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Trees burned in this summer's wildfires are seen on a mountainside covered with snow as the Coldwater River snakes along side the Coquihalla Highway south of Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 22.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Chemainus River flooded the tiny Halalt First Nation on Vancouver Island during last month’s destructive storms, but the damage was minimized by an impromptu coalition of agencies, which is now being held up as a model for improving B.C.’s often slow, disjointed emergency response in Indigenous communities.

Jodi August first heard the Chemainus was charging over its banks when her aunt called at 6 a.m. on Nov. 15, asking for help as a torrent hit her home.

Ms. August, a newly elected councillor who became the Halalt First Nation’s part-time emergency preparedness coordinator last year, was shocked. Only a small pool of river water had been visible during her tour the night prior. “The water rose eight feet in a matter of six hours,” she said.

Like dozens of communities across B.C.’s south coast that were drenched by an unprecedented atmospheric river last month, Halalt was quickly overwhelmed. Water pooling on the nearby Trans-Canada Highway broke through the barriers on its shoulder and surged down into the reserve. Two water main breaks compromised the nation’s tap water and about half its 250 residents had to be evacuated.

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Although the toll of the disaster was severe, the community appears to have suffered much less damage than it did in January 2020, when it experienced a smaller flood.

That’s largely thanks to the extra on-the-ground support the nation received from a leader with the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society (FNESS), who arrived on the scene on the day of the most recent deluge. Staff from Emergency Management B.C. (EMBC) set up the following day in an operations centre in the reserve’s gym. Soldiers and wildfire crews pitched in with manual labour. This all-hands-on-deck approach from outside organizations wasn’t as present in the aftermath of the earlier flood.”

“Their presence here in Halalt was incredible,” Ms. August said. “Without them we would not have been able to establish and complete the work by sandbagging the houses that are vulnerable,” she said.

Now, officials hope this collaborative approach can be used to mitigate future damage in First Nations on Canada’s West Coast.

On Nov. 24, B.C.’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister, Murray Rankin, acknowledged the strong criticism his government received in the days after the flooding from Indigenous communities that were cut off from electricity and phone services, or trapped by mudslides. First Nations leaders say volunteers often provided more aid and information in those crucial days than the provincial government.

Mr. Rankin announced the creation of new integrated Indigenous response and recovery deployment teams, similar to what coalesced in Halalt. The teams will include staff from FNESS and EMBC, as well as the First Nations Health Authority and Indigenous Services Canada, he said.

“If there’s a stress and need for just some kind of rapid response to a circumstance no one really knows about until you get there, we’ll have people on the ground more rapidly than we would before,” Mr. Rankin told reporters.

EMBC, a provincial agency, is responsible for helping cities, municipalities and Indigenous communities in disasters, but First Nations also have their own governments that get funding from Indigenous Services Canada.

In 2018, B.C. signed a $29-million agreement with Ottawa to provide emergency services to First Nations across the province for the next decade, and to set up 28 emergency coordinator positions – like Ms. August’s, but full time.

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but, in an official update from this summer, the department said that only 11 of those permanent positions have been filled across B.C. A week after the flooding, the department announced $4.4-million in funding for FNESS to help Indigenous communities respond to the devastation.

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, the secretary-treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, is one of several Indigenous leaders who signed a memorandum of understanding with Ottawa and the province in 2019 aimed at hammering out a formal agreement on emergency services. She said true partnership is still elusive, as evidenced by EMBC’s response time following the floods.

“That’s the atrocity of this, our people are always left at the bottom of the list, and that’s what’s got to change,” Ms. Wilson said.

EMBC said in a statement that it has been working with FNESS and the First Nations Health Authority to support Indigenous communities and has asked FNESS to do rapid assessments of the handful of First Nations along Highway 8, northwest of Merritt, so the provincial agency can better understand the scale of the damage.

Lee Spahan, Chief of the Coldwater Indian Band in the southern interior region of the province, said the daily calls with EMBC officials in the week following the storm focused mainly on technical updates about flood levels and road closures and lacked details on how to ensure people were safe, housed and fed.

“They keep saying, ‘Oh we’ll follow up with you after this call.’ Most of the time, they never did. I had to raise my voice in frustration and say, ‘When do I start getting answers?’” Mr. Spahan said. “We put in numerous applications and they are finally starting to get approved. But it took two weeks.”

Those applications were related to food, water and resources for Coldwater members who were stranded by the floods, and also for 70 evacuees from Merritt and neighbouring First Nations who came to stay with the community, Mr. Spahan said.

Wayne Schnitzler, acting interim executive director of FNESS, said it is crucial for First Nations to be involved at the highest levels of decision making during these types of crises. He was disappointed his group – which was originally funded by Ottawa to fight wildfires but now provides support during other emergencies – did not receive a call from EMBC until Nov. 16, the day after the storm had left a trail of catastrophes across the province.

Soon, FNESS had representatives at several regional operations centres, where they helped with local disaster response. By the end of the week, Mr. Schnitzler had made it to Victoria to join the temporary war room set up in EMBC headquarters, where staff from provincial and federal agencies wrangle resources and streamline communications.

Erik Blaney, a fire chief of the Tla’amin First Nation who oversees communities on Vancouver Island for FNESS, received a call from Ms. August on the morning of the floods.

While Ms. August and others began getting people out of their homes, he began drafting an evacuation order and declaration of a state of local emergency, which he emailed to Halalt leadership by 10 a.m.

Getting this paperwork signed and posted immediately during an emergency is crucial to unlocking the extraordinary powers available to First Nations, he said, such as the ability to requisition properties and goods. Mr. Blaney and other FNESS responders arrive with satellite phones for themselves and the nations they’re helping, he said, because often these remote communities will be cut off from cellphone reception and power, which means no wi-fi, or printing and scanning of documents.

That week, as more atmospheric rivers were approaching the coast, EMBC and other groups were able to build a dike near Halalt that is expected to stay up all winter.

The way different governments and agencies coordinated their efforts at the Halalt reserve underscores how important it is for professional responders to parachute in to First Nations as fast as possible after a disaster, Mr. Blaney says.

“We try and phone these nations and say what do you need?” he said of the usual response. “That system just doesn’t work. In most cases these people are run off their feet and they don’t even have time to take a phone call.”

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