400 evacuees from Kashechewan still in Kapuskasing 2 years later

Nearly two years after being evacuated from their community, there is no word on how much longer 400 people from the remote northern Ontario reserve of Kashechewan will be staying in Kapuskasing. While some are making themselves at home, others are still homesick.

People can't go home because houses were condemned for mould problems

For Rita Wynne, there is no question. Kashechewan is her home.

But the 63-year-old is starting to settle in to a new life in Kapuskasing, two years after being evacuated from the flood-prone northern Ontario First Nation to this bilingual paper mill town of 8,200, about 300 kilometres to the south.

She likes the cheaper grocery bills and all the stores she has to choose from for shopping with her three grandchildren.

Wynne says at first she felt uneasy and thought she could feel the eyes of the townspeople on her and her fellow evacuees.

That changed one day at the Tim Hortons, when she and her friends sat next to a table of laughing Francophone women.

"They were laughing away and so this lady came up to me and said, 'Excuse me, madame. Sorry for us laughing. We're not making jokes about you guys being here in Kap,' " says Wynne.

"And she just told me, 'Welcome to Kap.' "

After two years, the Kashechewan evacuees in Kapuskasing have formed a community within a community, but it is not easy to see.

Helping evacuees

The 400 people are spread throughout the town in rental apartments and houses. The one place that feels like a piece of the James Bay Coast is the office the Kashechewan band set up for evacuees, inside a closed home decor shop.

Peter Lazarus works as a liaison officer, helping evacuees with everything from social assistance cheques to getting a ride to a doctor's appointment.

Peter Lazarus, a liaison officer at the Kashechewan office in Kapuskasing, plans on returning to the James Bay Coast, but isn't sure his seven-year-old son will want to go when the time comes. (Erik White/CBC)

The 53-year-old plans on returning to Kashechewan, where he has a job crunching numbers in the band office, but he isn't sure his seven-year-old son will want to leave his friends and hockey teammates in Kapuskasing.

"He wanted to go back at first, but not now. That's going to be a tough one, if he wanted to stay. I don't know what I'll do. That'd be a tough one," says Lazarus.

Most of the 100 children who were evacuated here attend classes at the Kash-Kap School for Evacuees, which is fuelled by $841,000 of annual federal funding.

Gloria Wesley, the kindergarten teacher at the school and an evacuee herself, says she is slowly adjusting to her new surroundings. 

"But I just keep to myself. The only time I go out is when I go grocery shopping. Even though we're here, we don't see each other that much," says the 51-year-old.

"Back home you see everybody all the time, which is the thing I miss most."

Empty and boarded up

Back in Kashechewan, 36 mouldy houses sit empty and boarded up, a strange sight in a community where housing is already hard to find and multiple generations of a family crowd into one bungalow

This evacuation dates back to the spring flooding in 2014, but the Albany River jumping its banks is an annual disaster for the community, with people commonly flown out of Kashechewan to hotel rooms in the south.

After being surrounded by flood waters for years, the three dozen homes were deemed to be so moldy that they were condemned and their owners sent to Kapuskasing.

People are commonly flown out of Kashechewan to hotel rooms in the south when spring flooding threatens the community. (Canadian Press)

A study paid for by the federal government is underway to look at options for the community, including repairing the dike that surrounds Kashechewan and ways to control ice jams and floodwaters on the Albany River.

But at a recent public meeting, Kashechewan residents were more interested in talking about the relocation of the community.

Back in 2005, it was suggested that the First Nation be moved to higher ground further up river. There was also a proposal to move the community entirely out of the remote James Bay Coast down to the outskirts of Timmins, about 260 kilometres away.

The federal government thought the $500-million pricetag for relocation was too much and instead pledged to spend $200 million on rebuilding Kashechewan in the same location. 

But Chief Leo Friday, who led the community back then and was recently re-elected, says he sees very limited evidence of any money being spent.

"If they had kept their promise, I guess we'd be free from everything we fear today," he said.

What about relocation?

Friday is once again hoping to convince the government that moving is cheaper than constant evacuations, with the 400 people in Kapuskasing costing about $400,000 per month.

"I think a lot of money will be saved by the government if they just relocate us," said Friday.

Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister of indigenous and northern affairs, was not available for an interview, but her department says that $180 million has been spent in Kashechewan over the last 10 years, including $14.8 million for remediation and repairs to flood-control structures.

There are those who think it's also time to revisit the idea of moving the community to the south, possibility to Kapuskasing, where one-third of the First Nation is now living.

Henry Kooses's family is in Kapuskasing while he is couch-surfing back in Kashechewan. 

He isn't sure what's worse for his kids and grandkids: a future facing annual flooding in Kashechewan or trying to live in somewhere that isn't home, even if day-to-day life is easier.

"Of course, the freedom is there, but home is where the heart is. And if you're not home, you're not in your right mind."