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Disaster survivors bring pleas for climate change action to Parliament Hill

OTTAWA — Meghan Fandrich's voice shook as she recalled grabbing her five-year-old daughter and fleeing their home as flames descended on the village of Lytton, B.C., in 2021.
Canadians who brought their own stories of climate survival to Ottawa say more needs to be done to lower emissions both in Canada and around the world. The remains of a large structure and vehicles destroyed by the Lytton Creek wildfire are seen on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway near Lytton, B.C., on August 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA — Meghan Fandrich's voice shook as she recalled grabbing her five-year-old daughter and fleeing their home as flames descended on the village of Lytton, B.C., in 2021.

Darryl Tedjuk was quiet as he related the reality that his hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in Northwest Territories was slowly being washed away by the Beaufort Sea.

The two are among a growing class of Canadians for whom climate change is not an abstract concept but a lived reality.

They brought their stories to Parliament Hill on Thursday, hoping to convince parliamentarians of the need to take greenhouse-gas emissions more seriously.

Their pleas came the day after scientists at Copernicus, the European Union's earth monitoring arm, reported that last month was the warmest May ever on record globally, and the 12th straight month in which average temperatures broke previous records.

The 2015 Paris climate accord, which almost every country in the world agreed to, commited signatories to reduce emissions in an effort to slow global warming and keep average temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial temperatures.

In May, the average global temperature was already there, exceeding pre-industrial averages by 1.52 C.

Global warming is contributing to an increase in the frequency and severity of bad weather.

That includes heat waves, droughts, hurricanes, and thunderstorms, which in turn have led to more damaging and recurring wildfires and floods.

Alex Cool-Fergus, the national policy manager at Climate Action Network Canada, helped co-ordinate a visit to Ottawa by people across the country who have lived the reality of climate change.

Fandrich said before her village burned, she saw disaster stories in the news and thought people would be fine, because "they'll rebuild."

Having lived through it herself, she said she now understands that surviving a disaster is not remotely that simple.

She wants politicians to try to understand what it is really like.

"I don't expect that the policy-makers have thought about it, except they need to," said Fandrich.

"Except that it's their job to connect with Canadians. It's their job to represent us."

Fandrich is a single mom who recalled in detail how she and her daughter had to flee on June 30, 2021, as a wildfire descended on Lytton, a tiny village of about 250 people that is 250 km northeast of Vancouver.

She said most people can picture the fire itself, and people running.

"You can imagine watching your town turn into a pillar of smoke that's big enough to be seen from space," she said.

"You can imagine seeing that pillar and the black punctuations of smoke that come up as another car explodes, another propane tank, another house."

But what most people don't imagine is what happens after the fire, she said.

"We went back to a burned-up town."

The town, just seven blocks long, was 90 per cent destroyed. Fandrich was among the few who did not lose her home.

Nearly three years later, she said only two or three homes are now in the midst of being rebuilt. The two grocery stores that existed are no more. She has to drive nearly an hour to buy food.

Since the fire, Lytton has been hit with flooding and major snowstorms that added to the anxiety and made recovery even harder.

For his part, Tedjuk has been working on a documentary about the impact climate change is having on Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuvialuit hamlet of about 900 people 1,400 km north of Whitehorse.

Residents have spent years watching their beaches erode, and the water around the community get higher and higher. Homes that used to be one to two kilometres away from the water are now right beside it.

A main island that protects the harbour from the worst of the sea's force is expected to disappear in 10 to 15 years, exposing the main hamlet to more damage.

Tedjuk said scientists have told him the hamlet will disappear into the sea in 50 years if nothing is done to protect it.

"Everyone is worried about their home washing away into the ocean," he said.

Tedjuk said he's trying to tell the story of Tuktoyaktuk to anyone who will listen, adding it's terrifying watching the community he loves slowly disappear.

"I love that community," he said. "I want to try to help out as much as I can before it washes away."

It has been less than a year since Heather Mackay, a hairstylist and grandmother from Kelowna, B.C., lost her family home in the wildfire that destroyed or damaged 190 homes last September.

MacKay was returning from work when the evacuation order went out. She didn't have time to finish her commute before she had to leave town.

The emotional roller-coaster in the months since has been intense, she said.

There is the guilt of knowing her husband and daughters had to gather their belongings without her help. There is the heartbreak that her daughters no longer have all their family toys, and won't get to wear her wedding dress when they get married.

"I feel embarrassed that I mourn material possessions, but I do," she said through tears.

"That was 49 years of curated things that was gone into six inches of ash."

Diana Boston had to flee her home in Merritt, B.C., in November 2021 when an atmospheric river flooded the city of 8,000 people just 100 km east of Lytton.

Boston said they are still working to restore their home to its previous condition, and the nightmares continue.

"When it rains, we can't sleep," she said.

Boston said she came to Ottawa with her daughter because she doesn't want others to live through the same experiences.

And "because we're done," she said.

"We need to put a cap on these emissions. We need to help this world. We need to have a greener, healthier future. Not for us. For the next generations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press