Back-to-back-to-back rainstorms are inundating coastal and southern B.C. Some communities have been evacuated or remain on alert. People have lost their homes and livelihoods. Others lost power, cell service and internet. First Nations have been hit hard. Some were isolated without road access and in need of supplies while sheltering in place.
The flooding disaster is highlighting the “continued indifference by the whole emergency management system” towards First Nations in B.C., said president of the Stό:lō Tribal Council Tyrone McNeil.
Indigenous leaders say First Nations in B.C. are being denied essential funding and access to emergency services and have not been brought in as equal partners in the planning and management of emergencies.
When it comes to emergency management, First Nations are an “afterthought” said McNeil, who also chairs the Emergency Planning Secretariat. The EPS is an organization supporting 31 communities to develop a Coast Salish-led flood management strategy.
“We’re not even a consideration when decisions are being made. We’re not informed in times of emergency on a timely basis.” The system meant to provide basic support to people in times of disaster “needs to be chucked out and redone.”
From his kitchen window, Sumas First Nation Coun. Murray Ned said he could see the waters creeping up higher and higher during the first big rains two weeks ago. “It all happened so fast,” Ned said, whose ancestral name is Kwilosintun. He shares this name with his sons Brandon and Kelsey.
“The majority of all of our housing and infrastructure was in a safe place, with exception to one home, which, unfortunately, was built in the floodplain,” said Ned. The Sumas First Nation is part of the larger Stό:lō Nation whose traditional territories extend south across the American border, north into the Stό:lō (Fraser) bank at Sumas Mountain, and into the Coastal Mountains. The Sumas First Nation reserve is a fraction of that territory and was built in the same spot as the former village; above what was once Sumas Lake.
For the most part, Sumas First Nation was lucky, said Ned. The Tyee spoke to him between heavy rainfalls in mid-November. A few days later, the community was on an evacuation order ahead of more forecasted storms.
“First Nations are 18 times more likely to be evacuated due to emergencies than non-First Nations and are still battling COVID-19 on top of flooding, the aftermath of wildfires and infrastructure damage as they move into the winter season,” said the Assembly of First Nations in a press release this month.
As of Tuesday night, as another atmospheric river hit the coast, 51 First Nation communities were listed as impacted by emergency flooding. Ten had evacuation alerts or orders, according the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of BC.
‘Absolute, outright, blatant racism’
In the first big rains, some First Nations lost internet, cell service or power; some saw severe flooding to homes and essential infrastructure. Roads were cut off leaving communities without a way to get people out or supplies in, said McNeil.
Some evacuees have reported being turned away at emergency operations centres and were told by employees to “‘go away. You’re a federal responsibility. Don’t come here,’” said McNeil. There are reports that evacuees are being forced to sleep in their cars as they wait to hear back from emergency services on available supports.
There is, “absolute, outright, blatant racism against us in anything and everything emergency management here in the province,” said McNeil.
Many First Nations who lost their homes have received “little to no support from B.C. and Canada, while being forced to pay out of pocket to access temporary shelter and food supplies,” stated Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in a press release. “This is totally unacceptable: time and time again First Nations have borne the brunt of climate change impacts and time and time again the federal and provincial governments have failed to assess and take seriously the risks posed by climate change.”
“Racism in any form is not acceptable, nor will it be tolerated,” Emergency Management BC said in an email to The Tyee. “While we are hearing lots of stories of shared solutions and successes, unfortunately, we’re also hearing some very troubling stories of how some Indigenous peoples have been treated in some of our reception centres.”
EMBC said it is “working with the First Nations Health Authority, First Nations’ emergency operations centres and First Nations’ Emergency Services to provide culturally safe supports, and address any unmet needs related to emergency response and recovery efforts.” It said there is an Indigenous emergency support services training specialist who is responsible for integrating culturally safe practices into emergency support services.
Over the last few weeks, McNeil has been part of operation calls with multiple levels of government to address the continuing rains and floods.
When crews started to clear up Highway 7, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure prioritized opening the road westbound to get travellers stranded in Hope out. McNeil said he asked the provincial government to also open eastbound travel to deliver food, water and supplies to the communities of Yale, Skawahlook and Chawathil. They were cut off from road access.
“The answer was no. It’s only open for westbound folks out of Hope,” he said. “So I just took that as a signal that the highway is open for white people but closed to First Nations. That’s racism.”
With no open road, McNeil said fishers from Seabird Island navigated their boats through the logs and debris along the Fraser River to bring food and supplies to the stranded communities. McNeil also said that when a van of food was sent up by road after it opened, the Ministry of Transportation tried to stop the delivery.
In an email, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said it has, “responded immediately to reports that First Nations members were being stopped at essential travel checkpoints by educating and training checkpoint personnel.” The ministry also said it’s been “working directly with impacted Indigenous communities to resolve transportation related concerns” and are committed to working in collaboration with First Nations. The highway is now open in both directions for essential travel only.
For First Nations that are sheltering in place or remain in their communities, EMBC said it’s working to provide food, medication and other resources, using airlifts where necessary and co-ordinating additional supports. So far, it’s delivered food, water, medications, storage coolers, sandbags, emergency kits, livestock feed, flooding preparedness materials, fuel, generators and radios.
McNeil said he’s seen more support from private companies that are working on different projects near communities than EMBC. One company used their helicopter to deliver supplies to First Nations. “These private guys, nobody asked them to, they never charged anybody; they just up and did it. Whereas that's EMBCs responsibility and EMBC was just invisible on it.”
‘It’s slamming us down here’
The risks of catastrophic floods from the Fraser River, coastal storms, king tides and sea level rise are increasing with the effects of climate change.
“Many of our nations along the Fraser are within the floodplain, as opposed to being protected by diking infrastructure,” said Ned. It’s a big concern, he said, with some communities locked within the floodplain with no protection from rising rivers or flooding. Ned is also on the EPS leadership team working on a Coast Salish-led strategy to address flooding.
Dikes in the Lower Mainland don’t protect many of the First Nation reserves. Of the over 500 kilometres of dikes that are in place; 71 per cent are vulnerable to failure, and 96 per cent aren’t high enough to block major flooding from the Fraser River or the coast, according to a 2016 Fraser Basin Council report.
Now the dikes are failing, despite years of warnings.
Flood mitigation planning has to go beyond just dikes, said McNeil. It has to adapt to the climate crisis and take into consideration the entire watershed.
McNeil, who is from Seabird Island, points to forestry practices that have left areas more vulnerable to heavy rains. “They’re cutting down entire watersheds. So, when they have a rain event up there, there’s no force to slow down or retain the water. It’s hitting the creeks, it’s causing washouts hitting the smaller rivers,” said McNeil. “Then it’s hitting the Fraser, then it’s slamming us down here.”
First Nation fishing sites and habitat were destroyed when emergency stabilization work went ahead on the Fraser River bank in 2014 and 2016. At the time, the Sumas First Nation was not consulted. After “a decade of miscommunication and sometimes bumpy relations,” an MOU was signed in 2019 between Sumas First Nation, the City of Abbotsford and B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
The agreement recognizes a government-to-government relationship with Sumas First Nation, making them equally involved in decisions about flood mitigation and bank stabilization within the traditional territory and City of Abbotsford.
Today, that agreement is setting a framework to help co-ordinate a response to the floods, said Ned. “It’s not perfect, but it does provide the foundation for these working relationships and understanding.” Having governments committed to working with First Nations is key to moving forward, and this MOU is an example of that, said Ned.
Currently, there is a bilateral agreement between the B.C. provincial and federal governments where Emergency Management BC provides “emergency management services and support to on-reserve First Nations communities.”
“It basically says that EMBC is responsible to work with all First Nations to develop comprehensive emergency management plans, emergency response plans, and to work with us to build capacity,” said McNeil. “But they don’t do that.”
After the first November floods, the Assembly of First Nations said layers of bureaucracy delayed the hiring of crucial emergency positions. EMBC was given $29 million from Indigenous Services Canada in 2018 to provide emergency services to First Nations in 2018. “This agreement included 28 emergency management co-ordinator positions for First Nations, positions that have not yet been filled.”
McNeil wants to see the bilateral agreement become a tripartite agreement where First Nations are fully involved. “We need to build and empower communities so that we’re actually being more engaged and more actively involved.”
First Nations in B.C. have tripartite agreements for health care and education. In 2018 the Tsilhqot’in Nation signed the first tripartite agreement of this kind in Canada that focused on a Tsilhqot’in Nation-based approach to building capacity for emergency management.
In 2020, Indigenous Services Canada approved funding for a position to co-ordinate the implementation of a tripartite emergency management MOU. But the process has seen challenges, “due to the slow bureaucratic processes” at EMBC, states a recent update from the First Nations Leadership Council.
Resiliency plan in the works
McNeil remains hopeful that changes are coming. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act in B.C. provide legal tools for First Nations to work in government-to-government relationships, he said. He sees a path for new legal ground for First Nations’ full participation in emergency management and disaster planning.
Right now, McNeil, along with the EPS team, is working on a regional disaster risk resiliency plan that prioritizes the environment, fish habitat and culturally significant sites like burial grounds.
The process involves collaborating with 31 coastal communities, and McNeil estimates the team is about two iterations away from making the draft public. “There’s a real will from our communities that they want to participate,” said McNeil. It’s one of the things that keeps him motivated amid the ongoing disasters. Community members don’t want to completely rely on local governments; they want to be involved and are eager to do so, he said.
Ned’s hope is that this crisis brings an urgency to deeply assess the best way forward. First Nations have been in a place of displacement for over 150 years and have been treated like stakeholders instead of decision-makers, he said. How do we transition to a place where First Nations can govern in a way that harmonizes with nature instead of trying to fight it, he asked.
The story of Sumas Lake in Abbotsford brings that question into sharp focus. In the 1920s, settlers decided to dike and drain Sumas Lake for farming and created what is now known as the Sumas Prairie. The lake was, “the heart of our people,” said Ned. It was part of their economy, was full of salmon, home to elk and waterfowl and brought biodiversity to the region.
“Our ancestors knew exactly where to build in terms of harmonizing our existence with the lake, and its elevations with the seasons,” said Ned.
Now, the drained lake bed is flooded and evacuation orders remain in place for parts of the region.
“For me, the story is that a lake is going to return at some point,” said Ned. Intense rainfall, atmospheric rivers, wildfires and other climate disasters are expected to increase and intensify. British Columbians have been warned for years of a potential earthquake and tsunami.
“When is this going to happen again?” asked Ned. “And are the local jurisdiction and constituents going to be lucky enough to survive the next one?”