MONTREAL — Tens of thousands of workers and farmers across British Columbia face widespread flooding, mud and rock slides after torrential rain hit central and southern parts of the province beginning Nov. 14.
The unfolding social catastrophe, however, is not caused by weather, but by the refusal of governments at all levels to prepare for such conditions and the fact that under capitalism working people are forced to live where housing is cheapest — on flood plains.
As of Nov. 17, six people were dead or missing. At least 17,775 people were forced out of their homes, entire towns were evacuated and hundreds of farms inundated. Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city and largest port, lost its road and rail links to the rest of the country.
Tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and poultry were trapped and killed. The flooded region included dairy and poultry farms that provide about half the province’s daily supply. Blueberry and vegetable crops have been decimated.
In many places grocery store shelves are empty, gasoline has been rationed and transportation for people needing cancer treatments and other life-saving medical care has been blocked.
The flooding also hit neighboring Washington state.
Capitalist politicians from both the capital in Ottawa and in British Columbia mask their responsibility for the social catastrophe by blaming heavy rain, flooding and mudslides on climate change. “These are extraordinary events not measured before, not contemplated before,” claimed New Democratic Party Premier John Horgan. But in fact, scientists have been warning of a catastrophe like this for decades.
In 2006, Steve Litke, director of water programs for the Fraser Basin Council, said a major flood would lead to dike failures with disastrous consequences for people living below the dikes on either side of the river.
Capitalist property developers build housing for working people on flood plains to rake in profits off the cheapest land. The country’s ruling capitalist families and their middle-class hangers-on live elsewhere.
British Columbia’s New Democratic Party government Deputy Premier Mike Farnsworth says flood management is no longer its responsibility. In 2003 it dumped this on local governments and different agencies that “may not have adequate staffing or technical capacity,” the province’s auditor general warned in 2018.
Decades of logging of mountainous areas by forest companies, backed by the provincial government, contributed to conditions making deadly mudslides more likely in the event of heavy rain.
Working people organize solidarity
It was four days into the disaster before the British Columbia government declared a state of emergency, reflecting the rulers’ disdain for working people. Ottawa then sent in a handful of federal troops to help with sandbagging and other flood-related tasks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t show up until Nov. 26, almost two weeks after the storm struck, posing for photo-ops with flood victims, offering vague promises of future funds to help in reconstruction. Working people were left to fend for themselves.
“Our unions should demand that Ottawa immediately establish a massive federally funded public works program,” said Steve Penner, organizer of the Communist League in Canada, in a Nov. 26 statement, “to build new houses for those who are homeless, repair houses that were badly damaged and rebuild B.C.’s dikes and pump systems so they can withstand future storms, as well as repair damaged roads and bridges.”
“Working farmers need immediate, massive relief to rebuild their farms and replace dead livestock. All farm foreclosures should be stopped and debts canceled.”
There have been countless examples of solidarity among workers and farmers whose lives have been upended.
A couple hundred volunteers from the cities of Abbotsford and Chilliwack worked through the night to build a dam of sandbags to keep a crucial pumping station working and prevent much worse flooding. Residents then banded together to rescue stranded cattle.
A stranger pulled up at Karl Loewen’s poultry farm near Abbotsford Nov. 17 with seven Hereford cattle in the trailer. Hours earlier Loewen’s wife announced on social media that the family had room in their old dairy barn.
“I’m not sure how long we’re gonna have the cattle for, but it doesn’t really matter,” Loewen said. “We’ll just take care of them like they’re our own.” Volunteers have also organized to get portable water tanks and animal feed to farms that have none, so no more livestock are lost.
None of this has been led or organized by the capitalist rulers or their government.
In contrast, Penner noted, “the revolutionary government in socialist Cuba organizes workers and farmers to prevent natural events like hurricanes and flooding from becoming social disasters.” It ensures everyone has shelter and food and organizes volunteers and material to rebuild what is destroyed. No one is left on their own.
“Workers here need to build a labor party based on our unions to fight to replace the capitalist rulers with our own workers and farmers government,” he said.