. The project team developed an engagement toolkit to support public and partner engagement in climate change work. The toolkit included a collection of informational materials to increase public and partner awareness, such as presentations, news releases, and infographics. Through engagement activities, the project identified populations at great risk and existing and potential future climate challenges. From early on, the project team had conversations with service providers, First Nations groups, environmental organizations and municipalities to complement existing climate and health data. The project interviewed 77 individuals and communicated with partner agencies and internal project partners with 34 presentations. These conversations were highly useful in identifying populations at greater risk and the adaptive actions that would be suitable to the northern context.

As climate change is considered to be an amplifier for health inequities, a healthy equity focus from the outset helped develop recommendations and prioritizations that addressed populations at greater risk. However, there were gaps within the localized data, which made it more challenging to quantify climate impacts at the municipal level. This made it especially necessary to complement quantitative data with qualitative data from community and stakeholder engagement. In order to identify adaptive actions, a project committee met regularly to guide project development, implementation, and evaluation. The Northwestern Health Unit acted as the administrative lead for the project, providing administrative and system support for the project by filling a project coordinator role. As part of this role, the Northwestern Health Unite guided meetings with the rest of the Collaborative and helped identify key actions for each health unit in order to identify locally relevant work.


This project had a series of projected outcomes that were aligned with the objectives. In order to implement these outcomes, there were five planned activities. This consisted of:

  • Producing a climate science and health report for northern Ontario
  • Developing stakeholder education and engagement tools
  • Developing local engagement plans for each health unit
  • Holding local consultation sessions with a variety of stakeholders
  • Producing a climate and health vulnerability and adaption assessment for each of the participating public health unit partners

The report, titled Climate Change and Health in Northern Ontario, provided an overview of the climate issues affecting northern Ontario and their potential health impacts. This report contributed important data on the northern Ontario context, including population health indicators on climate health hazards, which will guide future climate work in this area. The work was completed through the involvement of all participating public health units, with periodic meetings with the Collaborative, and local engagement done according to the local capacity.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the intention of the project shifted from providing V&A assessments for all public health units to assembling tools and resources to support public health units and local capacity to address climate change work into the future. The capacity of the public health partners in the project to engage partners was reduced because of their pandemic response requirements, and local stakeholders were similarly less available to participate in consultation activities because of their own pandemic response activities. The project was able to engage some stakeholders, but not to the extent originally intended. The engagement activities that occurred with the communities and relevant stakeholders nonetheless provided valuable information that helped develop the Climate Change and Health in Northern Ontario report, as well as the data and informational tools for the public health units.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

While northern Ontario municipalities are generally smaller communities, there is a keen interest to engage in climate change and health work. Municipalities are interested in developing informative data tools, such as floodplain mapping, but additional resources are needed to support this work. Many northern Ontario municipalities are drafting sustainability and climate action plans, or creating smaller pilot studies that assess climate hazards and health risks.

Partnership and knowledge sharing between health units in northern Ontario was greatly facilitated and supported by this project. Participating public health units developed new or strengthened existing climate change partnerships in their region. Knowledge sharing between public health units in the Collaborative helped identify common issues and approaches related to climate change and health vulnerability and adaptation. One beneficial outcome of the project is that it provided a human dimension to climate change by engaging with residents’ climate change perceptions and helping communities understand how climate change is affecting them and affecting their environment. Developing a response to the COVID-19 pandemic while conducting this project reinforced the importance of sustainability and capacity building for northern Ontario municipalities. The pandemic also shifted the outcomes of the project from creating V&A assessments for each public health unit into developing a template for northern public health units’ future use and creating other collaborative tools to assist the completion of the assessments in the future.

Next Steps

This HealthADAPT project has increased the understanding of health impacts of climate change in northern Ontario, which will greatly support future work. As many of the public health units were previously unfamiliar with climate adaptation work, the project built the health units’ capacity to respond to climate change and health issues in the future. It has also contributed to current, localized data and information, including the perspective of community residents.

While COVID-19 required quick workarounds to the project’s engagement strategy and affected team capacity to engage with the work, the project has been ultimately successful in building resilience in northern Ontario communities. Already, the project has led to planned actions, including a post-COVID-19 framework for recovery that includes programs for building the capacity of northern Ontario municipalities. There is also strong encouragement for the public health units to complete their V&A assessments in the future. The Northern Ontario Climate Change and Health Collaborative will support any future work. The participating public health units will continue meeting as part of the Collaborative to support each other moving forward and the Collaborative can operate to provide resources and support the work of the public health units. Some areas that the municipalities will focus on further, along with the V&As in each participating region, include more data collection on climate and health indicators and more community and stakeholder consultation sessions in each public health unit region.