When the weatherman calls for rain in Tsawataineuk, you don’t just reach for your umbrella. The 150 people of this small British Columbia First Nation get in their homes, and they don’t waste any time along the way.
Once or twice a year, after a good rain, the entire village is flooded by two-and-a-half to three feet of water.
For this reason, all the homes in Tsawataineuk are built on stilts.
“If it rains steady all day, the river would be coming up into the village by the evening,” says Chief Willie Moon. “Sometimes it can be a matter of a few hours.”
The flooding never used to be this bad. The problem has come about due to 100 years of clear-cut logging up the Kingcome River on which Tsawataineuk sits.
The trees that used to absorb rainwater are gone, and the river has become dangerous and unchained.
People, fuel and supplies are all brought in and out by small open boats negotiating the hazardous river.
Over 20 community members have drowned in the past 50 years.
Ten years ago, Tsawataineuk told the federal government it needs an access road to connect it to the coast seven kilometres down-river, so the community can have a safer alternative to traveling the wild river.
The government agreed to fund the road, but there was a hitch. The land between the community and the ocean is owned by private landowners.
All the landowners agreed to let the community build the road, except for one – an environmental group called Nature Trust.
“(The road) would have serious impacts on the fish and wildlife in the estuary,” says Ron Erickson, the group’s executive vice-president.
Nature Trust owns 1,060 acres along the river, one of many chunks of land it has bought around the province – partly using government funds – to preserve for conservation purposes.
Erickson’s advice to Tsawataineuk – move the village.
“They were quite upset when we suggested that because their ancestors have lived there for generations,” he acknowledged.
The B.C. government, which manages the land on behalf of Nature Trust, is also refusing to grant a right-of-way for the road, which means Tsawataineuk is out of luck, even though it has never signed away any of its land in a treaty or land agreement.
So the community is going to court. It is putting the final touches on a lawsuit it plans to file at the B.C. Supreme Court which, according to the band’s lawyer, Ardith Walkem, will seek a declaration that the current access to the community isn’t safe, and that reserve lands have a right of safe access.
The court will be asked to order the defendants – Canada and B.C. – to provide safe access.
But the clock is ticking. The construction season ends in August, so if work on the road isn’t done by then Tsawataineuk will have to test its luck for another year on the Kingcome River.