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First Nations chiefs reflect on impacts of year-long Highway 8 closure as route reopens

“It devastated homes, devastated land. It displaced us from each other, our resources," said Cooks Ferry Indian Band chief, Christine Minnabarriet.

Slabs of old highway pavement can still be seen across the river from newly rebuilt sections of Highway 8, a road that serves as a vital connection for First Nations communities living in the region.

Christine Minnabarriet, Cooks Ferry Indian Band chief, said she is happy to see the highway open again — because the route isn’t just a secondary road for the community.

Minnaberriet said there are nearly 400 people registered as members of the Cooks Ferry band, with 26 reserves spread out across the Nicola Valley. Policing, healthcare and ambulance services are also spread out within different jurisdictions.

“When a highway closes, this is what connects us to our families and our resources and our people and our spirit,” Minnabarriet said.

According to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, seven kilometres of Highway 8 were lost to last November's atmospheric river, with 15 sites where both lanes of the road were swept away.

The event caused the loss of more than 20 hectares of agricultural land, in addition to homes and properties near the river, and led to the displacement of First Nations communities.

Almost one year after last fall’s torrent of rain caused devastating damage along the corridor, Highway 8 is once again open to the public, with temporary repairs completed and unveiled on Wednesday.

Speaking at an event held Wednesday to announce the reopening, Minnaberriet said the extreme weather happened only months after band members were evacuated due to the Lytton Creek wildfire.

“We were devastated by this atmospheric river event, which again caused mass evacuations, displacement of our people — long term this time,” Minnaberriet said.

“It devastated homes, devastated land. It displaced us from each other, our resources.”

Norman Drynock, chief of the Nicomen Indian Band, noted the community is still scattered from the natural disaster which saw homes lost to the rising river.

“We’re scattered all over. When I came up this way, I had my heart squeezed because there are homes gone. I used to honk the horn to a real close friend of mine, but his home is not there,” Drynock said.

Drynock noted fuel cost “four times everybody else’s" during the highway closure because it needed to be transported a longer distance to get to the community.

Now that the highway is open, Drynock said the community has improved access to healthcare, shopping and other resources.

“When you drive on that road, you’ve got to appreciate what it's doing for us,” Drynock said.

According to the province and First Nations leaders, several band members contributed to highway reconstruction efforts, with Indigenous people making up 30 per cent of the 200 person workforce.

Rob Fleming, B.C.’s minister of transportation and infrastructure, said traditional knowledge contributed to the highway reconstruction and river habitat rehabilitation, noting First Nations’ knowledge “predates the department of highways and public works, as it was called in the 1890’s.”

“It was very helpful to plan the right kind of habitat restoration, to also look at strategies around armouring embankments and where areas of vulnerability are based on literally centuries of living along that corridor,” Fleming said.

Minnaberriet said Cooks Ferry has seen “meaningful participation in employment” for highway reconstruction.

“I have heard time and time again in the past month of individuals who are working on the highway, who are just so proud to be contributors, not just seeing outsiders come in and do the work,” Minnaberriet said, taking time to thank the flaggers, labourers, environmental and cultural monitors who worked on the project.

"You've been immersed in the devastation and change to your home. You have felt the pain, grieved the loss, and yet you showed up time and time again.”

Marcel Shackelly, chief of the Shackan Indian Band, noted the collaboration between First Nations and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

“On all the work that happened on Highway 8, it feels like we've made many leaps ahead in understanding how to work with each other. So that if we keep on this path, supporting the principles of UNDRIP that we will find a path forward,” Shackelly said.

Highway 8 is now open to the public, but the ministry said motorists should remember it is still an active construction zone as crews continue to work on permanent repairs.

Travellers are asked to drive with respect for the communities living along the road.