No one satisfied with pace of Lytton rebuilding, federal minister concedes

Emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair spoke to The Current about recovery efforts in the Fraser Valley and the Fraser Canyon

By Tyler Olsen | April 20, 2022 |5:00 am

Former Lytton residents have repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with how long it is taking to get the town cleared of debris and the rebuild started. Now, federal emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair says he is also unsatisfied with the recovery.

Eight months after it burned down, Lytton still looks much the same as it did days after the fire. And in an interview with The Current last week Blair conceded that more needs to be done to get Lytton residents back in their homes.

The federal government has promised $5 million to help the town rebuild, but that sum pales both in comparison with the task ahead and the $5 billion promised for flood victims. But money and government funding for that recovery largely depends on decisions made by the province, Blair said.

The Current also asked about Blair about the flood recovery in the Fraser Valley, discussions with the US about the Nooksack River’s future, and the troubles some have encountered in trying to access financial support from the Red Cross. Read the full interview here.

If you are interested in a specific topic, click these links to skip direct to specific questions: Nooksack international relations / Speed of disaster response / National flood insurance program / Lytton recovery / Red Cross response / Climate change and preparing for the future

Blair had a limited time, so we tried to touch on a variety of topics within the 15 minutes we had with him. Some questions have been lightly edited for clarity.

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Nooksack River & international relations

FVC: What will the federal government do to try to convince or incentivize the Americans to increase flood defences along the Nooksack River?

Blair: It’s really important. And I think very importantly, Premier Horgan has reached out to the Governor of Washington. And that dialogue going on between the province and the state is already well underway and they’ve agreed to work together. And I think that’s really important.

I’ve been discussing the same issue with Minister Farnworth. We know the federal government also has a role to play and in helping to negotiate collaborative action on both sides of the border. Now we recognize that the flooding that took place on the Nooksack contributed in a fairly significant way to the flooding that was experienced last November on the Sumas plain. And so working together on both sides of that border is going to be important.

FVC: Would Canada offer to fund improvements in the US if it would reduce flooding north of the border?

Blair: Well, we’ve got obligations and significant responsibilities and helping to rebuild, and to rebuild in a better way to create more resilience on the Canadian side.

The federal government’s committed over $5 billion to help the province of British Columbia, and the people affected by these floods, to do that rebuild. But I think both our countries, the United States and Canada, have a responsibility to work together collaboratively, and my understanding in discussing with Mr. Farnworth and the premier is that there’s a fairly receptive and collaborative approach being taken by the State of Washington.

So we’ll just continue to press the Americans to do what is necessary on their side. And we’ll continue to do it our way, in a way that is both collaborative and produces the best outcome for people in both countries.

FVC: Of course, these talks started 30 years ago. What makes you think that things will change this time around?

Blair: The devastating floods that British Columbia experienced, and Washington had a great threat in their region as well, but last November, the flooding that took place in British Columbia, I think, has added a sense of urgency to those discussions. And it’s become quite clear that both countries, British Columbia, and the State of Washington, have to work collaboratively together to manage that watershed.

When we saw the atmospheric river come into the Cascades, and that water then impacted all the communities downstream from that event, it really does necessitate that we get this right and we’re working hard to make sure we get it right.

I’m very interested in helping these communities build back. But we want to make sure that we build it back safely and we do it in a way which makes it far less likely that they’ll be impacted by future similar events. And that means collaboration on both sides of the border.

Speed of response

FVC: What is the federal government doing to increase the speed of responses during disasters, especially in communities without large municipal staffs and few resources that may have felt kind of on their own?

Blair: The primary responsibility for delivering emergency services in British Columbia is with EMBC. But we’re working really closely with to, first of all, develop better public alerting systems, for example, to make sure that people have the information they need to take the action that is necessary to be safe, and to keep them and their families and their homes safe.

We’re also making pretty significant investments now in this part of building back to make sure that communities are more resilient, that will determine how those diking systems are repaired and replaced, [and] the pumping stations.

But there are a number of other important initiatives that are also taking place. We’re also making some investments and although flooding is certainly the emergency we’re talking about because of what happened in November, we also know that the fire season can affect British Columbians quite significantly as well.

We’ve been working with the province to develop new programs to acquire additional equipment. There’s over almost $300 million in the budget that we’ve just brought forward to purchase new firefighting equipment. There’s money they’re trained over up to 1,000 additional firefighters.

And as well there’s money to invest in working with First Nations to make sure that traditional knowledge of First Nations and the Nations themselves are more actively consulted and engaged in keeping the community safe in response to emergencies and the incredible challenges experienced in British Columbia by British Columbians. Last November is leading to greater actions of collaboration between all orders of government and all communities so that we can all be better prepared, better able to respond, better able to protect our citizens.

Flood insurance

FVC: You talked recently about the creation of a National Flood Insurance Program. Would people living in flood prone areas be required to participate in such a program? And would such a program include the creation of, say, designated floodways in the same way FEMA oversees floodways in the US?

Blair: Tyler, it’s a really important question. You know, 95% of the people living on plains aren’t even aware they’re on a floodplain. So some of the foundational work that we’re doing is development of national flood mapping to identify those higher risk areas so that people who build their houses or communities who have those homes in their community have that information so that they can take the steps necessary to protect those communities.

And people can’t get overland flood insurance in those areas because insurance companies aren’t going to be able to offer insurance to those homeowners or businesses because they don’t have the actuarial data that’s available through flood mapping. So we’re doing that work. And we’re going to make that flood mapping information available to municipalities and Canadians through a flood portal. That work is ongoing, and we’re working hard with the insurance industry, and with other stakeholders across the country, to develop a National Flood Insurance Plan.

And the expectation there is: currently Canadians can’t get insurance, but if we build a National Flood Insurance regime that enables those homeowners to acquire flood insurance, which is based on known risks of where those homes are located, that’ll enable homeowners to take the steps necessary to protect themselves. It will help us manage those events in a far more efficient way. And most importantly, it’ll give people information and help them make the right decisions on where it’s safe to build, and how they need to build in order to make sure that they are resilient against future floods.

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Lytton recovery

FVC: To Lytton, I drove by there just a couple of days ago, and it looks a lot like it did two weeks after the fire. Are you satisfied with the pace of recovery work there?

Blair: No. I’ve spoken to the Province of British Columbia and people from Lytton, and they’ve made it very clear that there’s an enormous amount of work and it’s taken a long time to get the necessary approvals to remove the debris and get that rebuild well underway.

The federal government has committed a fairly substantial amount of money, nearly $5 million, to help in that rebuild. We’re working with the province and with the regional authorities and municipalities in order to do that. There has been some progress in the Lytton First Nation. More needs to be done in the municipality. I don’t think anybody is satisfied with the pace of the rebuild. But we know it’s important and we know that it’s a priority for the people who want very much to get back to their community and back into their homes.

FVC: You said the federal government had promised $5 million. That doesn’t really get you much these days in terms of homes of any sort. Do you need to be promising more?

Blair: Well, we work with the province and the Disaster Financial Assistance arrangement allows for the federal government to make money available through the province, to municipalities, homeowners and businesses that have been impacted by these natural disasters. So we don’t make the decision on what is required until there’s a request from the province, then we work with them to validate that request and all of that work is well underway.

But your question, of course, was about the pace of rehabilitation of that community. Listen, I think we all saw the devastation last June of what happened in Lytton. We’re all anxious that that rebuild will proceed so that that community can be restored, and I will make sure that the federal government, working with the province and the municipality, is there for the people of Lytton.

Red Cross response

FVC: A lot of the delivery of financial assistance to individuals seems to have been delegated to the Red Cross to administer. And we’ve heard and seen some concerns that some locals have faced difficulties accessing that money. Have you heard those concerns? And how confident are you in the responsiveness of the Red Cross to those concerns?

Blair: I’ll tell you, we worked very closely with the Canadian Red Cross. They’re a very good partner for us. So both the province of British Columbia and the federal government have partnered in matching donations to the Canadian Red Cross. And over $100 million was raised in order to support people who’ve been impacted by the flooding event last November and had requirements for interim housing and other needs that had to be met.

The Canadian Red Cross is a good partner in that they administer that and provide a level of accountability for the expenditure of public funds that I think is really important. And people expect that tax dollars will be spent in a responsible way and we do that in partnership, working with the province and the Canadian Red Cross.

But let me also acknowledge. I’ve talked to some people—I was in Merritt a few weeks ago, I talked to some people whose homes had been rendered uninhabitable by the floods. They were receiving some support from the Red Cross, but there were issues in communication and getting information to them.

And I understand completely, people’s frustration and anxiety and even fear about how they’re going to be able to support their families and keep a roof over their head. So we’ll continue to work with those communities, with regional and municipal councillors, and with the Canadian Red Cross and our provincial partners in order to support those people. So I understand rebuilding the enormous devastation that took place as a result of the November floods is going to take time, and we’re going to do everything we can to support British Columbians during that period of transition and rebuild that’s going to have to take place.

Governmental involvement

FVC: You recently participated in this ministers’ group on the flood recovery process, I believe. Somebody told my colleague it was the third time that the group has met. Why has it just met three times?

Blair: There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes on between those meetings. The Premier, the Prime Minister met last November, I was in the room with Minister Farnworth, and the Prime Minister and the Premier directed Minister Farnworth and I to form a joint committee.

All the ministries of our government who are implicated in the recovery from the floods are at the table, we’re all working together. We’ve also brought in the First Nations Leadership Council, there are three representatives from First Nations who are part of that table. All of our ministries are fully engaged in working with each other.

I’ll just give you an example. One of the things that we saw after those floods was an enormous impact on critical supply routes, the highways, the Coquihalla, Highways 3, 5, 8, were all devastated by those floods. We lost rail lines and bridges, and the Port of Vancouver was being isolated.

The Ministry of Transportation from the province, working with the federal ministry, have been working together to get those highways reopened and those critical supply lines reopened. So when we meet, we discuss the progress of the work, and we discuss what needs to be done. It’s a very collaborative approach, quite appropriately and necessarily, where we set priorities, we determine risk, we determine the appropriate governance of the rebuild. And we also take a lot of time not just to meet among ourselves but for example, two days ago, I went and met with 28 of the mayors and regional chairs from the affected regions, because it’s important that we discuss and work with and collaborate with all orders of government.

And today [April 12] I met with 31 different First Nation leaders from the affected regions as well to make sure that that collaboration and consultation takes place in an appropriate way. And so there’s a great deal of work that’s going on in support of the work of the committee. The committee meets to give each of the ministers an update on the work that has been done. We discussed what needs to be done. And we set goals and priorities for the work ahead.

What the future means

FVC: With climate change and just more people living closer to natural places that have disasters that we’re seeing, we’re seeing more evacuations and more interface emergencies. Is the current approach that governs how evacuations happen, and how evacuees are managed and supported after evacuations, sufficient going forward?

Blair: We can see the immediate impact of climate change. What we are seeing is the frequency and the scale of these natural weather events, which are definitely climate change related.

Things like the heat dome that impacted British Columbia last summer, the very, very bad fire season that followed, and then the atmospheric river and the floods that took place in November, are all strong evidence that we are dealing with an evolving and changing and more challenging set of circumstances as it pertains to emergencies.

It requires that all orders of government and all communities work together. And that we ensure that we are better able to respond and to mitigate the effects of these types of events. Where prevention is possible, we need to make sure that we do that work. But we also have to make sure people are prepared and that we protect them. And when these events do take place and there is significant damage or displacement of people who lost their communities and their homes, to work with them to build back as quickly as possible.

But it’s really important not just to build back, but to build back better, stronger, more resilient, more able to resist the impact of these types of climate events.

And at the same time, I think it reminds us all of the importance of the work that we do to address climate change. We’ve established some very ambitious emission reduction targets for this country. The Prime Minister yesterday [April 11] made an announcement of spending nearly $900 million to build a network of charging stations for electric vehicles right across the country, incentives for people so that they can afford to get those things.

We’re doing a great deal of work to reduce the impact of climate change in this country. It’s an enormous task, but one we’re absolutely committed to deal with. And at the same time, as we do everything we can to mitigate the effects of climate change, we also have to deal with the reality that climate change is resulting in more climate-related risk for our communities. And so that’s the work that’s ongoing.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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