SOCIAL AND CULTURAL IMPACTS OF THE 2013 BOW RIVER FLOOD AT SIKISKA NATION, ALBERTA, CANADA

Robert (Bob) Patrick*

Abstract

The Alberta flood event of 2013 that originated in the southern Canadian Rockies caused loss of human life and resulted in the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. The path of flood destruction severed the Trans-Canada Highway and numerous railway corridors. Cities and towns suffered significant flood damage, including Calgary, Canada’s fourth largest city. This paper examines the social and cultural impacts of the flood event at Siksika Nation, an Indigenous community centred on the main floodway corridor, the Bow River, downstream of Calgary. While the repair and reconstruction of homes and neighbourhoods has long been completed in all affected cities and towns, only a handful of the 134 homes destroyed at Siksika Nation have been replaced despite availability of provincial flood recovery funding. Social and cultural factors from within the community related to building location, building density and clan-ship structure continue to mire reconstruction efforts. Suggested here is a wider breadth of provincial policy considerations that are respectful of, and adaptable to, Indigenous social and cultural tradition.

Keywords: Siksika; Floodplain; Flood recovery; Indigenous; Alberta; Canada

Introduction

Between June 19-22, 2013, an intense rainfall event centred over southern Alberta in the Canadian Rockies delivered record rainfall to the region. More than 200mm, and as much as 350 mm, of rain fell over this 3-day period (Pomeroy et al 2015), an amount normally expected over a period of

12 months (Environment Canada, n.d.). In addition to the torrential rainfall, a late snowpack  contributed to a surge in runoff into tributaries of the Bow River, the main catchment basin for the region. During this 3-day storm event, Bow River discharge rates increased more dramatically downstream of Calgary, Alberta, where the Bow is joined by many smaller tributaries. The rate of river discharge increased ten-fold from the pre-rain event to the immediate post-rain event.  Floods of a  lesser magnitude are well documented for the Bow River in 2005 and 2011 (Shook 2016).

Impacts from the flood even were enormous and included closure of the Trans-Canada Highway due to a debris torrent, washout of the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline, widespread damage in the city of Calgary including flood impacts to thousands of businesses. A ‘State of Emergency’ was declared in over a dozen municipalities including the evacuation of more than 100,000 people (Pomeroy et al 2016). Tragically, the flood resulted in five deaths. The provincial government  estimated the flood to be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history at CDN $6 billion. While media attention focused on the city of Calgary and the eastern slope communities of Banff, Canmore and High River, a large Indigenous community downstream of Calgary, Siksika Nation, was greatly impacted. Siksika Nation, bisected by the Bow River, was in the immediate, and direct, path of the floodwater surge. For Siksika Nation, the flood event went far beyond material loss and structural damage. Much deeper social and cultural impacts from the flood remain in the community, some four years after the flood event. For Siksika Nation, the flood event of June 2013 was a social and cultural disaster.

Siksika Nation

Siksika Nation is located in Treaty 7 approximately 90 km east of Calgary. The Nation is bisected in its entirety by the Bow River, the historical lifeblood of the Siksika people. The river is represented in the Siksika Nation official Coat of Arms by an outer blue circle symbolizing the timeless duration of Treaty 7 signed by Chief Crowfoot on September 22, 1877. Chief Crowfoot utter the phrase “… as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the water flows” to express his people’s commitment to treaty-making (Siksika Nation website).

Siksika Flood Impacts

Between June 20 and 23, flood waters that originated in tributaries of the Bow River became concentrated in the main stem of the Bow River. Without warning from the provincial government, flood waters inundated large portions of Siksika Nation on June 21 resulting in evacuation of 1000 people, or one in four residents. By comparison, the evacuation of Calgary residents was one in ten residents. During the flood event, 134 Siksika homes were lost and 771 people became homeless. The community of Little Washington at Siksika was destroyed by flood waters (Aitsiniki 2013a).

On June 21, twelve water wells providing community water supply to Siksika Nation, located close to the Bow River, were destroyed or taken off-line. This resulted in a loss of water supply to the east and west-side water treatment plants terminating potable water supply to 625 homes, or 62 percent of Siksika housing stock. Many private household wells soon became contaminated from flood water inundation. On June 22, 2013 Siksika Nation went on a boil water advisory issued by Health Canada. An additional 307 private homes at the Hidden Valley Golf Resort located on Siksika Nation land were destroyed along with a water treatment plant and the resort community clubhouse.

Other, immediate impacts included the loss of two bridge crossings of the Bow River within Siksika Nation. The loss of these bridges severed the community into two parts greatly increasing road distance and travel time for immediate emergency response. The severed road connection also impacted family and community connection, adding more stress to the community. The sewage lagoon in the Siksika community of Little Washington was destroyed by floodwaters from the Bow River. Four main Siksika communities, North Camp, Little Washington, Little Chicago and South Camp were totally inundated with floodwaters (Aitsiniki 2013b).

Each of these flooded communities house family networks based on clan relationships. These communities are located on low-lying land, occupied for generations for reasons of proximity to river, cattle grazing and farming, hunting and food gathering, trail and ease of road and river access. The  form of these communities was based on family, or clan, clusters. The original planning for the housing layout was based not on legal parcel lines but on tradition of clan relations. This traditional housing arrangement would become a significant factor in the flood recovery effort at Siksika after the 2013 flood.

Methodology

This research adopted a qualitative approach using document review in the grey and academic literature. Documents include a range of reports found in newspaper media including the Siksika newspaper, Aitsiniki, as well as media reports from the Calgary Herald newspaper and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). In addition, academic literature was reviewed to provide context of the flood event. Discussion with community members also took place between Jan 2014 and Sept 2016 during two separate site visits into the community. Prior to the flood event the author facilitated a source water protection plan with a working committee made up of membership from the community. The 2013 flood occurred only months after completion of that plan.

Siksika Strong

Emergency response during and immediately after the flood peak was rapid as supplies of food and water made their way from the larger centres of Strathmore and Calgary, Alberta, to Siksika Nation. An emergency response centre was located at the Deerfoot Sportsplex at Siksika which became known locally as the 2013 Flood Reception Centre. Volunteer help from both inside and outside the community provided assistance in the weeks and months following the flood event. Canadian Red Cross provided personnel as well as over 300 volunteers from another international volunteer group, Samaritan’s Purse. Volunteers provided debris clearing, household cleaning, and local food distribution support. In September a concert was held at the Bassano Centennial Arena with country entertainers Corb Lund and Ian Tyson headlining the event (Aitsiniki 2013b). Local artists contributed to the event. Funds raised went directly to the flood recovery program. The post-flood expression “Siksika Strong” has become a common slogan defining community resilience at Siksika (Aitsiniki 2013b).

To help address the immediate housing shortage, ATCO trailers ‘relief shelters’ were established by end of August 2013 at Siksika in three locations. While the relief shelters were warm  and dry, they were also reported to be overcrowded and failed to resemble the homes and communities that were lost. The shelters provided sleeping quarters, dining room, playgrounds, furnishings, water and bathrooms but offered no cooking facilities. The relief shelters were a daily reminder of the flood event, the loss of a home, the absence of community. Chief and Council hosted information meetings with the community soon after the flood event. As early as July 2013 many of the evacuees began to express signs of frustration and uncertainty as rumours began in the community that homes destroyed by the flood would not be rebuilt on their original footprint.

The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, remarked that funding from Government would not be available  for  those  choosing  to  rebuild  in  previously  flooded  areas.  These  remarks,  and  those circulating in the community, raised concern among those wanting to rebuild on, or close to, the same footprint where they had lived for generations. For many, the site of their original house was much  more than a location, but a place that defined their home.

One year after the flood, and after life had returned to normal for those in the upstream communities such as Canmore and Calgary, over 100 Siksika members were still living in hotel rooms in the city of Strathmore, Alberta, approximately 50 kilometers to the west. The reason was not a lack of funding to replace homes destroyed in the flood, but rather, the unwillingness of many Siksika members to be relocated away from traditional places of household occupation. This condition illustrates the increased complexity of flood disaster response when social and cultural factors are taken into consideration, or more appropriately, when they are not taken into consideration. For many in the community, the promise of a replacement house in a new location was not going to replace a home in a familiar location.

In 2014 a second wave of temporary housing in mobile homes replaced the temporary ATCO ‘relief shelters’. This temporary housing consists of 144 trailers in new temporary neighbourhoods (NTNs). The housing in the NTNs provided over 600 people with a temporary trailer as they waited on a new, permanent home. The NTN housing represents much more than a new building, but a new living arrangement. The NTNs were quickly erected on higher ground outside traditional places of settlement and unsympathetic to family clan organization. The result was immediate dissatisfaction not only with household overcrowding and building placement but also with the blending of family clan structure within the NTNs. The NTNs for Siksika Nation are located at East Crowfoot School and at the West Siksika Health and Wellness Centre.

The long term plan for permanent housing will continue this practice in new subdivisions above the Bow River floodplain. This new living arrangement will be distant from traditional places of settlement and unsympathetic to family clan structure. The new, permanent homes are proposed to be two, three, and four bedroom modular houses. As of June 2016 only 13 new permanent homes have been built while more than 600 people are still living with family, friends, temporarily repaired houses, or in one of the 144 NTN trailers.

The construction of new permanent houses has been very slow and the subject of peaceful protest in the community. A lead protester, Ben Crow Chief, with a core of community support, established a 300-plus day blockade of a new permanent housing subdivision near an existing NTN (Aitsiniki 2016). The protest is over the lack of options given to those wanting to relocate on traditional clan lands, albeit in low, flood prone areas. In the words of one band member: “When you create these big subdivisions with people living on top of each other, that’s when you have all the social problems. This is not how we traditionally live.” (Aitsiniki 2015) .

To add further complexity, the Alberta provincial government has allocated CDN $345 million for the new community development including housing and related infrastructure but with a deadline  for completion of March 31, 2018. In the face of a financial timeline and serious housing shortage decisions must be made. Siksika Nation administration has responsibility to provide housing to membership while maintaining cooperative relations with provincial government authorities. At the same time, Siksika membership is conflicted over the planning for new housing development and the abandonment of the traditional, clan-living arrangement.

The ramification of the 2013 flood event continues to impact Siksika. These impacts reach far beyond material loss brought on by the initial flood and have driven a social and cultural wedge within the community. Some members even expressed consideration of moving to higher ground overlooking their previous homes and traditional lands: “We wanted to be on the hill overlooking our old homes — none of us wanted this location.” Aitsiniki 2015

Flooding of the Bow River at this location has occurred many times in the past (Pomeroy et al 2016; Shook 2016) and yet, Siksika Nation have managed to remain in place for millennia. Adaptation to these repeated flood events has been occurring over a very long time period. Elsewhere in Canada, flood loss claims regularly look to provincial assistance to repair and replace lost home. In fact, wealthy neighbourhoods in Calgary and Canmore were rebuilt soon after the 2013 flood with the cost of this reconstruction fully compensated by provincial recovery funding. At Siksika, the provincial flood relief program appears to be playing by very different rules. The “move or be moved” attitude of the provincial flood relief program as applied to Siksika Nation exemplifies a colonial position of the State disconnected from the values of place-based Indigenous people. Howitt et al (2013) describe the technical and knowledge-capacity deficit of provincial authorities to apply best practices that would support the re-establishment of homes, and thus clan structures, in traditional areas. Furthermore, the capacity deficit of provincial authorities has resulted in the 2013 flood being cast as a negative event. To the contrary, ecological processes will benefit greatly including the recharge of riparian and upland wetlands (Pomeroy et al 2016). River sediment deposits help to maintain productive areas for grazing and agriculture – a rationale for settling in these areas in the first place.

Conclusion

A disbursed living arrangement supported the family clan structure at Siksika for millennia despite historic flood events that define this floodplain. The 2013 flood caused widespread damage to Siksika Nation and the response of community members illustrated resilience. The response of the provincial flood recovery program has been unsympathetic to the social and cultural living arrangement for many at Siksika. Clearly, the flood water devastation has become amplified across Siksika Nation  as the traditional housing arrangement is under real threat of being replaced by the conventional subdivision layout with modern ‘look-a-like’ housing on small parcels of land.

The current blockade, and protest, is an expression of community frustration toward an  imposed, inflexible, colonial framework devoid of social and cultural considerations. The proposed construction of new, conventional subdivisions is seen by some in the community as a modern, step forward, but to many others this new housing arrangement is prone to social problems, neglectful of cultural tradition, and a reminder of colonial control.

Flood impacts are normally measured by loss of property, economic impact, and loss of life. In the case of the 2013 Bow River flood at Siksika Nation, a very different impact has been realized. How this First Nation community is re-constructed raises questions and potential trade- offs between traditional living arrangements and more ‘modern’ conventional subdivision design.

In the face of accelerated climate uncertainty across the Prairie region, more frequent floods of similar magnitude are expected (Shook 2016; Pomeroy et al 2016). The initial response at Siksika, symbolized by the ‘Siksika Strong’ moniker, exemplifies resilience and the ability to adapt. At the  same time, the response of the provincial government has shown little capacity to support resilience and adaptation. Adaptation to flood events through land alterations such as berms, ditching, dykes and enhanced vegetation cover may lessen flood impacts and reduce the financial, social and cultural burden of community relocation programs. Modification to existing housing should also be considered where existing housing stock holds significant social and cultural value. Flood proof modifications such as mounding, moats, stilt-frame construction, and raised floors over unfinished ground-level grade have been successfully applied in many other floodplain areas around the world (Dewan 2015). Many cities, and communities, have adapted to floodplain environments through a mix of technology and better land use practices. To avoid social and cultural upheaval these practices should be applied at Siksika Nation to avoid community upheaval. Such practices would serve the twin goals of protecting property as well as respecting social and culture norms. The current capacity deficit of this State-led flood recovery program that demand community relocation, conditional timelines for funding, as well as limited vision for adaptive, flood proof housing is but one reminder of colonization’s grip on Indigenous people. Cultural genocide operates on many, often unrecognized, levels.

References

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Howitt, Richard; Kim Doohan, Sandie Suchet-Peasron, Gaim Lunkapis, Samantha Muller,

Rebecca Lawrence, Sarah Prout, Siri Veland, and Sherrie Cross. 2013. Capacity Deficits and Cultural Interfaces of Land and Sea Governance. In Ryan Walker, David Natcher, Ted Jojola (eds) Reclaiming Indigenous Planning. McGill Queens University Press.

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*Robert (Bob) Patrick, PhD, MCIP, RPP, is Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.

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