“It’s hard to believe a province could spend $30 to $40 million on a recovery process where we have not seen one house or one business rebuilt.”––Jackie Tegart
More than 100 frustrated residents of Lytton marched through the undeveloped dirt lots that used to be their homes Wednesday, protesting the slow pace, and rising costs, in rebuilding their town almost two and a half years after it was wiped out by wildfires.
The protest attracted much attention at the B.C. legislature, but few answers from the NDP government about why it is allowing the continued delays.
“What has gone on in Lytton ought to strike terror in the hearts of British Columbians everywhere,” said Opposition BC United leader Kevin Falcon.
“It is a failure of leadership of this province, that for 840 days, we have not seen a single new home built.
“How is it possible that this provincial government could screw up something so straightforward, so completely?”
Persistent delays and thousands in archeological costs
It’s a question residents have been wrestling with as well.
Village of Lytton Mayor Denise O’Connor said not only are delays persistent, but residents who’ve suffered through to the point they can actually rebuild are now facing thousands of dollars in new fees for archeological monitoring, which the village can’t afford, private insurance doesn’t cover and the province isn’t funding.
“That was really the catalyst for this rally,” she said in an interview. “People have been frustrated and upset all along. We know it was a full year before any debris was removed from the town. We had to wear a mask in the town until May, 11 months after the fire. All of these things, there’s been so many, and residents have been saying we should knock down the fences, rally and protest.”
But it wasn’t until a community meeting in mid-September that the situation boiled over.
Two representatives from the B.C. government’s archeology branch delivered a virtual presentation to Lytton residents on their responsibilities to preserve and protect First Nations artifacts being found in the soil during clean-up after the wildfires.
It did not go over well.
One government slide contained 42 boxes outlining the various permits, forms, approvals, committees and subcommittees required in order to progress through the byzantine labyrinth of the archeology branch’s approval process. The pure distillation of bureaucratic red tape, delivered virtually by bureaucrats from Victoria, enraged those listening.
“That community meeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back for people,” said the mayor.
‘There has to be some common sense and limit’
Resident Lilliane Graie told the meeting she has been asked to pay $24,000 by a local First Nations-owned archeological company to have two “archeological monitors” stand on her property for 10 days while a construction crew digs a trench six feet deep to put in services such as water that her home will need.
“I cannot imagine that anyone in Lytton can afford this,” said Graie, a former town councillor.
“I’m sorry but having two guys stand around watching my construction guys dig a hole and get paid $800 plus a day for it, and that doesn’t include taxes by the way, I’d really like somebody to explain this.
“I understand archaeology is a specific field and expensive, however, there has to be some common sense and limit placed on some of this.”
Not only is there no limit, but there’s no provincial funding either.
“I understand those are very high costs,” said Ted White, a government archeological branch official.
“My understanding for the project… the province has been in for the recovery and to get it ready for rebuild. The cost for homeowners I understand was to be borne either through insurance or by the owners.”
Councillors were quick to point out that insurance doesn’t cover archeological costs. Provincial officials suggested residents get a cheaper quote from a different archeological firm. But councillors countered that the archeological company, A.E.W., is the only one willing to do work in the village — in part because one of the advisory committees that “endorses” whether rebuilding can go forward contains members from the local First Nations that own A.E.W.
Half government funding spent on archeological costs
The B.C. government has given Lytton $40.99 million to rebuild, 57 per cent of which has been spent on covering the archeological costs to prepare for building (including to A.E.W). But the money doesn’t cover archaeological monitoring for owners once they start to rebuild.
Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma declined an interview request.
She defended the pace of the work in the legislature on Tuesday, saying it has unearthed some 7,000 Indigenous artifacts dating back 7,500 years.
“The village of Lytton was built on top of a former Indigenous village site and burial ground,” she said.
“The archaeological findings so far demonstrate a rich history that has been preserved in a way that is found in few other places in the province.”
That was news to Lytton’s mayor, council and residents, who had never heard the 7,000-artifact figure before. In fact, they were told by provincial archeological officials at last month’s community meeting that the types and quantity of artifacts found on the village grounds would remain confidential and unavailable to residents.
MLA calls for audit of provincial expenditure
Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart, whose riding includes Lytton, called on B.C.’s Auditor General to investigate how the province has spent almost $40 million with so few results.
“Who has the sign-off on that money?” she asked Wednesday. “And what are the results of that expenditure? It’s hard to believe a province could spend $30 to $40 million on a recovery process where we have not seen one house or one business rebuilt.”
Tegart attempted to pass a motion this week at the all-party public accounts committee, which would have compelled the auditor to probe the issue. But the NDP used its majority to reject the idea.
“People from Lytton went through two years of COVID, and now it’s over two years of their life being in limbo waiting to go back,” she said.
“It is just unbelievable. To think that we don’t have one home built… I’d like to see some leadership, I’d like to see some commitment, I’d like to see a government that can show my people how they can come home.”
‘We need government to show leadership’
The NDP is not entirely blind to the issue playing out in Lytton.
Roly Russell, the Parliamentary Secretary for Rural Development, was on the virtual call with community members last month and heard the frustration. At one point, he suggested an offline conversation to a councillor, who was sharply critiquing the archaeological branch’s attempt to portray its processes as speedy.
Green MLA Adam Olsen said the government has failed to properly communicate a balance between protecting the Indigenous heritage at the site, and assisting displaced residents in rebuilding, resulting in an unnecessary tension in the community.
“We have very outdated laws, we’ve had promises from this government that they’re going to update them,” he said. “The archaeological branch has, frankly, let Indigenous people down and it’s let property owners down.”
Olsen said the NDP’s rejection of an audit on the spending shows they are “feeling vulnerable and threatened” over how they’ve handled Lytton.
Some residents may finally be able to start rebuilding in one zone of the town before the end of the year. But severe winter weather limits the construction season, and that may not even happen, said the mayor.
“It’s just one thing after another,” said O’Connor. “It’s not simple.”
Tegart said the slow pace of reconstruction at Lytton should serve as a warning to West Kelowna, Shuswap and other areas damaged by wildfires this summer. Residents there may be in for long delays, if clearing their property requires millions of dollars in archeological assessments to check for First Nations historical objects.
“If this is the goal or the process that is going to be used in these kinds of disasters, we need government to show the leadership and to show people what the process will be,” said Tegart.
“I think it’s pretty sad when a community that has been out of their homes for over two years has to have a rally in their community to get government attention.
“And it’s reflective of the fact that people are feeling forgotten. They’re particularly concerned about the fact that many many fires have happened since Lytton, and they watched the rebuild happening in those communities and they’re questioning why they’re not rebuilding.”