Ontario under water: The flooding crisis on First Nations reserves

Are remote northern Indigenous communities prepared for more — and worse — floods?
By Josh Sherman - Published on Oct 17, 2019
people boarding a plane
Residents of Kashechewan First Nation arrive on a Canadian Military transport in Stratford in April 2008 after flooding forced their evacuation. (David Chidley/CP)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle climate change — and flooding, in particular — in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

It’s only autumn, but Fort Albany First Nation, in northeastern Ontario, is about to start preparing for next year’s spring flooding season.

The remote Cree First Nation reserve is located on the banks of the Albany River. Encompassing two islands and a swath of low-lying mainland, the community of approximately 900 is especially vulnerable to flooding during seasonal thaws.

“People start monitoring how much water’s in the river when it starts to freeze,” explains Fort Albany deputy chief Robert Nakogee. His earliest memory of flooding is from when he was just three years old. “I do recall being thrown into a boat,” says Nakogee, now 37. Since then, Fort Albany has been the site of multiple evacuations.

The problems facing Fort Albany and other Indigenous communities across the province are expected only to worsen as climate change brings rising temperatures and increased precipitation — and experts say the federal government needs to take action.

Blair Feltmate is one of the researchers working to highlight the flooding risks on northern reserves. Feltmate, a University of Waterloo professor and head of the school’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, says that the federal government hasn’t yet proposed a substantive plan. “One of the things that has not been considered in Canada nearly to the extent in my opinion it should be considered,” Feltmate says, “is what do we do to mitigate flood risks on First Nations communities.”

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming twice as rapidly as the global average. “And the farther north you go, the disproportionally warmer it’s getting,” Feltmate explains. “This stuff is only going to get worse. Therefore, we need to focus even more attention on helping First Nations communities.”

Feltmate says that best practices from off-reserve strategies could be applied within Indigenous communities. The idea, he notes, wouldn’t be to tell First Nations what to do, but to consult with them on whether certain approaches may help. “These are things like disconnecting downspouts … and grading around your house to direct water away from the foundation,” Feltmate explains. “It’s plastic covers over window wells; it’s making sure the windows at grade level are watertight.”

According to a 2018 report from the Expert Panel on Climate Adaptation and Resilience Results, which Feltmate chaired, an existing “infrastructure crisis” affecting many Indigenous communities poses additional challenges. “Infrastructure that is being built or improved must factor in climate resilience,” the report states. “Analysis of overall climate preparedness of Indigenous Peoples must account for infrastructure that is already below standard.”

When asked whether the government was developing a national plan to address flooding in Indigenous communities, Indigenous Services Canada told TVO.org in an email that its efforts are regionally focused. “Flooding threats facing First Nations communities across Canada vary substantially from region to region and so are addressed based on the realities faced in each region,” wrote ISC spokesperson Rola Tfaili.

ISC spent $8.6 million between March and April this year on flood-prevention measures, such as snow removal and culvert and ditch cleaning, for Indigenous communities in Ontario. While Kashechewan, upriver from Fort Albany, and Fort Severn to the northwest have both suffered seasonal flooding, the issue isn’t limited to the region. Rising water levels have also threatened such communities as Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, on the Bay of Quinte in eastern Ontario. “It’s quite widespread,” says Feltmate.

TVO.org asked candidates in the federal riding of Timmins–James Bay, which surrounds Fort Albany and Kashechewan, how their respective parties propose to respond to flooding there.

Conservative Kraymr Grenke referred to his party’s “long history of assisting First Nations’ communities at a time of flooding” in an email to TVO.org and made reference to the Brian Mulroney government’s relocation of the Cree Peawanuck after the 1986 Winisk flood, which killed two. Around that time, he said, the Conservatives also built nearly 50 homes in Moose Cree First Nation, replacing tents.

“If elected, I promise to work with First Nations leaders to find a long-term solution to these issues and it cannot be understated that a non-adversarial MP on the government side of parliament is needed if these issues are finally to be put to rest,” he said.

Liberal Michelle Boileau emphasized the Liberals’ commitment to relocating the flood-prone Kashechewan First Nation. “After extensive community consultations to determine where the safest site will be, work is now under way to ensure the land can be designated reserve status, an access road must be built, and consultations are taking place to plan the design of the new community,” she wrote in an email to TVO.org.

Kashechewan, which has seen 18 spring evacuations since 1976, had an agreement to relocate in 2005 under the Paul Martin Liberals, but the Stephen Harper Conservatives later shelved it. A new joint agreement with the province and federal government was signed this spring, and the relocation is expected to take place within eight to 10 years. “The relocation of Kashechewan is a complex, multi-stage process,” wrote ISC spokesperson Leslie Michelson in an email to TVO.org.

Boileau said that she would work with the ministers of finance and Indigenous services to secure resources for relocation “as quickly and safely as possible.” More broadly, she noted that the Liberal government has invested in infrastructure in northern Ontario.

Green Party candidate Max Kennedy also supports relocating the Kashechewan reserve. “It needs to be moved to higher ground … that’s all there is to it,” he says. “Otherwise, this is going to be a worsening and recurring nightmare every year.”

Kennedy also mentions a main plank of the Green party platform: drawing on the ecological knowledge of Indigenous communities and heeding their advice on how to address environmental issues. “There’s just so much wisdom there that would prevent the worst of what scientists are saying is going to come down the pipe,” he says.

NDP incumbent Charlie Angus did not respond to requests for comment as of publication.

Kashechewan chief Leo Friday feels his calls for a faster relocation haven’t been heeded. When he visited Toronto this spring to sign a new relocation agreement, he says, he pushed the federal government to act faster. “I don’t think we’ve been heard,” says Friday. “I want them to speed things up so we can get out of this mess soon.”

Nakogee says that there hasn’t been a full-scale evacuation at Fort Albany in a few years — but that every spring brings anxiety. “You can’t predict Mother Nature,” he says.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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