Canada’s Known for Years Indigenous Peoples in BC Aren’t Safe From Flooding

A system of dikes meant to protect the Lower Mainland from flooding excludes many First Nations. The federal government admits some have “no dike protection at all.”
November 19, 2021, 11:00am
​Flood waters cover Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday.
Flood waters cover Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday. The area used to be a lake but was turned into farmland for settlers. Photo by Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

As southwest British Columbia deals with what could become the costliest climate disaster in Canadian history, First Nations are suffering “unimaginable”—and disproportionate—impacts.

“The destruction to the Nicola River is devastating,” Cook’s Ferry Indian Band Chief Christine Minnabarriet wrote Thursday on Facebook, days after torrential rains deluged the area. “The water is receding, however there remain many hazards. The area is not safe… The damage is unimaginable.” 

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The catastrophic storm that’s led to at least one fatality and many more feared dead, as well as entire Indigenous communities being evacuated, is not just a reminder of the heavy human toll of climate change. It’s also a vivid warning of a threat that governments have quietly acknowledged for years but largely failed to act upon: B.C.’s flood protection system is set up in a way that virtually guarantees First Nations will experience some of the worst damage during extreme flooding to the Lower Mainland.

“Who was forgotten in that infrastructure? Indigenous communities,” Andy Yan, an urban planner in Vancouver and professor at Simon Fraser University, previously told VICE World News. “You want to talk about examples of environmental racism, look at the diking system.”

On its website, Natural Resources Canada states that although much of the Lower Mainland region is protected from flooding by more than 500 km of dikes, “many First Nations reserves and treaty lands in the lower mainland have no dike protection at all.”

It was referencing a 2016 report by the nonprofit Fraser Basin Council that determined that 61 reserves affecting more than two dozen First Nations are highly vulnerable to flooding. That flooding could be caused by heavy rains bloating waterways in the Fraser Valley (what’s currently happening around Abbotsford) or a storm surge affecting communities exposed to the nearby Pacific Ocean. Fraser Basin Council includes representatives from local, provincial, and federal governments, as well as First Nations.

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A smaller-scale version of this played out in 2018 when the Fraser River reached dangerously high levels, causing members of the Katzie First Nation to mobilize an emergency response. “The biggest issue with all three of our communities is that our communities were built on the wrong side of the dike,” Chief Grace Cunningham said at the time.  

This is also a concern for some Sto:lo First Nation communities, which until recently had no protection whatsoever for floods even though the nearby city of Chilliwack has dikes running along the riverfront. “The piece that’s been missing in all these discussions has been us,” Sto:lo Tribal Council Chief Tyrone McNeil told local media in 2016.

The city is now working with local First Nations to improve the diking system, thanks to $45 million in funding from the federal government. Across the country, a federal flood protection program has benefited 65 First Nations in recent years. But there are more than 630 First Nations nationwide.

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Indigenous leaders say it’s an added injustice that it was federal policymakers who pushed their peoples into flood-prone areas to begin with. “Canada said this is where your people will live—once they took over our lands—and so that’s where we are today,” Cunningham told the Toronto Star in 2018. “They put us here, so they need to help us.”

This week’s extreme weather shows the results of that colonial legacy. One hard-hit area is a swathe of Abbotsford where Sumas Lake was drained in 1924 and turned into farmland for settlers. The lake had previously provided sturgeon and salmon for the Sumas First Nation for thousands of years.

This week Sumas First Nation was ordered to evacuate.

So far in B.C., torrential rainfall and ensuing floods and mudslides, caused by an “atmospheric river” event, have displaced thousands. The province is currently in a state of emergency and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to send in troops to support evacuation efforts. 

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The storm comes months after the province had to grapple with a deadly heat wave with near 50 C temperatures and a harrowing wildfire season marked by 1,634 fires—compared to 670 in 2020. It scorched the interior, and displaced hundreds who are still waiting to go home. 

As with floods, Indigenous communities across Canada are disproportionately displaced by wildfires

“As extreme weather events ravage across B.C., First Nations continue to bear the brunt of climate change impacts and have been forced to flee their homes again,” noted Grand Chief Stewart Philip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. 

“The unprecedented and continuing weather events prove that this is no longer a climate crisis; we are in an ongoing climate emergency, and lives and communities are at imminent risk,” he said.  

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.