A property affected by November flooding of the Nicola River is seen along Highway 8 on the Shackan Indian Band, northwest of Merritt, B.C., on Thursday, March 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A property affected by November flooding of the Nicola River is seen along Highway 8 on the Shackan Indian Band, northwest of Merritt, B.C., on Thursday, March 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

After the flood: First Nations along B.C.’s Highway 8 work on recovery

People grapple with tough questions about how best to rebuild after twin climate change disasters

Chief Arnie Lampreau of the Shackan Indian Band looks across the Nicola River that surged in November, pulling entire homes into its current and forcing residents to flee.

Above its banks, the charred remains of yellow pines cover the mountains like burnt matchsticks — relics of a wildfire that roared across the landscape just months earlier.

Lampreau grew up in the area along Highway 8 between Spences Bridge and Merritt and said he can’t help but think of the lush forests that once blanketed the hills.

“We won’t see that forest back, not in my lifetime,” he said.

“The whole scene of our existence in Shackan, it is changed forever.”

Lampreau now thinks in terms of a “before and after,” he said, and is questioning whether it may be time to move to new, safer land. The Shackan community hasn’t had a chance to prepare for the spring thaw, he said, and future extreme weather events are a constant worry.

“We haven’t even had time to exhale,” he said.

The First Nation and its members are among several communities and individuals grappling with difficult questions about how best to rebuild after evacuating twice last year due to disasters that the government has linked to climate change.

They are doing so in the wake of consecutive traumas that have included losing loved ones to the COVID-19 pandemic, the discovery of unmarked children’s graves at residential schools, a searing heat wave, destructive wildfires and floods.

For some, moving forward means working to restore the highway that they say is not only a transport route but the connective tissue of community.

For others who remain out of their homes almost five months after the flood, it means finally returning. And for Lampreau, who is among them, it means looking to new land where the threat of disaster feels less imminent.

While attention and emergency resources tend to be concentrated around the disasters themselves, some of their impacts aren’t felt until months or years later. Many of those who lived along Highway 8 say they’re still very much in the thick of it.

Here are some of the stories of those people and their communities:

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COOK’S FERRY INDIAN BAND

When storms known as atmospheric rivers poured over southern British Columbia in November, the effects were catastrophic. Rivers spilled over dikes onto farmland in Abbotsford and fatal mudslides swept vehicles off Highway 99.

The B.C. government defied expectations by repairing the Coquihalla Highway, a major artery connecting Metro Vancouver with the rest of Canada, well ahead of schedule.

Highway 8, a scenic roadway that snakes its wayalong the Nicola River between Spences Bridge and Merritt, has proven more difficult.

The same wildfire that burned down most of the village of Lytton in a matter of minutes last summer kept moving toward the communities along Highway 8in July. When heavy rains soaked the lands months later, tree roots that might have helped soak up the water were gone. The ground became saturated, andkilometres of highway collapsed into the river.

While many sections of the road have been rebuilt, the transportation minister has said it could be months before an estimated timeline for a full reopening can be made.

At the northwest end of Highway 8 at Spences Bridge, the Cook’s Ferry Indian Band is scattered on several small reserves and in the village itself, as well further east into Nicola Valley.

Chief Christine Minnabarriet said mostreserves lack water and other infrastructure to make them inhabitableand 85 per cent of members live off-reserve. Now, they are further divided by a broken highway.

Minnabarriet ran for band council in 2018 because she said she wanted to bring the community closer together. By harnessing the strengths of each member, from fishing and sports to traditional knowledge, the community could grow together, she said.

Instead, she is leading its members through disasters, personally knocking on residents’ doors along with her team, urging them to evacuate then making countless calls to emergency officials to advocate for their recovery.

Keeping up with everyday business at the same time as navigating a community recovery has been an impossible task, she said. The band intended to hold a debrief with members after the fires to ask how they survived and how the response could have been improved. But then the floods came.

“We’re constantly told that we’re resilient people and it’s true,” she says. “But I don’t want to be resilient, I want to be OK. I want to know that nothing is coming at me tomorrow.”

Most residents have returned home. However, some live on the other side of the still-blocked highway in the Merritt area, now a two-hour drive away via an alternate route, and one reserve remains entirely inaccessible.

Minnabarriet is wary of speaking publicly about the disasters because she doesn’t want to send any message out of context that might cause unnecessary division in her community at a time when connection and healing has never been more important. But she said she wants people to understand the urgency of repairing the roadway.

For Cook’s Ferry, the highway is more than a transport route. It links community members with one another, with neighbouring communities and with the river itself, which is at the centre of cultural practice.

“We eat out of that river, we swim in that river, we pray in that river. It is just so central to our beings that they need to see it as more than just a slab of pavement, it’s the connection between the nation,” she said.

Minnabarriet speaks from behind a desk at the band office in Spences Bridge, her weary eyes behind glasses and her face covered with a medical mask. She’s driven by a belief that rebuilding will be positive for Cook’s Ferry, providing jobs on the highway project, a chance to clean up the river and economic growth.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. People have lost homes, we’ve lost infrastructure, we’ve lost land, we’ve lost our river system, we’ve lost fish,” Minnabarriet said.

“But we also have this massive opportunity to participate and there’s economic growth that can happen, there is an opportunity to rebuild the river system in a healthy way and to address some of those problem areas that may have been in the corridor that could have posed problems in the future.”

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JEAN YORK AND ALANNA COWAN

For Jean York and her daughter Alanna Cowan of the Cook’s Ferry Indian Band, recovery will begin when they are able to return home.

York and Cowan were reluctant to leave when Minnabarriet knocked on their door Nov. 15 telling them they had to evacuate. It felt like they were still settling in after fleeing the wildfires and they chose to stay.

By the next day, they’d lost their power, phone service and any way out. The road had dropped into the river, and they watched everything from household items to pieces of infrastructure float past.

“We were sitting outside watching everything go by, all the telephone poles, all the hay, all the deep freezers,” York said. “We’ve never seen that river so high.”

Cowan went outside when she heard what sounded like heavy machinery on the highway, hopeful that it meant the road was being restored.

“It sounded like a highway truck with their blades down scraping the highway and of course you think, oh God, the highway’s got through. But it wasn’t,” she said.

The sound was an entire bridge scraping the river bottom as it floated past, pulling trees and hydro poles into the water with it, she said. Waves the size of ocean swells lapped at the banks downstream.

“Had I not seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was so powerful.”

York and Cowan said they felt relief when they saw a helicopter coming for them. They boarded in a matter of minutes with their animals but had to leave most of their belongings behind, even the canes used by York’s husband, who has cancer, York said.

The pair are among only a handful of Cook’s Ferry band members who have not been able to move home.They are living in the Merritt area and Cowan is billeted with the same family she stayed with during the wildfires.

The mother and daughter were able to visit their property in January by helicopter and Cowan said it was an emotional experience.

“Your home is where your heart is, and, in our case, when you think of our tradition, it’s where your spirit is,” said Cowan, who was also diagnosed with cancer last year.

“When I was able to go back in and I walked into my home, right away, you can feel your spirit settle. It’s like, oh my God, I’m OK, you know, everything’s still here, I’m OK. And my spirit settled.”

On top of the emotional recovery, accessing emergency services has been challenging. In some cases, York said the support hasn’t seemed to consider the survivors’ circumstances.

As an example, York said survivors were given a $600 voucher for Walmart but were told they had to spend it all at once. She described a scene of survivors frantically moving around the store “like chickens” but not necessarily having a vehicle any more to transport their goods.

York said she takes care of herself by connecting with friends and loved ones, many of whom have regularly checked in by phone even if they can’t in person.

Cowan said knowing that others care has made all the difference. When they stepped off the helicopter in Spences Bridge after fleeing their home, Minnabarriet was there to meet them, Cowan said.

“When we landed, coming out and getting a hug from our chief, that hug made all the difference in the world, holy cow,” Cowan said.

In the meantime, they said they do what they can to ground themselves. For Cowan, it means spending time with her cats and dogs. For York, it’s sewing and trying to live day-by-day.

“When we get home, we get home. I’m not going to worry about it, because you just get yourself sick, right, anticipating things,” York said.

The loosening of health restrictions related to COVID-19 has meant she can see friends and hug them, and she said she cherishes that.

“We just have to be patient. I always think about a quote from Rose Kennedy. She says birds sing after the storm, you know, so we will be singing sometime this year.”

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AMELIA WASHINGTON

On a personal level, recovery for Amelia Washington has meant telling her story. On a community level, she believes it will mean better equipping First Nations to respond to emergencies so that members don’t have to seek support elsewhere.

Washington and her family lit candles around her house after the power went out on Nov. 15. That morning, she had noticed the water rising. By nightfall, her son said he would keep an eye on the river so the rest of the family could sleep and leave the next day.

Washington, 69, of the Nooaitch First Nation, said she awoke to a noise she can’t forget.

“I had no idea what was happening except I knew that my house was cracking,” she said. “The house shook and it dragged. I was really scared for our lives.”

Washington said she didn’t have time to pack a suitcase and struggled to wake her 82-year-old sister, who was on medication following a stroke. When she left the house and reached the highway, she said she was so frozen with fear that she doesn’t believe she would have driven forward had it not been for her granddaughter, urging her on.

Now, the house is gone, along with everything she owned in it.

She said the experience has highlighted some ways she believes the response could be improved — specifically by empowering local communities in emergency response.

She never received any formal warning about the impending threat to her life and property, she said, and she was hesitant to evacuate again after experiencing racism when she left the community during the wildfires. She felt it again while evacuated for the floods, saying shopkeepers monitored her closely.

As of late March, she was living in temporary housing that was intended as a COVID-19 isolation unit on Nooaitch land, with limited heat and only a hotpot to cook with. She didn’t know when she would have a permanent home again, she said.

Washington said the whole experience was traumatic, which she felt viscerally. She became afraid when a stranger went to hug her and she recoiled when someone tried to show her images of her home.

She participated in a session with an agency that taught survivors to notice the physical reactions they had to trauma, which she said she found helpful but impersonal.

“I could have read that on a paper, but I needed someone to hear my story, to hear how scared I was when that house cracked,” Washington said.

Near the end of March, she had that opportunity. She joined others in a teepee in a healing circle led by Ko’waintco Michel, a former Nooaitch chief who also works with the First Nations Health Council.

Michel said she led a smudge burn and an eagle feather was passed around, giving each person a chance to speak. She drew together critical incident and stress management training with cultural practices for the session, she said.

“The whole intent was to help them acknowledge this happened to them and that somebody cared enough to hear how they were affected,” Michel said.

Washington said she was able to say exactly what happened, how scared she was, how she felt afraid after the experience.

“I feel like my heart is OK now,” Washington said the next day.

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SHACKAN INDIAN BAND COMMUNITY LUNCH

On a Thursday in March, members of the Shackan Indian Band gathered for a communal lunch — a new tradition since they were allowed to return home in February.

The idea, Chief Arnie Lampreau said, was to provide nutritious meals and also give members an opportunity to gather and share what they’re going through together after so much time apart.

“If any of them are having a hard time, they might open up,” said Lampreau, who was among 11 members whose home is still on evacuation order.

Paul Joe, who also remains evacuated, joined friends from the neighbouring Nooaitch Indian Band at a table.

Joe said he’s thankful that he built his house high enough that it doesn’t appear affected, although he’s still waiting to confirm his well water is safe to drink. The river has changed course and now runs over his hay fields. His swimming hole, fishing hole, sweat lodge, trailers and Ski-Doos are also gone, he said.

“It has been a tough year,” he said. Joe lost his mother and COVID-19 prevented ceremonies from being held. Then he was under an evacuation order for more than a month because of wildfires before flooding forced him to leave this home.

“We’re still waiting. It’s hard, but I’m glad I’ve got family, I’ve got friends who helped me out a lot. I’m glad I’m still alive. My house is still there. I’ll figure out the next step as it comes. What can anybody do?”

Rena Sam, an elder in the community, was at the community hall for a meal for the first time since the flood. She doesn’t believe she’ll ever be able to move back to the home she’s lived in since 1980 but she’s looking on the bright side. One of a handful of new properties on the main reserve has been allocated to her and it has a dishwasher — the first one she’s ever had in her life.

Her friend, Dorothy Cisco, who moved back into her home in February, said she still has repairs to do after last summer’s wildfires, but it’s good to be back.

“I missed my home,” she said. “Everybody here is important to me.”

At the lunch, quilts made by church members in Merritt were given to each household as welcome home gifts.

“Coming home is really important, because when we left here, and when we were in Merritt, you know, we had anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, confusion — all of those things hang on to us,” a member of the band administration told the gathering.

“We want to do our part to make sure that they can leave those fears and anxieties and worries behind and feel some contentment in being home.”

—Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

RELATED: B.C. deploys helicopters to extract debris from flood-struck rivers

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B.C. Floods 2021Indigenous

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