Auditor General to probe Lytton failures; critic calls rebuild process “shameful”

Written By Rob Shaw

“A full community burned to the ground, surely we could have put one person in charge.”

––Jackie Tegart

B.C.’s NDP government abruptly changed its tune this week to support an independent investigation into the failure to rebuild the Village of Lytton, after the province’s Auditor General announced he’d already begun to probe the issue.

Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma said residents want answers into why efforts to rebuild homes and businesses have taken so long, after the town was destroyed in a wildfire in 2021. Almost no homes have actually been rebuilt.

“I welcome the review being done by the Auditor General,” Ma said in an interview. “I think that we have lessons to learn here, and whatever feedback that the Auditor General can provide, I’m definitely very interested to hear what he has to say.”

It’s quite the shift from just seven months ago, when New Democrats used their majority to quash a motion to refer the issue to the Auditor General, perhaps nervous that the independent watchdog would find foot-dragging and red tape by the government ministries involved in archeological permitting, in particular.

The region’s MLA, Jackie Tegart, nonetheless followed up with a letter to Auditor General Michael Pickup. She was vindicated Wednesday when he announced he’d stepped in.

“Our examination is focused on three areas,” said Pickup. “The province of B.C.’s role and responsibilities for disaster recovery; the province of B.C.’s support for Lytton, including the funding it contributed; (and) the challenges faced in rebuilding Lytton and the province of B.C.’s opportunities for improvement.”

Three years on, five building permits issued

The Lytton wildfire destroyed 100 properties, 800 hectares of land and killed two people. Almost every home in the village was damaged or destroyed, and the fire also obliterated much of the village’s underlying water and sewer infrastructure.

“We need someone who can have access to the information flow between government and local government, and also between anyone who has been involved in the recovery process in Lytton,” said Tegart.

“We’re coming up on three years. We have, I think, five permits out right now to build houses. But three years is a long time to be away from home. And so I think that this announcement today will give people hope, and I know it won’t be quick enough, but it certainly will give us guidelines as we look to the future climate change disasters and how not to do the recovery process.”

“It will give us guidelines … [on] future climate change disasters and how not to do the recovery process.”

Jackie Tegart

More than 100 residents protested the slow pace of reconstruction last fall, and complained about a bureaucratic nightmare in trying to rebuild their homes.

There appeared to be three broad issues: The inability and lack of capacity for the first Village of Lytton council to handle the rebuilding process in early months, the frequent delays caused by the government’s archeology branch due to the discovery of Indigenous artifacts in the soil during the rebuilding process, and the costs passed down to residents — often associated with archeology — that were not covered by insurance or the provincial government.

B.C. provided Lytton with $40.99 million to rebuild, more than half of which was used to cover archaeological costs. The bulk of that went to an archeological company, A.E.W., owned by local First Nations.

Gaps in process, expertise and leadership

“It’s not just about money, it’s about expertise, it’s about capacity, it’s about processes, it’s about gaps in what the expectations are from the province,” said Tegart. “And every time the people of Lytton have turned around, there seemed to be a new process or a new rule.”

In one public meeting last fall, officials from the province’s archeological branch delivered a bewildering presentation of the steps needed to satisfy permits, forms, approvals and sub-approvals to rebuild their homes, illustrated in the form of 42 information boxes.

The sheer bureaucracy infuriated local residents.

“Lytton has been one shameful experience of a government … expecting local people to replace a full community.”

Jackie Tegart

The province should have sent in a team of experts to take the lead in the small community, which was overwhelmed, said Tegart.

“God forbid this should ever happen to any other community, because the experience of the people of Lytton has been one shameful experience of a government not showing leadership and not stepping in when they should, and expecting local people to replace a full community,” she said.

After almost three years, it’s a conclusion the B.C. government now appears to share as well.

Community lacked decision-making capacity, says minister

Ma said the response was based off a 2019 disaster recovery framework that failed to anticipate the scale of events like rebuilding an entire village, and put too much emphasis on a tiny council for decision-making.

“The question arises, and we’ve seen this, is what happens when you have a community that doesn’t have that decision-making capacity to set that pace, to set the direction,” said Ma.

“Under the community-led model, the province leaned in as far as we could, respecting local authority, which meant we can provide the financial resources, and provide access to subject-matter expertise within the province, but we can’t set the direction, the priorities and pace on their behalf.

“What we’ve learned from that is some communities will face situations where they actually need the province to lean in as far as to provide that intervention. And so those are the kinds of things that we’re grappling with right now.”

The Auditor General’s audit isn’t expected to be complete until some time in 2025.

That’s too late, said Tegart, but it’s also better than nothing.

“When we look at a project like Lytton, a full community burned to the ground, surely we could have put one person in charge,” she said. “And their sole person would have been visible in the result. But what we have today is a story of something gone very wrong.”