'I have to be ready,' Kashechewan family anxious over spring flood threat

A couple in Kashechwan, Ont., are constantly on edge — worried that, at any moment, they might have to evacuate because of rising waters from the Albany River.

First Nation recently signed a new agreement with federal, provincial governments to consider moving reserve

Dorothy Williams and Redfern Wesley have faced numerous flood evacuations in Kashechewan, Ont.
Dorothy Williams cannot forget the moment she was urged to flee her home in Kashechewan, Ont., for the first time.

"It's all I ever think about," Williams said.  

"The radio was on and all of a sudden I could just hear him [announcer] say everyone who has a boat, get your boats ready." 

Williams, 40, was one of approximately 750 people who escaped the remote James Bay community during flooding in 2006.

Since then, she has faced routine evacuations.
Dorothy Williams stands outside her home in Kashechewan, Ont. (Joel Ashak/Radio-Canada)

"If something happens, I have to be ready," Williams said.

"We will have not much of a chance if we are here when the water comes fast."

Williams can 'smell mould' under her house

Leaving the community is disruptive, Williams said, because people can be gone for weeks or months at a time. They become homesick and they miss spring hunting.

When Williams returned from one of her evacuations, she said she found the insulation in her old house rotting away.

The structure was condemned.
Dorothy Williams opens the door to her crawl space, where she can smell mould. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)
Dorothy Williams said the ventilation system in her crawl space has stopped working.

Williams said she was given a new home about four years ago.

But the ventilation system in her crawl space has stopped running, and the stench of mould is becoming strong. 

"I can start to smell it under the house now," Williams said.

"I'm blessed to have a home, but it's too low to the ground where mould can build up."

'The dike is not safe'

Additionally, the dike in her backyard that protects her family from the rising waters of the Albany River is sinking into the ground. 

"I didn't have that much fear until I had my sons," Williams said. 

"Now I fear for their lives."

Williams shares a house with her fiancé Redfern Wesley, who was taught how to study the river's water levels by his dad at the age of 6.

Now 45, he continues to monitor. 
The dike separating Kashechewan, Ont., from the Albany River is just a few metres away from Dorothy Williams and Redfern Wesley's home. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"The dike is not safe. It's going down," Wesley said.  

"You never used to see the chimneys, the peaks when you come up from the river. I never used to see the poles ... But now when I come home in the fall time, I see the poles."

"I never used to see the lights too. When you come up from out of the bay, you never used to see the lights. But now you see the lights coming back."

'It's stressful sometimes'

Wesley's suspicions about the dike were confirmed in a 2015 engineering report that found the structure is failing, which prompted preventative evacuations.

"It's stressful at times when you go up river," Wesley said.

"You have to come back and tell the people what you see up there. How much ice is there, how much river, how much water is coming to the reserve?"

"People are so anxious when [flood watchers] land at the airport. They ask us how's the river? How's the ice? Is it coming?"

Wesley is usually bombarded with questions about potential flooding and ice breakup before he meets with chief and council, and announces his flood report on the radio.
Redfern Wesley, who monitors water levels of the Albany River, claims Kashechewan's dike is sinking into the ground. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

He admits it's not easy being the messenger. 

"It's stressful sometimes when you look at young people, kids, elderly," Wesley said.

"When you're watching the whole community, and they all depend on you for knowledge."

'Up all the time to have that alertness'

But Wesley's understanding of the Albany River is vital to his reserve's survival.  

In a few weeks, he will start to go up and down the waterway again to look for signs of flooding.

Then it will be determined whether people should stay in their homes or prepare themselves for another evacuation.
Kashechewan First Nation has a new agreement with the federal and provincial governments to look at options for relocation. (Joel Ashak/Radio-Canada)

Kashechewan First Nation recently signed a new agreement with the federal and provincial governments to consider options to move the community to higher ground. 

Wesley and Williams said they can only hope the dike holds up until then. 

"You have to be up all the time to have that alertness," Williams said.

"Having to have the radio on all day waiting for someone to speak ... 'The water is here now. The ice is here now.'"

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: