Cook’s Ferry Indian Band Chief Christine Minnabarriet posted a series of bulletins on Facebook this Monday documenting the rising water in the Nicola River and a chunk of washed-out highway.
By midafternoon that day, she’d posted evacuation alerts for more than a dozen Cook’s Ferry reserves and evacuation orders for two more, all of them issued by the band.
For Ms. Minnabarriet, the task of keeping members safe came with an added layer of stress: the near certainty that similar events will happen in the future.
The Cook’s Ferry Indian Band has 26 reserves, most of them relatively small and tucked along the Thompson River. When waters rise, the sites are vulnerable to flooding, power outages and being cut off from roads. With scientists predicting climate change will increase the frequency and severity of events like the atmospheric river that drenched much of southern B.C., Indigenous communities can find themselves on the front lines.
Ms. Minnabarriet said this month’s floods have highlighted the legacy of a reserve system that resulted in small scattered sites for a group that had been previously lived in one large area. Some of those sites are criss-crossed by highways, pipelines or railway tracks. The flood waters diminished the land area for some of them.
“Our communities have grown. We are not able to make a living on the lands we have been provided. And now, a large portion of those lands – especially on the Nicola River – are down the Thompson River. There is no land there anymore,” Ms. Minnabarriet said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from a spot near Spences Bridge, where she’d driven to get cellular phone service.
“So we have not only been displaced before and put on these tiny portions of land, now we are faced with a greater displacement.”
Hundreds of First Nations residents have had to flee their homes this year as a result of fires or floods. Some have been displaced twice.
John Haugen, deputy chief of the Lytton First Nation, said on Thursday in an interview that nearly 50 members who lost their homes in a June fire that destroyed the town of Lytton had been staying in Merritt.
Those people, including several elders, were uprooted again on Nov. 15, when Merritt was placed under an evacuation order after flood waters took out bridges and shut down the water treatment plant.
Mr. Haugen, whose own home in Lytton was destroyed in the June fire, had most recently been billeted with friends near Boston Bar. On Monday morning, he made the short drive north to Lytton, where the First Nation’s council has been running an interim band office, to use an internet connection to work. By mid-morning, mudslides had cut off his return route. As of Thursday evening, he was bunking with a different set of friends north of Lytton.
The floods will set back rebuilding efforts in Lytton and emphasize the need to prepare for emergencies, including access to food, shelter and fuel, he said.
“It really makes people want to be more aware of their food security – because we’re cut off from grocery stores for at least a 24- or 36-hour period,” he said.
Relatively small populations, lack of equipment and limited infrastructure, whether that is community halls or fire trucks, can add to the challenge of responding to disasters in Indigenous communities.
“Typically, First Nations are economically stressed at the best of times – so when a disaster comes along, they have no resources to help mitigate the impact,” said Eldon Yellowhorn, professor and founding chair of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University.
Indigenous Services Canada says it is working with First Nations to address flood risks, including projected rising sea levels that could affect coastal communities. ISC has an agreement with Emergency Management B.C. to provide services on reserve comparable to those available to other communities in the province, ISC spokesman Kyle Fournier said in an e-mail.
The department reimburses First Nations, provinces and authorized third-party emergency service providers for all eligible response and recovery expenses, including evacuation costs, he added.
Another issue in emergencies is communication. After the Lytton fire in the summer, Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council chair Matt Pasco criticized the provincial government for how it communicated with First Nations, saying provincial officials contacted him about his cattle before anyone reached out about people fleeing the fire. B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth subsequently said early communication with the council didn’t live up to expectations and that shortcomings would be addressed.
The First Nations Leadership Council on Tuesday called on the provincial government to declare an indefinite state of emergency related to the floods and mudslides, saying First Nations were bearing the brunt of climate change and had been repeatedly forced out of their homes. The B.C. government declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.
The floods and mudslides are expected to have a significant impact on wild salmon runs, bringing more loss and uncertainty to First Nations, for whom the fish are food and a social and cultural mainstay. Salmon spawn may have been scoured out of streams and river beds, young fish that spend a year or two in fresh water before heading to the ocean may have been pushed into areas where they can’t survive, and logs and other debris may block spawning fish that return next fall.
Those possibilities were on Murray Ned’s mind when he found someone had put a small, dead coho on the doorstep of the Sumas First Nation band office this week.
“I imagine that fish ended up on a driveway or a sidewalk,” said Mr. Ned, a Sumas First Nation councillor and executive director of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance.
“I imagine those fish in the last few days have been … wherever that water has been going.”
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