IT IS AMAZING AND INSPIRING to see how people have supported the recent disasters caused by climate change. People are rescuing livestock stranded by floods. Heavy equipment operators and civil engineers rebuilt the washouts of the two railways through the Fraser Canyon in record time. People have opened their homes to evacuees. It’s been all hands on deck for more than a week.
For many, this is their second evacuation or more of 2021, having endured the wildfires of the summer. There are people who lost everything in the Lytton fire, only to be evacuated a second time from Merritt, where in some cases, they lost everything again.
Throughout it all, small town mayors and directors of the regional districts in the Interior of BC have been showing true leadership.
There’s Mayor Jan Polderman of Lytton who has had to oversee the rebuilding of an entire town, including infrastructure, amid mounting frustrations of the town’s residents and businesses.
There’s Mayor of Princeton Spencer Coyne. The exhaustion in his voice was evident in the news interviews he gave this week as he pleaded for help from the Canadian Military to help residents to dig out from the flood’s damage.
On an interview on Global News, he said, “We’ve been into this a week plus one day,”. The strain was in his voice when he added “We can only depend on volunteers to keep it up at this rate for so long. People are going to have to go back to work… But we still have to help those people that need help.”
In Merritt, Mayor Linda Brown has provided calm and clear updates throughout the flooding. There’s information on the city’s website, there are press releases, and social media posts. It’s a long road ahead, but she’s made sure people at least know what is happening and what more will happen over the next few weeks.
Spences Bridge and the west section of Highway 8 is represented by Thompson Nicola Regional District Director Steven Rice. The wildfires burnt to the edge of Spences Bridge in the summer. Now, Highway 8 has been wiped out.
On social media, Rice posted a plea to media outlets to tell the story of his community. “We have no TV, no internet….limited data and text at the best of times…yet have been told by “those that do” have all of those luxuries…that they can’t find out what is happening in Spences Bridge and Highway 8 because it is nowhere on the news! Really!” Unseen and unheard, and dealing with two disasters in one year.
The small town leaders have taken on huge jobs in supporting and responding to this year’s disasters. With few resources, in terms of staff, equipment, or money, they have been given the task of leading through extremely difficult times.
Huge jobs at minimal pay. The mayor of Lytton made just $6,042 in 2019. Clinton’s mayor made just $9,330 that year. They were the two lowest paid mayors in the region. Regional Director Rice makes $23,724 per year. Merritt’s mayor made $36,582 in 2019. In comparison, Mayor of Kamloops Ken Christian made $94,000.
Being a small town mayor is expected to be a part-time job at the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times in any stretch of the imagination. In just less than a year, there will be elections for local governments across B.C.
As the toil of the fire and flood disasters continue, I wonder how many small town mayors, councillors and regional directors will just decide enough is enough.
Small towns are an important part of the province. Princeton is home to a mine and a sawmill that provide regional jobs and provincial revenues. Towns along the Fraser Canyon like Spences Bridge provide important services for highway travelers. Merritt is a regional center for healthcare, education, and ranching. Lytton is a hub for local First Nations.
Small towns need to be supported in a bigger way, and as a start, when disasters strike, the provincial government should be supplementing local elected leaders’ salaries to full time wages.
They are the ones that will be leading their communities out of these disasters. They’ve already proven they have the leadership ability. Small town leaders need more support so they can continue to support their communities as best they can.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.