British Columbia

Non-band residents choose to leave rather than pay $50K to stay on Semiahmoo reserve

More than 30 people prepare to leave lands as First Nation transitions to clean water supply.

More than 30 people prepare to leave lands as First Nation transitions to clean water supply

Naomi Mitchell will have to move from her home on Semiahmoo First Nation lands after being asked to pay more than $50,000 to connect her house to a clean water system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For nearly three decades, Naomi Mitchell has heated her home with firewood, hauling chopped logs from outside to her wood stove.

At nearly 80-years-old, it takes a bit of effort, but she still prefers her quaint home on the Semiahmoo reserve over the alternative.

"I had the big fancy home up in White Rock," Mitchell told CBC News. "I wanted something different, and when I found out I could buy a home down here ... I thought I could do it, I can afford it, and this is the kind of lifestyle I would love."

But after 30 years, her time there is coming to an end — and she says it's not by choice.

Mitchell is one of more than 30 non-band members living on the Semiahmoo First Nation lands — located just south of White Rock near the U.S. border — who will leave by mid-June after receiving a $50,000 bill to connect their homes to a new clean water system.

Residents were confronted with a tough decision: pay up, or move out.

None chose to foot the bill.

Officials from the City of Surrey, the B.C. Transportation Ministry, Indigenous Services Canada, Semiahmoo First Nation and a local MP take part in a photo op to mark the start of a road remediation project. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Boil-water advisory

The Indigenous community is in the midst of installing a clean water system that would lift its longstanding boil-water advisory. The project is being done in partnership with the City of Surrey, the provincial Transportation Ministry and the federal government.

The clean water system will potentially serve about 100 people who live in the community.

"This is a good time for the Semiahmoo people, bringing good water and sanitary services and fire protection into the community" said chief Harley Chappell.

Chappell says the First Nation received roughly $10 million for the project. The finances were earmarked exclusively for First Nations on reserve, leaving non-band members to cover the costs for their own homes.

"We were giving non-band tenants plenty of notice that this was coming down the road," he added. "It's challenging, but if I look down the road, it's good for Semiahmoo as a whole."

Harley Chappell, elected chief of Semiahmoo First Nation, says the new water system will usher in a new era for his community. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A costly connection

Naomi Mitchell says residents had known the band was pursuing a clean water connection for the past few years. However, she says initial estimates were pegged around $20,000 — a price tag she thought was manageable.

However, documents sent out to residents on April 2 called for a connection fee of $50,000. Residents could also incur additional fees up to $60,000 if their property required special infrastructure to connect the waterline.

Residents had to pay the connection fee by April 30, or move out by June 15.

"Not many of us can find $50,000 in that short time," said Mitchell. "It was pretty devastating."

"I'm an older woman, almost 80, been here 30 years, I'm on pensions, and now I have to find another place to live, and I have to organize this all within two months," she said.

Harley Chappell says residents were warned the fees could fall in the $50,000 range as early as last fall.

Mitchell has lived on the Semiahmoo First Nation for nearly 30 years. It's been on a boil-water advisory for over a decade. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Leaving the coast behind

Tenants will have to return their lot to its original state once they leave, meaning they will have to dismantle all structures and clear the area.

Several residents told CBC News that they've found new accommodation, while others said they're having a difficult time finding something within their budget.

Mitchell currently lives off a pension of about $3,000 per month. She says she's lucky because she'll be moving in with family.

"I'm going to go live with my niece in Kamloops, I'm quite looking forward to it because it's a change in lifestyle," said Mitchell.

"The tough part is my two sons will still be down here, and my grandkids," she said, wiping the tears away from her cheeks.

"It's going to be tough to leave."