VANCOUVER—A regional Indigenous leader in British Columbia has accused the province of failing to support First Nations leaders in the critical hours after a massive wildfire tore through the village of Lytton and its surrounding areas.
Matt Pasco, chair of the regional Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, whose member communities include the Lytton First Nation, said Friday that Lytton First Nation members who occupy a number of reserves around the village of Lytton had suffered “significant” property loss due to the fire, adding that hundreds of members had been evacuated from the region.
He expressed frustration with a lack of support and communication from the province’s lead emergency co-ordinating agency, Emergency Management B.C., in the early goings of the evacuation.
“In the first 14 hours, we were alone,” he told the Star.
In fact, Pasco, who owns a ranch, said he got a call from B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, asking about the status of his cattle long before he got a call about protection for First Nations residents in the region.
“They phoned me as a rancher to make sure my cattle were all right before I ever got any response from the province … about the health and well-being of our people,” he said.
“It came late … This is the hallmark of the colonialist system. It doesn’t go unnoticed by us that it happens on Canada Day.”
It wasn’t until around late morning/early afternoon Thursday that he finally made contact with provincial officials, he said.
By then, Pasco said he had reached out directly to the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation in Kamloops for help. He said they agreed quickly to open up their powwow grounds for use as a muster station.
Tribal council staff also secured a few dozen hotel rooms in the Kamloops area to house evacuees.
Depending on their location in relation to the fire, people either fled northwest to Lillooet, northeast to Kamloops, southeast to Merritt or south to Hope.
In many cases, families were separated, he said.
Council staff started putting together a spreadsheet to keep track of people’s movements, but at times they were stymied by lack of real-time data sharing from some of the evacuation centres, including the one in Lillooet.
This made it difficult to plan ahead for any special medical, pet or other accommodations people who were being transferred to Kamloops might need upon arrival.
In an email statement Friday, Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s public safety minister, acknowledged early communication with First Nations leaders “didn’t live up to expectations.”
“Our government has been committed to improving communications with First Nations leaders in the event of an emergency situation. We have worked to put in place better systems, based on lessons learned. While there were challenging factors, early communication with the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Oregon Jack Creek Band didn’t live up to expectations,” he said. “I have made my expectations clear to the ministry and I have been assured that immediate steps have been taken to address gaps in protocols that contributed to this situation.”
Government officials added separately that the province had “little time to work out a plan of action” and that going forward, the province “will ensure that First Nation leadership is aware of our activities as the situation develops.”
They said the province is working to identify all evacuees and where they are located to make sure they have the support they need.