An ‘unsuitable’ climate threatens Mi’kmaw community

At first, Rebecca Labillois thought it was just another routine storm roaring across the Bay of Chaleur.

“But then the power went out,” she says. “The water just kept on flooding in, and it flooded all the way up here and up to my house.”

It was Dec. 6, 2010, and massive waves of water were engulfing the homes along Beach Road and Olympic Drive at Ugpi’ganjig First Nation, also known as Eel River Bar, in northern New Brunswick.

“We had no choice but to leave,” Labillois said.

A 2010 storm was an early indication of extreme weather and flooding brought on by climate change. (Lewis Jerome/Submitted)

Carol Simonson lives in one of the homes along Beach Road, facing the water.

“My family’s property was right here,” she said. “We had my uncle’s house, my grandparents’ house in back. It just completely flooded. My uncle’s house was not salvageable. They had to tear it down.”

The storm temporarily displaced dozens of families in this small Mi’kmaw community. Sewers backed up. People lost cherished possessions.

It was an early indicator of the threat posed to coastal communities by climate change.

Dire forecasts

According to the Gespe’gewaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council, the sea level is forecast to rise by one meter by 2100, a dire risk for a community where many homes and community facilities are only 3.3 to 5.6 meters above sea level.

The annual mean air temperature is expected to rise by almost five degrees Celsius by 2100.

Precipitation is projected to increase by eight per cent by 2050 and by 17 per cent by 2100.

“It’s a pretty big thing to think about,” said John Vicaire, the council’s executive director.

“We can’t stop it, but we can try and prepare to mitigate some of those impacts.”

John Vicaire, executive director of Gespe’gewaq Mi’gmaq Resource Council, says it’s too late to reverse climate change, but it’s still possible to mitigate its effects. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

One attempt at mitigation is a concrete seawall running for more than half a kilometer where the beach used to be. Built by the federal government at a cost of $ 10 million, it’s designed to blunt the impact of the next storm.

But even it can’t hold back all the water.

Subsequent storms have pushed sand up against the wall, reducing the distance between the waves and the road. Simonson said water and debris make it over the wall frequently.

WATCH | Once deemed ‘suitable for Indians,’ this land is now a climate trap

Ugpi’ganjig First Nation’s home on Bay of Chaleur may not survive rising sea levels

This “undesirable” land was deemed “suitable for Indians” but is now a climate trap for the Ugpi’ganjig First Nation 6:03

The wall was a quick fix, says Ugpi’ganjig Chief Sacha Labillois. “It was more, ‘We sew up the wound that’s bleeding right now,’ but we didn’t address the internal bleeding.”

Fifty homes on the reserve of 400 people are considered vulnerable, along with what she calls the “heart of the community… our ‘downtown'” – the band office and the community health center.

The wall was designed to allow for additional height, but only another meter or two.

Anything higher would risk turning the center of the reserve into a bowl, preventing floodwaters that get in from flowing back out.

A wall was erected to hold back rising sea levels. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Some of the other vulnerable homes are west of the Route 134 bridge, where there is no wall.

“In a hundred years, there’s going to be no houses here,” said Joan Caplin, an 86-year-old elder living on Blueberry Point.

“You’ll have to look for higher ground for houses. I won’t be here, so I won’t see it, but my grandchildren, I worry about them a lot. What’s going to happen?”

Like Rebecca Labillois, Caplin has seen weather patterns change in her lifetime. Storms are more severe, the bay doesn’t ice over as early in the winter and the shoreline at the mouth of the Eel River, including in her own backyard, is eroding.

Ugpi’ganjig Chief Sacha Labillois says a wall was a quick fix and not a permanent solution. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Another solution would be to relocate homes away from the most vulnerable parts of the reserve, but that’s not easy, either.

The community is hemmed in by provincial Route 11 and the town of Dalhousie, so it has limited space for expansion.

The band is buying additional land, including some in Dalhousie, but turning it into reserve land is a time-consuming, bureaucratic process if any other landowners raise objections.

There’s a deeper irony to those transactions that reflects the cruel turns of history.

“We’re purchasing back lands that originally belonged to us,” said Chief Labillois.

“It’s a strange concept, but it’s also a realistic concept that we need to face because we’re taking the initiative to protect our people and our generations to come.”

I will live here until the day I die.– Carol Simpson, resident.

Ugpi’ganjig, whose traditional territory stretched from where the town of Dalhousie now sits to around Jacquet River, didn’t choose this location, of course.

Set aside by New Brunswick’s colonial government in 1807, it was described at the time as “swampy terrain, good for Indian reservation,” according to research by former band councilor and elder Gordon Labillois.

A 1938 federal assessment described the marshy land as unsuitable for agriculture or anything else.

“And here we are, still here today,” said Chief Labillois.

Joan Caplin, an 86-year-old elder living on Blueberry Point, says she’s seen weather patterns change in her lifetime. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Simonson said she has no intention of ceding this terrain to a rapidly changing climate.

“I will live here until the day I die,” she said. “This has been in my family for generations, so I’m just trying to get it all leveled out and built up so that we can stay.”

But in the next breath, she acknowledged that inexorably warming temperatures and rising water levels may dash that aspiration.

“I know eventually, like, with the sea level rise, that it is going to soak up most of our reserve. So if I have to move later on, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

“But until then, I’m going to do what I can to try to salvage our family’s land and just keep living here.”

Despite the lack of straightforward solutions, Chief Labillois is equally determined.

“We were given a block of land here… and forced to come on to this little block, and here we are today trying to figure out, as we grow, how we can accommodate our community, because we’re always going to be here , “she said.

“Eventually, I won’t be here anymore but our Mi’kmaq people and our community of Ugpi’ganjig is going to be here forever.”

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