British Columbia communities ravaged by climate change consider relocating


The idea of ​​relocating his community is not what Arnie Lampreau of the Shackan Indian Band in British Columbia’s Nicola Valley thought he was considering when he was elected chief early last year.

After wildfires burned down the forests surrounding the band’s reservations and floods washed away homes and the only road access a few months later, he said he now wanted to see members live somewhere better. sure.

Lampreau was among the evacuees from both extreme weather events and said he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“Even I look at starting over, you know. I’ve taken a better chunk of my life to build where I am, and now I’m basically going to be uprooted and leaving my home,” he said in an interview.

The Shackan First Nation is not alone in facing a fight-or-flight decision in the face of climate change and increasingly extreme weather. Communities across Canada are debating whether to invest in costly infrastructure upgrades to protect against threats or invest in property buyouts and land acquisition.

A 2020 report on so-called planned retirement commissioned by Natural Resources Canada found that the strategy is usually a reaction to a natural disaster like a flood where the cost of rebuilding homes is more than double the cost of resettlement services. , health and emergency.

However, this is not a standardized practice, with neighboring communities opting for different approaches, according to the report. In the Ottawa-Gatineau region, homeowners in Quebec received buyouts after two record years of flooding in 2017 and 2019, while those in Ottawa did not.

“Inequality based on socio-economic status and systemic marginalization is a persistent problem,” the report adds, citing the United States, where it states that affluent, predominantly white communities have been able to gain more support for improved protections.

Recently, Indigenous Services Canada worked with First Nations to examine flood insurance and the unique context of reserves. The steering committee’s report, released last month, found that 66 per cent of survey respondents felt relocation should be considered in areas of repeated flooding.

“Still, several participants expressed frustration at the need to have this discussion about relocation, noting that the location of their reservations and the associated flood risks had been imposed on the community,” the report said.

One comment noted that residents had already been displaced and lost culturally sacred sites to developments such as dams, while another said the government that created the reserves should be responsible for their protection.

Planned retirement was never seriously considered as an option in Abbotsford, British Columbia, after last year’s devastating floods.

Record rainfall pushed the Nooksack River in Washington to its banks in November, spilling across the border into Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie. The flooded area is an ancient lake that was drained about a century ago to create some of the most productive farmland in Canada.

Mayor Henry Braun said buying the whole area and allowing the land to return to its natural shape is not an option.

“It was never on the table,” he said. “That’s 22,000 acres of the best prime farmland that exists in the country, if not the world.”

Rehabilitating the lake would also mean putting a highway, gas lines, electrical systems and other major infrastructure under water, he added.

The proposed $2.8 billion flood mitigation plan, which will depend on funding from other levels of government, would instead focus on building a new pumping station, improving an old one, and replacing temporary repairs to a dike with permanent repairs.

While there are property buyouts, it’s too early to say how many or exactly where, he said.

“A key goal for the city is to ensure farmland is preserved and to minimize impacts to properties by restricting water flow in the event of flooding,” a public bulletin for the plan reads.

In other communities, an escape strategy ended in hybrid results. In the 1950s, the federal government recommended relocating Aklavik to the Northwest Territories due to flooding and soil erosion and selected the current site of Inuvik for the new community.

Hundreds moved but others refused. The hamlet of Aklavik has survived and maintains the town motto “Never Say Die”.

The city of Grand Forks, British Columbia, pursued a joint strategy – repurchasing about 90 properties in a high-risk neighborhood, while investing in new flood protection for the downtown area.

Two days of torrential rain in 2018 ravaged the city, with the worst impacts felt in North Ruckle, a low-lying area with low rents and affordable housing.

The future of the neighborhood is green space — maybe a small pond or a dog park — and other “non-human things,” Mayor Brian Taylor said.

As for residents forced from their homes, the results varied. There was initial turmoil after it looked like buybacks would be made at post-flood values, but Taylor said those numbers eventually rose to near-market rates.

Some former residents have left the city, others have stayed. Some were able to use the buyout money to land on their feet, while others lost their footing as property prices in the province soared in the following years. Others ended up in government-subsidized housing, Taylor said.

“Some of them had been (in North Ruckle) for 20, 30, 40 years,” Taylor said. “It was a mix of success and failure for the people dealing with what was going on there.”

Taylor estimated the city is about 70% through the $53 million recovery project, including buyouts and flood protection for downtown.

Taylor was not a board member when the plan was approved, but said he thought it was the right direction. After the disasters, the future of the city center was threatened because businesses could not insure themselves. With most flood protection in place, insurance companies are again extending coverage and there has been an influx of business, he said.

“I think in the long term, we’re going to see this as a cornerstone of the city coming back, transitioning back to being the kind of vibrant community that we’re used to,” he said.

Explaining how the calculations are made to determine what is protected and what is turned into green space is more complicated than money, he said. If the city had built levees around North Ruckle, rising river waters would have been redirected downtown, he said. And if the city hadn’t prioritized cleaning up and protecting downtown, businesses would likely have folded and downtown itself would have moved.

“That’s a really tricky point, when you’re trying to explain to people that there was analysis,” Taylor said.

Back in Shackan territory, Lampreau said the community is in the early stages of exploring possible new lands, but is working with the federal and provincial governments to identify potential plots.

He said he hopes the land will not only be safer but more suitable for farming and other productions to support the community. Like many First Nations, he said reserves were drawn on some of the least usable land, even without considering the effects of extreme weather.

“Our people were placed on these little postage stamp sized reserves, this is the land that was given to us by the government in the Doctrine of Discovery,” he said.

While the move could be disruptive, it would also not be unprecedented, he said.

“Traditionally, you know, we didn’t stay in one place. We are nomads, we move.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 9, 2022.

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