Although I was born in New Westminster, I lived for a short time in Edmonton when I was quite young. One summer, I remember a road trip through the Rockies to Vancouver. The Yellowhead Highway had yet to open, so we travelled through the Crowsnest Pass and along Highway 3 to Vancouver. A stop along this journey was a viewpoint on the edge of the Hope Slide. The slide was considered a recent event at the time, and my parents made this stop to take in the magnitude of nature’s shrug, and to remember the lives lost there. And while I was very young, I can remember the vision of all those rocks stretching away as far as I could see… all those very large rocks, and this road that cut through them.
Coincidentally, when my eldest was close to the same age, we spent a week camping in the East Kootenays and Southern Alberta. One of our stops was at the site of the Frank Slide. In the shadow of Turtle Mountain, the debris field stretches across a river and well up the opposite side of the valley. Estimates and theories propose the debris avalanche may have travelled at 112 kilometres per hour. Our family walked with a guide on the path through the debris field that was littered with boulders larger than most homes. We also spent time in the interpretive centre on site where we watched a film that dramatized that tragic morning. It was part of this narrative which would stick with my daughter, the way the mammoth rocks stuck with me.
Driving away, headed for our next destination, I listened to my daughter’s voice from the seat directly behind me as she recited, over and over, the many details of Frank’s history. For most of the 170 kilometres between stops, one detail particularly gripped her imagination: the discovery of a child who had survived the devastation. As the story goes, a baby was found in a pile of hay, having been flung from her home by the force of the disaster. This miraculous note is what my daughter took away from the site of Canada’s most tragic landslide, while my mind was drawn to the ribbon of asphalt which wound through and atop the three-square kilometres of debris.
I believe we rebuild the course of such devastating events out of necessity, in an attempt to reconnect the points of the compass and preserve a passage, a route. But I also believe we rebuild through a sense of resilience and a persistence, a determination to keep open our pathways to each other, and perhaps to defy the sentinels of rock and debris by the roadside.
These markers on our highways serve as memorials to those who were suddenly and utterly at nature’s mercy, and remind travellers of nature’s awesome power and our own fragility. These markers imbue each visitor with visions of occurrences nearly impossible to imagine.
I learned as a child what it is to lose all my belongings and my security, and saw first-hand how this devastation can affect a parent. Even with that insight and those embedded memories, it is hard to imagine watching my home floating downstream in a swollen river, especially when such images are played on heavy rotation in the media. I struggle to imagine the weight of displacement for a community, especially when both fire and water have threatened within the same calendar, separated only by the pages of September and October. I dig deep to imagine the selflessness of Principals, Vice-Principals, and community leaders as they support their people, concern for themselves tucked away.
The atmospheric rivers experienced this season have been unrelenting; this week’s onslaught has broken at least 20 precipitation records. With this severe weather came severe outcomes for so many in our province. The communities under an evacuation alert or an evacuation order are home to more than a million residents. We have seen the tragic loss of at least one life. We have seen the impact on stranded highway travellers, households without power, and innumerable livestock. There is much from which we will have to recover.
The debris of this week is overwhelming and heartbreaking. As the waters eventually recede, the extent of damage and loss comes into focus as does the relative connection of… well… everything. Over the next two days, some of our members will come together in-person for the first time in twenty months, at a time when all roads to and from our largest city are impassable. One might be tempted to see irony in this, as we navigate as many months of a pandemic, but that would be glib and insensitive to the enormity of what has happened to the people of our province. On this unpredictable road of life, alongside the tragedy, are we able to spy a miraculous note which has survived at its edge, as my daughter did?
A Principal who works in a community where schools have become shelters for the stranded and the displaced provided insight to what she has experienced: “Staff have really pulled together… great stories about community, and people helping people… inspiring how people pull together during difficult times.” Yes, it is. This weekend, Chapter Presidents and Representatives have time together, and we will honour that gift of time. If we can safely traverse the distance, and be together, we will be grateful for that opportunity. And when we meet, we will acknowledge the suffering, and be mindful of the continued challenge facing so many BC communities. We will return to our homes, offices, and schools with fuller hearts, to support our students, staff, and families, whatever the next turn in the road may bring.
For all of our members, if there is anything that the BCPVPA can do to support you in this difficult time, please reach out to me. Keep well and safe.