First Nations leaders in an area of Interior British Columbia that includes the village of Lytton, which burned in a wildfire, say they are prepared to block trains unless the provincial government and railway companies better respond to their concerns about recovery plans for their communities and continued rail traffic in the region.
“We will likely be refusing any railway traffic,” Matt Pasco, chair of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council (NNTC), said in an interview on Monday. “People will be put on notice.”
The NNTC includes the Lytton First Nation and several others along the Fraser and Thompson rivers. Mr. Pasco accuses the province of excluding those nations from discussions about recovery after the fire.
There has been building anger among First Nations in the region about what they argue was a slow, chaotic response in the early hours of the fire, followed by a poorly co-ordinated effort to ensure evacuees were accounted for.
Mr. Pasco said he spotted crews repairing rail infrastructure near Spences Bridge, which is northeast of Lytton. He was bothered to see so many labourers working to fix the rails when so many of his people are struggling in the aftermath of the fire. He said the NNTC communities have had little support from the province.
He directed his ire at both at rail companies and the B.C. government, arguing that it appears as though railways are taking priority over people. “You can build armies of people to build up infrastructure and simply forget about the people affected – that disrespect gets met with: ‘Nobody should be running through our territory.’”
Both CP and CN run trains in the region.
Mr. Pasco also said that, in its response to the fire, the provincial government has failed to recognize the jurisdiction of First Nations and the knowledge they can bring to land management and stewardship.
The fire broke out last Wednesday after a historic heat wave, during which Lytton recorded successive records for the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The blaze destroyed 90 per cent of the village, killed two people, left others unaccounted for and forced the evacuation of adjacent First Nations. It continues to burn out of control, and has already become one of the most destructive wildfires in recent memory – a consequence, experts have said, of the worsening impacts of climate change.
The heat wave, which shattered temperature records across Western Canada and the northwestern United States, has been linked to hundreds of deaths in B.C. The BC Coroners Service is working to determine how many people have died as a result of the heat. It has said there were 777 mortalities between June 25 and July 1 – nearly four times the average for the same time period in the previous five years.
There has been widespread speculation among Lytton-area residents that sparks from a passing train might have ignited the fire that destroyed the village. The Transportation Safety Board said it hasn’t been notified of any related incidents.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, though the BC Wildfire Service has said it appears to have been the result of human activity, as opposed to lightning. CN and CP have said they will assist the investigation, but have declined to comment further.
Emergency Management BC did not respond to a request for comment, but its executive director of regional operations, Pader Brach, has previously defended the agency’s response to the fire, saying it acted as quickly as possible when it was clear an evacuation was required, but that there was very little time. He said the agency had been working with the First Nations Emergency Services Society, the First Nations Health Authority and others to ensure evacuees had the resources they needed.
Spokespeople for CP Rail and CN Rail declined to comment on Monday.
Thwarting critical infrastructure would be a dramatic escalation in the battle over jurisdiction and support following the wildfires, but there is precedent in the region. Mr. Pasco is the chief of the Oregon Jack Creek Indian Band, which his father Robert Pasco previously led. The elder Pasco stymied railway expansion plans in the 1980s by blocking tracks, his son noted, and the fight eventually landed in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Doug McIntyre is the chief of the Skuppah Indian Band, one of the NNTC’s member bands. His community is roughly five kilometres from Lytton. With the village destroyed, residents must now travel further to access emergency services, banks, and groceries.
Mr. McIntyre said he has not heard from the province since the disaster started last week, and that he doesn’t want trains running through his community.
“Everybody is so upset and if they hear a train, I don’t know what’s going to happen. They are probably going to go down there and try to block it,” Mr. McIntyre said. “Our lives are upside down right now.”
Mr. McIntyre added that he wants officials to discuss the disaster and recovery plan with Indigenous leaders before the trains resume. “We don’t want to stop the trains – that’s the economy of Canada,” he said.
Chiefs of the other NNTC member nations did not return messages seeking comment. Mr. McIntyre said the tribal council is united.
Kukpi7 (Chief) Stuart Jackson said on Monday that his Lower Nicola Indian Band, which is not an NNTC member nation but has ties to the communities on the council, has helped more than 300 evacuees at the Shulus Community Arena, located on his nation’s territory just outside of Merritt, B.C. The flow of money, food and toiletries being donated by locals in the region has been overwhelming, he said, adding that some Lower Nicola members are billeting members of the Lytton First Nation.
“We’re one nation, we have respective communities but we’re related in so many ways,” Mr. Jackson said.
A further 160 residents of the Lytton area registered for support in Merritt, where many had to spend one or two nights in the local arena before securing hotel rooms, because many had been booked beforehand for the busy Canada Day long weekend, municipal spokesperson Greg Lowis said Monday. By Wednesday, these evacuees will have to reapply to Emergency Management BC for further assistance, he said.
The fire that destroyed Lytton was 7,600 acres in size as of Monday and was still listed by the BC Wildfire Service as out of control. It was one of 199 fires burning across the province. About 700 wildfires have been recorded since the spring. They’ve burned about 90,000 hectares of land, which is already more land burned than in all of 2019 and 2020 combined, and more than three times the 10-year average for early July.
There are evacuation orders keeping residents from hundreds of properties across B.C. and hundreds more homes are under alert to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
Nearly 100 firefighters from Quebec and New Brunswick were headed to B.C. to help. The BC Wildfire Service said the out-of-province firefighters will be tested for COVID-19 before being deployed.
The Canadian Forces is preparing to station 350 troops, a Hercules transport plane and several helicopters in Edmonton to help with the firefighting effort in Western Canada if needed. Those resources are expected to be in place after this week.
With a report from Chantelle Lee and The Canadian Press
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