Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for inviting Tsay Keh Dene to appear before the committee.
Tsay Keh Dene is a first nation with its main community at the north end of the Williston reservoir in north-central B.C. Tsay Keh Dene people are culturally and linguistically Sekani. Tsay Keh Dene is a remote community with access via a very long forest service road and a small five-seat airplane.
Today, I will speak about four key challenges and opportunities for Tsay Keh Dene, if time permits.
First is the Finlay Forest Service Road. The Finlay Forest Service Road is the longest forest service road in B.C. at more than 400 kilometres in length. The road is also the only road link to Tsay Keh Dene and Fort Ware, which is a neighbouring first nation community. Some parts of the road are a vital transportation corridor for industry, including mining and forestry. These are industries in which the first nations are increasingly participating despite many obstacles.
Unfortunately, the road was built to a very low standard and it has only been upgraded in small sections. The road is dangerous in many sections and has been impassable many times over the years. Like other years, an emergency was declared in 2021 by Tsay Keh because the road was impassable. The community was within days of a food shortage and a lack of fuel for the diesel generators that power the community. Despite all of this, in 2021 the auditor general of B.C. cited the critical importance of the road as the only viable escape route for indigenous communities when natural disasters occur.
To finally address these challenges, Tsay Keh established a solutions table that included the province, industry and the first nations. Engineering reports and budgets were produced and we agreed on a plan. However, we need $40 million to carry out critical upgrades and repairs to the road. We believe B.C. will provide half, or $20 million, if we can persuade Canada to provide similar funding. We ask that every effort be made to identify sources of federal funding to augment the provincial funding. This is about safety, equity, improving the quality of life for remote indigenous communities and their residents, and promoting investment and economic development in the region and indigenous communities through safe and reliable road access.
The other topic I want to speak about is wildfires. Wildfires are increasing in number and severity in Tsay Keh Dene territory, due in large part to the effects of climate change. The community is especially vulnerable to wildfires due to remoteness, lack of a wildfire response capability, large swathes of dead and dying timber caused by infestations and poor forest management practices. The community is increasingly concerned about the growing danger of catastrophic wildfires that threaten life and property. In 2021, Tsay Keh Dene homes and cabins were destroyed by a wildfire that was not actioned quickly by the province because of inadequate resources and the sheer number of fires.
Sadly, Tsay Keh is woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to wildfires when they occur and accordingly Tsay Keh is anxious to develop its own wildfire monitoring and response capability. This role is not only vital to Tsay Keh Dene's safety and security and consistent with UNDRIP and efforts to advance reconciliation, but it also recognizes Tsay Keh's inherent role as a steward of the lands and resources in its territory. The challenge for Tsay Keh is in securing resources for training and equipment. We ask for assistance in securing the resources needed to incrementally develop a wildfire response capability and in doing so mitigate the growing risk to the community and its residents from wildfire.
The other topic I wish to speak about is food security. Food security, including access to healthy and affordable food, is a growing problem in Tsay Keh Dene. Inflation, poverty and unemployment, widespread chronic conditions in the community, remoteness, the state of the Finlay Forest Service Road and the very high cost of transportation are all contributing to growing food insecurity. Malnutrition and poor diet among community members is increasingly common.
To compound this, country food is less abundant and the cost of harvesting country food has become very high. Moose numbers are declining, caribou are threatened and key species of fish that traditionally were a staple of the Tsay Keh Dene diet are less abundant.
Tsay Keh is adapting as best it can to these challenges. In the short term, Tsay Keh intends to build large greenhouses in the community to produce fresh fruit and vegetables. The community will be self-sufficient in fresh produce and is making arrangements to sell surplus produce to industrial camps in the region. The challenge is that power and heat for the greenhouses is prohibitively expensive.
To overcome this, Tsay Keh Dene will build and commission a biomass plant in the community to generate clean power and heat using wood waste, including debris from the Williston reservoir. NRCan and provincial funding have been obtained for part of the cost of building and commissioning the project. The engineering and design are advanced, but a shortfall of $9 million exists for the project. We ask for assistance in obtaining additional federal funding for the biomass project to build and operate a project that will be transformative for the community.
Finally, I want to speak very briefly about pandemics. COVID was devastating for Tsay Keh Dene. Several outbreaks occurred. People died, and many community members were evacuated from the community for medical care after becoming very ill. This experience has shown that, despite best efforts, Tsay Keh Dene is not well prepared to respond to pandemics. Lack of resources and capacity are the main reasons for this lack of preparedness. Poor housing, overcrowding, widespread chronic health conditions, poverty, poor health outcomes, limited health care services and general mistrust of governments have significantly increased the risk to health in Tsay Keh Dene from COVID and other infectious diseases.
This increased vulnerability is unlikely to improve without a substantial investment in local programs and measures designed to enable Tsay Keh Dene to promptly and effectively respond to pandemics. This includes a pandemic preparedness plan and the resources to implement that plan. We ask for assistance to secure the resources required to assist Tsay Keh Dene to effectively respond to pandemics when they occur and, ultimately, to save lives.