‘Unsuitable’ climate threatens Mi’kmaq community

At first, Rebecca Labillois thought it was just another routine storm roaring through Chaleur Bay.

“But then the power went out,” she says. “The water kept coming in, and it flooded all the way to here and to my house.”

It was December 6, 2010, and huge waves of water were engulfing homes along Beach Road and Olympic Drive in the Ugpi’ganjig First Nation, also known as Eel River Bar, in northern New Braunschweig.

“We had no choice but to leave,” Labillois said.

A 2010 storm was an early indication of extreme weather and flooding caused by climate change. (Lewis Jerome/Submitted)

Carol Simonson lives in one of the houses along Beach Road, facing the water.

“My family’s property was right here,” she said. “We had my uncle’s house, my grandparents’ house in the back. It was completely flooded. My uncle’s house was not salvageable. They had to demolish it.”

The storm temporarily displaced dozens of families in this small Mi’kmaw community. Backed up sewers. People have lost valuable possessions.

It was an early indicator of the threat posed to coastal communities by climate change.

gloomy predictions

According to the Gespe’gewaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council, sea levels are expected to rise a meter by 2100, a serious risk for a community where many homes and community facilities are only 3.3 to 5 6 meters above sea level.

The average annual air temperature is expected to increase by nearly five degrees Celsius by 2100.

Precipitation is expected to increase by 8% by 2050 and by 17% by 2100.

“It’s a pretty big thing to think about,” said John Vicaire, the council’s executive director.

“We can’t stop it, but we can try to prepare to mitigate some of those impacts.”

John Vicaire, executive director of the Gespe’gewaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council, says it’s too late to reverse climate change, but it’s still possible to mitigate its effects. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

An attempt at mitigation is a concrete seawall extending over half a kilometer to where the beach used to be. Built by the federal government at a cost of $10 million, it is designed to lessen the impact of the next storm.

But even that cannot retain all the water.

Subsequent storms pushed the sand against the wall, reducing the distance between the waves and the road. Simonson said water and debris frequently passed through the wall.

WATCH | Once deemed ‘suitable for Indians’, this land is now a climate trap

Ugpi’ganjig First Nation home in Chaleur Bay may not survive sea level rise

This ‘undesirable’ land was deemed ‘suitable for the Indians’ but is now a climate trap for the Ugpi’ganjig First Nation 6:03

The wall was a quick fix, says Ugpi’ganjig Chief Sacha Labillois. “It was more, ‘We’re stitching up the bleeding wound right now,’ but we didn’t address the internal bleeding.”

Fifty homes on the 400-person reserve are considered vulnerable, along with what she calls the “heart of the community…our ‘downtown’ — the band office and community health center.

The wall was designed to allow for extra height, but only a meter or two more.

Anything higher would risk turning the center of the reserve into a basin, preventing floodwaters entering it from flowing back.

A wall was erected to contain the rise in sea level. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Some of the other vulnerable residences are west of the Highway 134 bridge where there is no wall.

“A hundred years from now there won’t be any homes here,” said Joan Caplin, an 86-year-old elder living in Blueberry Point.

“You’ll have to look for higher ground for houses. I won’t be there so I won’t see it, but my grandchildren, I’m very worried about them. What’s going to happen?”

Like Rebecca Labillois, Caplin has seen the weather change over the course of her life. The storms are more violent, the bay does not freeze over as early in the winter, and the shoreline at the mouth of the Eel River, including its own backyard, is eroding.

Ugpi’ganjig chief Sacha Labillois says a wall was a quick fix, not a permanent one. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Another solution would be to move houses away from the most vulnerable parts of the reserve, but that’s not easy either.

The community is surrounded by Provincial Route 11 and the town of Dalhousie, so it has limited space for expansion.

The band purchased additional land, some of it in Dalhousie, but turning it into reserve land was a bureaucratic process that took time if other owners raised objections.

There is a deeper irony in these transactions that reflects the cruel turns of history.

“We are buying back land that originally belonged to us,” said Chief Labillois.

“It’s a strange concept, but it’s also a realistic concept that we have to face because we take the initiative to protect our people and our generations to come.”

I will live here until the day I die.– Carol Simpson, resident.

Ugpi’ganjig, whose traditional territory extended from the current location of the town of Dalhousie to around the Jacquet River, of course did not choose this place.

Set aside by New Brunswick’s colonial government in 1807, it was described at the time as “swampy land, good for Indian reserves”, according to research by former band councilor and elder Gordon Labillois.

A 1938 federal assessment described the swamp land as unsuitable for farming or anything else.

“And here we are, still here today,” said Chef Labillois.

Joan Caplin, an 86-year-old elder living in Blueberry Point, says she has seen the weather change in her lifetime. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Simonson said she has no intention of ceding that ground to a rapidly changing climate.

“I will live here until the day I die,” she said. “It’s been part of my family for generations, so I’m just trying to level it all up and build it up so we can stay.”

But in the next breath, she recognized that relentlessly warming temperatures and rising water levels could crush that aspiration.

“I know that ultimately with rising sea levels it’s going to eat up most of our reserve. So if I have to move later that’s what we’ll have to do.

“But until then, I’m going to do what I can to try to save our family’s land and continue to live here.”

Despite the lack of simple solutions, Chief Labillois is just as determined.

“We were given a block of land here…and we were forced to come to this little block, and here we’re trying today to figure out, as we grow, how we can accommodate our community, because we’re going to always be here,” she said.

“Eventually, I will no longer be here, but our Mi’kmaq people and our community of Ugpi’ganjig will be here forever.”