The tiny Fraser Canyon First Nation with big plans to help fire evacuees

‘We’re going to do it anyway. Because we’re the Kanaka Bar Band’

By Tyler Olsen | April 1, 2022 |5:00 am

For a year, Kanaka Bar has been a community under siege from the weather.

Now, the tiny community near Lytton hopes its experience can be the catalyst for better resources and infrastructure to help those displaced by Mother Nature’s wrath.

In June, fire tore through Lytton just 15 kilometres north of Kanaka Bar. The community’s closest grocery store, post office, and bank were all destroyed. So was the home of Kanaka Bar’s chief, Patrick Michell. In August, a different fire forced the evacuation of Kanaka Bar itself.

In November, landslides destroyed Highway 1 south of the band, cutting off the route to groceries and other supplies in Boston Bar and the Fraser Valley. The highway was also destroyed north of Lytton, lengthening the trip to Kamloops. And in December, Kanaka had to dig out from its biggest dump of snow in decades. Bone-chilling temperatures followed, breaking water lines and pushing Hydro bills through the roof.

So it has been a tough 12 months for Kanaka Bar and its chief, Michell.

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Kanaka Bar Chief Patick Michell lost his home in the Lytton fire. 📷 Kanaka Bar
Kanaka Bar Chief Patick Michell lost his home in the Lytton fire. 📷 Kanaka Bar

Climate change wolves

The drama of the last year can be heard in Michell’s voice when he talks about his community’s ambitious plans to help BC prepare for the next disaster. Michell was among those who lost homes when Lytton burned on June 30. And in the months since, he has spoken loudly and frequently about the need to rethink how BC prepares for extreme weather.

“We designed British Columbia over the last 150 years for weather events: sometimes you’ll get too much rain, sometimes you’ll get too much cold.” But the recent extreme weather events shows the need to prepare for what he calls such “Climate change wolves.”

“The risk is known, the probability is known and baby, British Columbia is living with the consequences,” he said.

Michell has said he isn’t upset about the loss of his home (though the fact that he is no longer debt free does grate a bit).

“I’m not angry about what happened,” he said in a December presentation. “We all knew it was coming. Minister Heyman [BC’s environment minister] knew it was coming. Premier Horgan knew it was coming. Justin Trudeau knew it was coming. But what have we done to stop the response mode. If we know something is coming, why aren’t we making the strategic investments in [wildfire] harm reduction?”

Kanaka Bar, Michell is adamant, can help.

“We need to give Canadians something to cheer for before the next extreme weather event kicks us all again right where it hurts,” he said in a subsequent December meeting on his band’s plans.

The thing Michell wants Canadians to cheer is an ambitious plan he hopes will allow for a speedier, more professionalized response to help evacuees. The plan has already begun with the creation of a small new emergency services organization. But its full realization would turn the Lytton/Kanaka corridor into a hub for emergency response in south-central British Columbia, with the creation of a home base for social service responders who can quickly deploy temporary housing and other needed facilities for evacuees.

One slide puts one part of the plan at close to $15 million. But Michell said the cost for doing nothing, or spending years studying the issue, could be even higher. Kanaka Bar is also fielding proposals and working with universities on a pilot project to create homes that could withstand a future fire.

“If you know what the risk is and you know that the probability is increasing and you know the consequences are going to be awful, then make the proactive investments,” he said during the December presentation. The last year, he said, shows the urgency to prepare.

“There’s still time, but we don’t have time for committees; we don’t have time for think tanks. That time has passed. You’ve had from 1988 to 2021 to set this stuff up. And you didn’t.”

Within a month of Lytton burning down, Kanaka Bar had proposed creating temporary housing on land within their community. The proposal was largely met with silence from senior levels of government. But Kanaka Bar and Michell have persisted with the idea, and have now created a new entity called Fraser Canyon Emergency Social Services and hired executive director Sarah Kamal to lead it. To start, the focus is on rallying support and building bridges to break out of the current every-local-government-for-itself model.

“The major brunt of displacement has been borne by Indigenous communities throughout time historically,” Kamal said. “We feel that the solutions also are coming from Indigenous communities, because they know what it feels like and know what people need when they’re forced to move.”

Last year’s Lytton fire demonstrated that BC has no capacity to quickly create temporary housing for evacuees within a disaster-struck community. Instead, the province relies on a voucher system that allows people to pay for hotel accommodations if they have nowhere else to go. In Lytton’s case, that has left hundreds of people scattered across southern British Columbia hours from their former homes. There are doubts as to how many will ever return.

In BC, most emergency response work is left to local governments. That has left some municipalities better able to respond to disasters than others, depending on their local tax bases and their ability to pry funding from senior levels of government.

Similarly, most emergency social service organizations are focused only on a specific local community. But FCESS is envisioned as an entity that would have the resources and infrastructure to respond to disasters across the region. In the short-term, it would provide temporary container-based housing for Lytton residents as they waited for their new homes. After the town is rebuilt, FCESS would store the shelters and ready them for deployment when the next emergency hits.

Michell also sees the organization as a way to professionalize how BC handles evacuees.

When a wildfire breaks out near a town, centrally located crews of firefighters can be dispatched to tackle the emergency. Michell envisions a similar reserve of infrastructure and manpower to help the people displaced by similar emergencies.

“Because of the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme weather events, you need to switch from response mode EOC (emergency operations centres) and volunteers to permanently staffed EOCs,” he said. “As soon as a disaster goes, teams of trained professionals are there and they’re bringing the temporary buildings and other things that come over.”

Michell has been trying to rattle loose funding commitments from government, non-profits, and companies to finance the band’s ambitious ideas. He says Kanaka Bar’s small size and location shouldn’t be held against it; instead, he says the band is exactly the type of organization that deserves support.

“I say look: ‘You’ve got a small community in the middle of nowhere who’s taking care of business; basically we’ve reversed the adverse effects of colonization here at Kanaka Bar.”

But even if they don’t get help from senior levels of government, Michell says the band will find a way to prepare for a changing climate.

“The projects we’re proposing here are all community driven. This is from the evacuees, these are people whose homes survived the Nov. 12 storms, this is from British Columbians, this is from Canadians, this isn’t a top-down approach, this is a bottom-up approach.

“Canada? Help or don’t help. BC? Help or don’t help. Because we’re going to do it anyways. Because we’re the Kanaka Bar Indian Band.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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