As natural disasters ravage indigenous lands, uninsured residents struggle to rebuild

Ashes fly through the air as Ron Bellerose sifts through the rubble of his destroyed home.

A pile of coils is all that’s left of his mattress, while a charred stove and refrigerator lie nearby. Nothing remains of the 63-year-old’s home in East Prairie Métis Settlement, northern Alberta, after a wildfire ripped through the community last month, destroying his home and 13 others .

Bellerose returns every other day to clean and work on the property.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “You want to cry…you can’t put it into words.”

He fled after a mandatory evacuation order with a few clothes and nothing else. He lives in a hotel in High Prairie, about 35 kilometers northwest, and wonders how to rebuild his life.

Recovery is likely to be difficult – Bellerose had no insurance for his belongings and said he was given a long list of reasons years ago why he was turned away.

“They said because we didn’t have a proper fire department, we were too far from the fire hydrant and the High Prairie fire department was too far. By the time they got here , there will be nothing left to save,” Bellerose said.

Nothing remains of Bellerose’s house at the East Prairie Métis Settlement. (Julia Wong/CBC)

The Insurance Bureau of Canada told CBC News that it is possible to obtain insurance policies for homeowners in Indigenous communities, but admits they can be difficult and expensive.

There are active discussions with the federal government about how best to cover First Nations, particularly with respect to catastrophic losses related to climate change, said Craig Stewart, vice president of climate change and federal issues at Insurance Bureau of Canada.

“Indigenous reservations are a special case. They are going to require special attention and certain solutions,” he said.

Common problem

Alberta NDP MP Blake Desjarlais recently visited East Prairie Métis Settlement to see the damage firsthand. It includes first-hand wildfire experience. In 2003, as a child, he was evacuated from the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement due to a forest fire, an experience that left him traumatized.

First Nations and Métis have been uninsured for a long time, he said.

Desjarlais wants to see more investment in climate-resilient infrastructure and emergency preparedness. He is also a supporter of having a state-funded insurance program for homes in Indigenous communities, saying it could go a long way.

“We simply need to provide them with the resources, tools and partnership to create a resilient, state-administered insurance program that will ensure they are not left behind,” he said.

WATCH | Indigenous firefighters fight forest fires:

Indigenous firefighters help fight Alberta wildfires

Alberta communities overwhelmed by wildfires are receiving help from Indigenous firefighters who are using their knowledge and expertise to fend off the flames. Since joining the fight, they have been able to help tame trouble spots, allowing some residents to return home.

The difficulty is that indigenous lands belong to the community, which complicates matters when it comes to insuring individual houses. To purchase insurance, homeowners must, at a minimum, obtain a Certificate of Possession or Band Council Resolution. The Insurance Bureau of Canada says they must be able to prove they own the property and have a financial interest.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada added that insurance is still available, but customers may need to shop around.

“It is urgent that the [federal government] thinking — together, collaboratively, using the expertise of insurers — thinking about solutions. Because it’s not going to get better, unfortunately, for Indigenous communities facing these threats,” Stewart said.

“Just a question mark”

When massive thunderstorms hit Vancouver Island in November 2021, Raymond Tony Charlie was unfazed.

The house he built for his family in 1985 was high up. In his 70s, he had never seen the floodwaters of nearby Bonsall Creek approach his home, nor the phenomenon known as “king tide”, which is an exceptional rise in high tide. .

The man in the blue shirt stands in front of a house
Vancouver Island author Raymond Tony Charlie stands outside his damaged home near Crofton, British Columbia (David Malysheff)

But both of those things happened. Charlie, his wife, Lorraine, and the rest of his family, including his son and two grandchildren, had to be rescued by boat.

Charlie, an elder from the Penelakut tribe on Vancouver Island, and his family were put up at a Best Western hotel by the Red Cross, where they expected a short stay until the waters receded .

Then his house was declared uninhabitable due to flood damage. When Red Cross disaster relief ended, his tribe booked rooms at the Thunderbird Motel in Duncan, British Columbia.

This is where he and his family remain to this day.

“The Thunderbird Motel is good for sleeping and that’s about it,” Charlie said. The room he shares with his wife is cluttered with trash bags full of clothes and personal effects they were able to salvage.

Two-story blue and white house, with a pile of wood in front.
Charlie’s home near Crofton was declared uninhabitable after a flood in 2021. (Warren Goulding)

Their home was financed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which also provides insurance for the term of the mortgage. But once paid, the insurance was no longer valid.

Charlie said he didn’t know his home insurance lapsed when the mortgage was paid off. And 19 months later, he’s still waiting for some sort of timeline or resolution.

“I just hope that one day I will be contacted by either the government or the tribe to tell me what the plans are,” he said. “At the moment it’s just a question mark. No plans are discussed with us, nothing has been said, we have nothing in writing.

“I don’t know how long I can take this.”

“A Lost Feeling”

Natalie Clouston, another resident of the East Prairie Métis Settlement and whose home was also decimated by the wildfire, also had no insurance for its contents.

“It’s actually a sense of loss because we’ve lost a lot. Like everything,” she said.

A woman in a plaid shirt stands in front of rubble.
Natalie Clouston’s home at the East Prairie Métis Settlement was destroyed by a forest fire in early May. (Julia Wong/CBC)

The colony owns the homes in the community, but President Raymond Supernault said they were told they weren’t eligible for insurance because they didn’t have a fire station.

“The location of our communities is one of the biggest issues. They should consider how far we are from the municipality, like High Prairie or Enilda,” he said.

Supernault said trying to get homeowners insurance could cost up to $500 per month per home, which may not be economically feasible for the settlement.

“I think that’s the main thing, is to make it affordable for communities.”

A man stands in front of rubble.
Blake Desjarlais looks at a destroyed house in East Prairie Métis Settlement. (Credit/Blake Desjarlais)

The Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services said it is in contact with the Government of Alberta to coordinate how it can support the East Prairie Métis Settlement and other settlements affected by the wildfires. .

Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Randy Legault-Rankin said the department is working with First Nations communities to provide them with the tools to prepare for, prevent, mitigate and respond to natural disasters like wildfires. and floods.

He said funds are available through the Emergency Management Assistance Program to help First Nations return their infrastructure and homes to pre-disaster conditions.

As for Bellerose, he hopes his house will be rebuilt where it once stood and said he hopes things will be different in the future.

“We’re stuck. I don’t know what the plan is right now for insurance or anything. I guess I’m basically coming back the same way… I’m buying gear again and hopefully that the fire will not happen,” he said.

“The same thing I’ve been doing for 20 years – living in hope.”

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