BC First Nation chief hit by wildfires and floods says moving might be safest bet

The chief of a First Nation in British Columbia’s Nicola Valley, which was evacuated by both wildfires and floods last year, said he wanted more land for the community in a safer area.

Chief Arnie Lampreau of the Shackan Indian Band told B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Transportation Minister Rob Fleming during their visit Thursday that the threat of extreme weather is an ongoing concern for the First Nation located in the southern interior of British Columbia.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to have to sleep with one eye open or run around again,” Lampreau said.

The Shackan Indian Band, based along Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge, is among several communities facing tough questions about how best to rebuild after disasters the government has linked to climate change.

After a wildfire destroyed the nearby community of Lytton, British Columbia, a series of heavy rains hit the area in November, causing the river to swell and collapse entire sections of the highway.

It was the effect of so-called atmospheric rivers that swept through southern British Columbia, destroying sections of all major highways connecting Greater Vancouver to the interior and overflowing levees to flood farmland of Abbotsford.

Paulus Velt, far right, whose home was swept away and farm destroyed in the November floods, talks to Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald as he shows her with Chief of the Shackan Arnie Lampreau (Swakum) Indian Band, far left, where his home once stood on his property on the Nicola River, west of Merritt, B.C., Thursday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The nation declared a state of emergency Nov. 15 to implement an evacuation order for all 45 properties on its reservation. It was lifted in February for most residents.

Lampreau said he often weighs the cost of building temporary structures and protecting the pitch from displacement.

He was standing at a recess Thursday on the side of the freeway flanked by Farnworth and Fleming, who were making their first visit to the area more than four months after the flooding.

Defeat “unacceptable”

The chief pointed across the Nicola River to the remains of a bridge washed away by the floods. It leads to a section of Shackan reserve land from where seven households have been displaced.

Lampreau is among them, living in temporary accommodation at a Trans Mountain Pipeline labor camp.

“That’s one of the reasons I brought you here, you can see the devastation,” Lampreau told ministers. “You saw it from the sky,” he said, referring to a flyover they had before, “but when you come here it’s different.”

British Columbia Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, left, and Shackan Indian Band Chief Arnie Lampreau (Swakum) walk together after viewing damage to Shackan land. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Farnworth said after the tour that the significant loss of land was “unacceptable”.

“The land issue is important and it’s an issue that they have discussed with the province, but also with the federal government,” Farnworth said. Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations did not immediately return a request for comment.

“We’re working with the community, looking at different places that might be suitable,” he said, adding that it’s still “very early” in the process, which would also involve the federal government.

Road reconstruction

Following flooding and washouts in southern British Columbia, the Ministry of Transportation and its contractors worked quickly to restore connections through the Fraser Valley on Highways 1 and 7, along the Coquihalla and on Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon.

However, Fleming said restoring Highway 8 has been particularly difficult.

“Highway 8 is the trickiest,” he said. “Literally, seven kilometers of it disappeared into the river. We walked some sections of it today that had disappeared and have been rebuilt.”

Damage to the Coquihalla Highway during the week of November 15, 2021, when catastrophic flooding wiped out sections of the province’s road network. (British Columbia Ministry of Transportation)

He could not provide an estimate for a full reopening, but said more information would be released in the coming months in partnership with the federal government.

Rebuilding it “right” will mean using traditional knowledge as well as engineering strength in a way that adds social and economic benefits to the community, he said.

Meeting survivors and seeing the landscape in person brought home the impact of wildfires and flooding, Fleming added.

“It’s really real to see and meet people who have lost their homes and lost all the things that were precious to them,” he said.

The ministers arrived on the Shackan reserves as part of a tour that was also expected to include other First Nations belonging to the Scw’exmx, which means “people of the streams”.