House Call with Carol Hughes

It’s time to keep the promise made to Kashechewan

The seemingly annual flooding event that displaces residents from the community of Kashechewan to southern communities is underway. The evacuation will move over 2,000 residents, with as many as 500 going to Kapuskasing. The cost of these evacuations is reported to be about $15-20 million every time breakup on the Albany River threatens the community, begging the question, shouldn’t the government just allocate the resources to move the community?

That’s what is making this year’s state of emergency especially frustrating. People in Kashechewan felt they were making progress on a relocation until very recently. The bad news came when the federal budget had no funding in it to move the community. The government claims it remains committed to its promised plan to move Kashechewan, but every year that money isn’t allocated is another year of frustration for residents and observers who see little point in delaying the inevitable.

Kashechewan as a dot on a map is fairly recent. The community was created in the 1950s and is one of two that were built from the old Fort Albany. Flooding began in 2004 and has become a regular feature of spring breakup for the Albany River in the years since. The community is protected by a dike, but that hasn’t been enough to stop these events, and some feel it is only a matter of time until a catastrophic event destroys the community altogether.

The problem has been studied and was reported on in 2006 by former Ontario cabinet minister Alan Pope. At that time, the community had been evacuated three times over 15 months due to flooding, sewage backup and water quality issues. Efforts to relocate to higher ground have been going on for years and the community has a signed agreement with the provincial and federal government, but every budget that has been delivered since fails to come up with the necessary funding.

While the goodwill of the host communities goes a long way to making this experience bearable for those displaced, it’s no surprise that these evacuations are no holiday either. Lives are disrupted, children lose time at school and it is particularly difficult for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. The trauma related to these events is multiplied when there is no expectation that things will change any time soon.

The plan has been to proceed with the building of a new community in a period of five to 10 years. However, delays in beginning the project, along with yearly costs associated with evacuation, drive up the total cost. It makes little sense to spend on further evacuations when everyone involved knows the community will eventually be moved, but that is the cycle we are trapped in until the government decides otherwise.

Meanwhile, the problems in Kashechewan could amount to a laundry list of items that challenge First Nation communities: water quality issues and wastewater system problems, mouldy housing, insufficient healthcare options, and this past autumn, the elementary school was closed because of health concerns. There have been many promises from governments, but without funding they remain unkept.