Traditional meetings key to solving the Cowichan First Nations’ future flood problems

Cowichan Tribes’s project coordinator, civil engineer technologist James Ouellette, shows Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller a post-2020 Flood summary map. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Cowichan Tribes’s post-2020 Flood summary map, created by project engineer Darrell Tunnicliffe, of the band’s lands department. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller joined Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour on a tour of some of the most impacted sites following the heavy February rains and subsequent flooding. He explained that the water where they were standing, behind the longhouse at Clem-clem-a-lut, was waist deep as a result of the flood. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller surveys the damage at the longhouse at Clem-clem-a-lut, where the waterline can still be seen. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Indigenous Services minister Marc Miller said it’s important to have face-to-face meetings with those he’s serving. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Cowichan Tribes chief William Seymour said it’s important to jump at the chance to meet with federal government ministers when the opportunity is available. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour believes any communication is useful but face-to-face meetings is where real progress is made.

“I think we need the feds here all the time. They don’t come out enough,” he said with a smile following a meeting, Tuesday, with the federal Liberal government’s new Indigenous Services minister, Marc Miller.

“It’s always our issue,” Seymour continued. “They always forget about B.C. so when they do come out, I look forward to it. It gives me a face-to-face opportunity and I’m a true believer in face-to-face meetings. I always say I get better results when it’s face-to-face meetings.”

Miller was in Cowichan Tuesday to speak with Seymour, his councillors and staff about a number of issues, including the impact of the Jan. 31-Feb 1. flood before heading to the Halalt territory to do the same.

SEE RELATED: Cowichan’s state of emergency remains as flood damage reckoning begins

“It’s important for us as providers of indigenous services to be out there and engaged,” Miller said. “It strikes you always in a more intense fashion when you’re out in communities and dealing with people that have experienced these events.”

Following the November election, Miller replaced former Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan. It was under O’Regan that a tripartite emergency management agreement was signed in April 2019, marking an official agreement between Canada, the province of B.C. and the First Nations leadership groups to work together following natural disasters. Seymour hopes for funding through that agreement for both clean-up and for future flood protection projects and wanted Miller to see the results of the flood first hand. Cowichan’s First Nations are particularly vulnerable during natural disasters because most of the Cowichan Tribes reserve land is on the flood plain.

SEE RELATED: B.C. First Nation, governments sign first-ever emergency management agreement

“The government put us on the reserves. They set reserve boundaries for us,” Seymour said.

Building on flood plain and then protecting that infrastructure is costly and the band needs help.

Heavy rains and a high tide peaked overnight Friday, Jan. 31 and into Saturday, Feb. 1 prompting officials to call a state of local emergency as the rising water closed roads and flooded yards and homes, most of which were on the Cowichan and Halalt reserves. Cowichan Tribes leadership was caught off guard.

While the rivers are monitored, the water rose too quickly, Seymour noted. So fast, in fact, that the monitoring alarms didn’t even have a chance to be set off.

Seymour said 117 homes were impacted by the flood.

The chief said the damage is unlike anything he’s seen in years.

“When I look back at when was the last time seeing something like that, I was a kid,” he said. “Back then we didn’t have dikes in place or anything like that so when the river overflowed it went strait onto the reserve.

“I know the area. I’ve lived here all my life. I used to be the operations and maintenance manager. I maintained homes and maintained water, sewers, roads and everything. I’ve done some work in my earlier days when they started building dikes,” Seymour said. “I’ve seen where it’s flooded. I’ve seen homes where they’ve got canoes outside their homes for when it floods. Today you don’t see canoes anymore because you don’t expect this kind of flooding to happen.”

But it did. And it’s happening with increasing frequency.

“It all happened fast and it was unanticipated. We are all monitoring the rivers but it happened so fast,” explained Cowichan Tribes project engineer Darrell Tunnicliffe. He said the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers usually have peak events at different times but this time they were concurrent. That, combined with the high tide, which is only going to get higher due to climate change, set the stage for the floods.

Seymour said, this time, in some spots, the water was waist deep: three or four feet.

“I thought our longhouse was high enough that it would just come in the door of the longhouse and it might trickle in,” he said. “I’ve seen pictures of that longhouse where the water was [three feet deep] in there. That’s serious flooding.”

Now the federal Indigenous Services minister has seen the aftermath, Seymour is banking on some financial support.

“When I see them here and it gives me the opportunity to go on the tour and see what’s going on with their own eyes, that’s when progress happens,” said the chief.

Though no funds were promised, Miller feels he’s on the same page with Seymour moving forward.

“I think it’s important for our community to have that face-to-face dialogue,” Miller said. “Even in a hyper-mediatized environment, whether it be social media or otherwise, sometimes messages get crossed, or mixed and so it’s important for me to actually talk to council, talk to leadership, and talk to just regular folks,” he added. “We have a direct dialogue… and having that dialogue face-to-face is so key.”

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