Lytton’s $1,686/day breaking point

Why a wildly expensive trench pushed Lytton residents to pick up protest signs

Twenty-seven months after Lytton burned to the ground, residents have finally decided to protest amid continued uncertainty surrounding the basic elements needed to rebuild their town.

Today, Lytton finally looks like a village that will soon see significant construction. Painstaking archaeology work is complete. Contaminated soil is removed. And most lots have a brand new layer of flattened backfill to allow for imminent rebuilding.

It should be a time of optimism.

Last year, residents were told many homes would be rebuilt by now. Earlier this year, they were told construction, at least, would have started.

“We were so looking forward to something happening this fall and this would give us some hope,” resident Lorna Fandrich said.

Instead, while lot preparation has continued, no construction looks imminent and angst, confusion and frustration have reached such a point that, for the first time since the fire, Lytton residents are planning to gather to protest the lack of rebuilding in their town and to call attention to ongoing issues delaying the resurrection of Lytton.

At the core of the most recent worries is the delicate matter of ongoing archaeological work, and questions about how to preserve and document the past, how to move forward into the future and, vitally, just how much it should all cost.

A long history

The rebuilding of Lytton, as The Current has documented, has been delayed by an array of ongoing and significant issues that have compounded one another and left the village’s future in limbo.

The challenges included, broadly: the wholesale destruction of the municipal governance infrastructure and records; the dispersal of the village’s population; weather related to the 2021 atmospheric rivers; the need to remove tonnes of contaminated and toxic material; the incapacity of the tiny Village of Lytton to undertake the incredibly complex job of rebuilding a community; and finally, the discovery of huge amounts of archaeological remains linked to the thousands of years of habitation of the Lytton townsite.

It’s that last challenge that has sparked today’s protest. It is also the most delicate obstacle in a community where nearly half of residents are Indigenous, and where residents desperately want to return home. While some BC communities are segregated from their local Indigenous communities, Lytton has deep personal, commercial, and institutional bonds connecting its Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Maintaining a sense of unity isn’t easy in the best of times. And Lytton hasn’t been going through the best of times. But increasing questions—including by many Indigenous residents—have helped bring the archaeology issue to the forefront.

(Insurance issues are also a challenge but haven’t yet really played a part—even if you had infinite money, it has still thus far been impossible to build a home in the parts of the village that burned in 2021.)

Lytton may be one of the oldest communities in all of North America. People have lived at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers for thousands of years. The village of Lytton was built more than a hundred years ago right on top of the remains of those previous settlements (and right next to sizable and established First Nations communities).

When most of the village burned to the ground in 2021, those layers of life and history created not only challenges for the coming rebuild, but also an opportunity to recover buried archaeological artifacts and remains.

The clearance of debris and burned soil and material to prepare Lytton for a new life would provide a chance to discover, preserve, and repatriate treasured items lost to history. But doing so would inevitably take time and be governed by processes and laws that weren’t created to also meet the demands of trying to rebuild a village on top of an archaeological site.

Furthermore, the legal conditions regulating Lytton’s rebuilding are sharply different from the legalities in place when its razed buildings had been erected. That’s the case in all communities impacted by wildfire: a destroyed building built to 1960s standards will have to be replaced by something that meets current guidelines. But Lytton is different not just because of the buildings, but because of the ground on which the village sat.

Provincial “heritage conservation” rules are strict about what must be done if and when archaeological remains are found during excavation of a building site. The discovery of one artifact increases the chances that others might be present, and prompts an array of processes that must be met by those digging on a property.

In Lytton, the archaeological potential for that ground was broadly known. But there hadn’t been much digging for decades—and definitely not under relatively new provincial legal regimes. And contractors for the village badly underestimated the scale of archaeological discoveries that would be made while properties were being cleared of contaminated soil.

Based on what had been encountered during a similar project in Burnaby, project leaders had budgeted $1 million to deal with a single archaeological find. But by last April, archaeological material had been found on 95 different sites.

The finds triggered an avalanche of paperwork both at the time and in the future. They would also require ongoing on-the-ground monitoring of any future digging.

The archaeological processes led to grumbling and questions from some residents. In comparison with other fire-ravaged communities, some felt—and continue to feel—like Lytton was being singled out and that its recovery has been delayed because it alone was following archaeological rules. Those feelings were compounded by the longer time it took to remove contaminated and destroyed material.

But Lytton was different in part because it is unique. The density of archaeological finds in Lytton, as compared to communities handling similar disasters, reflects the incredibly deep history of human settlement—a much-more concentrated and archaeologically productive history than almost anywhere else in Western Canada, if not North America or the world.

Still, concerns about the archaeology process rarely boiled up beyond community meetings and informal conversations both online and off.

There were plenty of stumbling blocks to complain about and there was also a general hesitancy—especially among non-Indigenous residents—to openly criticize the archaeological process.

The archaeological process was, broadly, seen as inconvenient but necessary. A need to fulfill a duty to the past—and to their descendants today—in order to move onto the future. But earlier this year, village residents were broadly told that finally, the archaeological work was complete.

Today, though, the grumbles have become louder as residents are confronted with the specter that not only might more archaeological work be necessary, but that it may cost property owners tens of thousands of dollars.

Much of the Lytton townside has been covered with flat gravel to prepare the way for building. But digging into that dirt comes with substantial financial risk. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Delays and a ditch

This summer, after years of angst, optimism and hope abounded in Lytton. The village was getting ready to “backfill” properties that had been excavated all through the townsite. The archaeology and contamination process was done. Now it was time to spread gravel and dirt on the properties, turn them over to their owners, and let the rebuilding commence.

The village just needed sign-off from the Kumsheen Heritage Committee. The KHC was created by the Village of Lytton, the province, Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council and Lytton First Nation, to oversee “the protection of Nlaka’pamux archaeological artifacts and ancestral remains found in Lytton without compromising the speed of the village’s recovery from the fire.”

Over the summer, work was delayed at least twice because when the KHC gathered to meet, there were not enough representatives to achieve the quorum necessary to accomplish any business. Those meeting delays set the rebuild back weeks. Eventually approvals were received and work proceeded. But those and other delays had consequences: a Mennonite charity that had hoped to begin building a home this fall, won’t start construction until next spring.

Which is where one comes to the ditch.

One of the very first Lytton residents to put their rebuilding plans into motion was Lillian Graie. Last month, Graie stunned an online community meeting when she said that digging a necessary trench could cost her tens of thousands of dollars in archaeological fees.

The footings of Graie’s new home would impact a potential archaeological site, and a trench would need to be done to connect the building to village services. Graie said her contractor was given a quote for two archaeological monitors that would amount to $1,700 per day—for, potentially, a two-week project. The digging would take a while in part because any dirt removed beyond 27 inches in depth would have to be taken off in four-inch increments to allow for repeated monitoring and checks.

Graie’s quote quickly began to focus on the potential archaeological stumbling blocks still ahead for residents.

“Regardless of who is paying for that,” Lytton councillor Jessoa Lightfoot said, “that payscale is out of reality and if you’re looking at every homeowner that has to do that, after having been exiled from their community for two plus years at this point, seeing housing prices increase, living in temporary housing, arguing with insurance bureaus, it is… killing our community.”

The company

The suggested cost—and the implications for others looking to build—continues to reverberate today. Over the last two months, residents and council also heard that digging dirt to build a basement would require additional archaeological monitoring and related costs.

The suggested costs and the seeming prospect of years of more archaeological work has turned residents’ glare towards AEW, the company that has undertaken almost all the archaeological work in Lytton for the last two years.

AEW was created by the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council six years ago to undertake archaeological, environmental and wildlife-related work (hence the acronym) in the traditional Nlaka’pamux territories.

Just like there is not one Stó:lō First Nation in the Fraser Valley, there are more than a dozen Nlaka’pamux First Nation communities to the south, east, and north of Lytton—though Lytton First Nation is the largest. The Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council represents five Nlaka’pamux communities: Lytton, Skuppah, Boothroyd, Snepa, and Ntequem.

AEW has a complex, but clear, task: to undertake archaeology work needed for residents or the village to fulfill their duties under provincial archaeology legislation. That legislation is straightforward, even if it, like every other government rule, policy, and agency involved in Lytton’s recovery, was never intended to be paired with rebuilding an entire village.

By all accounts there have been dozens upon dozens of archaeological finds. Human remains also have reportedly been found on the Lytton village site, and local Indigenous organizations have a clear and understandable desire to make sure that, when encountered, they are dealt with in a dignified manner.

But the amount of work needed to fulfill those legislative requirements—and the amount of time it has taken—has rankled residents and observers who have increasingly questioned whether the organization is trying to wrap up the process as quickly as possible. Asked to provide details about whether Graie’s quote was an accurate reflection of costs, AEW executive director of operations said that it doesn’t share commercially sensitive information but is “willing to work with property owners to reduce costs where we can.”

Until the last month, public criticism has tended to be gentle and vague. Non-Indigenous officials and community members have repeatedly stressed the need to respect the history of the land they live on and the overdue rights of the Indigenous communities that have made Lytton home for thousands of years. It’s a delicate subject.

And it’s one complicated by the differing—and for residents very-obvious—post-fire realities of the Village of Lytton and the Lytton First Nation.

Two jurisdictions

“What we have here is a jurisdictional issue,” says Patrick Michell.

Michell would know. Until this spring, Michell was chief of the Kanaka Bar First Nation, just south of Lytton. Michell has lived in the Lytton area all his life—even while attending law school at the University of British Columbia. He still lives in the area, even though his home in the Village of Lytton burned in 2021.

Lytton First Nation has many reserves spread all around the Lytton area. Some escaped the fire, including one across the Thompson River north of town that is home to dozens of houses, a health centre, and a school. But another LFN reserve immediately north of the Village of Lytton was ravaged by the flames.

As archaeology work has continued for months in the Village of Lytton, comparatively little took place on properties on the LFN land just to the north.

The reason for the disparity has boiled down to one simple underlying thing: provincial law.

The provincial Heritage Conservation Act requires rigorous archaeological work when remains or artifacts are discovered. Hence the Village of Lytton’s archaeological purgatory. But First Nations are not governed by provincial law. They are governed by federal laws, and without a federal law (and funding) mandating extensive archaeological work, it hasn’t been undertaken.

The absence of archaeology work on reserve land has rankled some observers.

“I’m worried about the double standards and hypocrisy,” Michell said. “The First Nations are demanding that the municipality and province comply with the law, but [say] don’t look on our lost sites.”

The province is inevitably loath to step in and declare its own law null and void for the purpose of expediting the rebuilding of Lytton. Doing so would open it up to a wave of criticism. But some—including Indigenous owners of land within the Village of Lytton—have suggested Lytton First Nation could give its blessing to ease the archaeological permitting rules. But even if you’re Indigenous, if your home exists on provincial land and archeological remains were discovered on your land, you still need a provincial permit to rebuild.

The Current asked for an interview with Lytton First Nation’s chief but did not hear back. We also asked the NNTC about why it wouldn’t waive some rules to ease the process. The organization provided a statement pointing to the province’s rules. “Monitoring during remediation activities is a requirement of the archaeology permit issued by the province under the Heritage Conservation Act, and the scope of the monitoring has been driven by the scope of the remediation activities and the permit requirements. One of the mandates of the Kumsheen Heritage Committee is to help property owners navigate the requirements and help minimize the costs by advising on rebuilding plans.”

Michell, for one, thinks it’s worth completing the archaeological work to make amends for how the initial village was constructed without concern for previous archaeological and buried remains.

“We didn’t do it right the first time,” he said, “So given an opportunity to do it right now, will we?”

That, he said, requires patience.

“Me and my family, we’re prepared to wait. We’re going to get an environmental clearance certificate, we’re going to get an archaeological clearance certificate, and we’re going to avoid digging down deep.”

But he doesn’t think it should require thousands of dollars.

“What I don’t like is the price that was mentioned of $1,600. What are you talking about? You just need some guy sitting there at $20 an hour going through your dirt!”

Michell was exaggerating for effect. But the sentiment—that all the archaeology work should neither cost so much nor be so difficult and complicated—is widespread.

‘People are getting a little panicky’

Today’s protest in Lytton was sparked by fears about future archaeology costs. But it’s not coming out of nowhere. For more than a year, residents had occasionally whispered—or rage-posted online—about the need to protest the slow rebuilding.

“People are just getting a little bit panicky, maybe, but just so worried that nothing's going to happen,” said Lorna Fandrich, whose family operates Kumsheen River Rafting, the village’s largest employer. Fandrich’s home and business survived the fire, but her sons lost their homes, her daughter lost her business, and the Chinese Heritage Museum she founded was also destroyed. Just as devastating, Fandrich said, was the loss of a village.

“The big thing we're missing is just the feeling of community,” she said. “We're missing just walking down Main Street and talking to 20 people or popping in for coffee with somebody and talking to a bunch more.”

The delays have come at a time where construction costs have risen quickly, and when many residents or business owners continue to have to pay mortgages on structures that no longer exist.

The idea of spending $1,600 per day on archaeological monitoring costs was just too much according to all involved.

In late September, a local woman (who doesn’t want her name in the media) posted on Facebook calling for a meeting at the surviving local church to discuss organizing a protest.

On Wednesday, dozens are expected to gather along Lytton’s still-flattened main street to call for rebuilding to start soon. Supporters come from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds—the organizer herself is Indigenous. The Current has heard from other Indigenous community members who will be taking part.

Michell, for his part, is planning to observe the protest but not directly take part.

Calls for the protest have also been amplified by council members who had been taking a relatively diplomatic stance on the rebuilding process over the last 12 years.

Nearly a year ago, Lytton elected a new council that had called for an expedited rebuilding process and demanded more from local officials. Prior to her election, Mayor Denise O’Connor and many of the newly-elected councillors had been outspoken critics of what they perceived as a lack of urgency on the part of those tasked with rebuilding their Lytton.

As elected politicians, though, O’Connor and her fellow councillors found themselves having to strike a balance between representing their community’s concerns and trying to forge bonds with bureaucrats, provincial officials, and organizations for whom precision, process, and adherence to rules trumped the need for speed.

When she spoke to The Current in February, O’Connor said one of the surprises from her first months of being mayor was how long various bureaucratic processes take. That feeling of frustration—that many delays are simply the result of paperwork and meetings—has only been reinforced over the last eight months.

“It’s not just about what it is they’re finding in the ground or not finding; there’s this whole process … that’s taken time,” she said Tuesday. “Things can’t get moving ahead.”

The last two months of meetings have seen a stiffening in the tone of most of Lytton’s elected politicians. Lightfoot and fellow Coun. Jennifer Thoss expressed exasperation with the archaeological delays.

“Our citizens are bearing the cost of a process that is way beyond reasonable,” Lightfoot said.

O’Connor and Coun. Nonie McCann, meanwhile, have shared details about the protest, giving it their endorsement. O’Connor also wrote up a statement that she said summarized the feelings of those involved in the organization of the rally.

“We feel like Lytton has become an archaeology project, not a rebuild project,” she wrote. “We wonder who is in charge, the arch branch or the arch company.”

A core component of the angst comes from a lack of transparency, knowledge and certainty.

The cost estimate that Graie received and which sparked plans for today’s protest has not been followed by the revelation of other similar quotes. That is likely partly a result of a lack of property owners who have reached that stage of the rebuilding planning process. But it could mean that other property owners may face much smaller bills.

The NNTC, in its statement to The Current, wrote that “The costs circulating on social media are not based on any real estimates and are likely to be much higher than actual cost. The monitoring costs will vary from property to property, depending on whether an archaeological site is present or not.”

O’Connor, though, told The Current that the village itself had once been quoted costs for archaeological monitoring ranging from $70 to $90 an hour. At $90 an hour, two people working for eight hours a day would cost $1,440, a sum comparable to the quote given to Graie.

And while other archaeology companies can undertake the work, O’Connor and Thoss said none have expressed a willingness to do work in Lytton.

Residents have also been told they won’t be told exactly what has been discovered on their properties. Eventually, some archaeological discoveries will be revealed to the public and to property owners. But individuals who might need to hire archaeological monitors won’t know what, if anything, they actually find.

But more transparency would buy more goodwill, understanding, and time, Michell said.

“This is one of the frustrating things,” he said. “People will comply with and understand the reasons for the delay and cost if they’re given the information. If they’re finding shit on your little piece of greenacre, at least let the homeowner know.”

But sometimes, it doesn’t only seem like the people in Lytton are the ones in the dark about all the obstacles on the road to rebuilding Lytton. Indeed, those in the uppermost echelons of BC’s provincial government have consistently underestimated the consequences of their own policies and the challenges faced by the people of Lytton.

(The Current asked to speak to Roly Russell, the province’s “recovery liaison” tasked with helping Lytton navigate the rebuilding process. No interview was arranged.)

In June 2022, a year after the fire, Mike Farnworth told a reporter that he expected houses and municipal infrastructure destroyed in the fire would be rebuilt by June of 2023. He said debris removal could allow rebuilding to start in September. He said the province had streamlined the archaeological process and that residents wouldn’t have to worry about archaeological permitting processes.

“What I want people to know is we are committed to rebuilding,” Farnworth was quoted as saying.

He said that if residents were to be back in their homes by mid-2023, it would give displaced residents a “sense of their future.”

It would have. But Lytton residents are still waiting.

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