How Bella Coola is building climate resilience, new skills, and community pride

The community is empowering the next generation of builders as extreme weather increases and sea levels rise.

The Nuxalk Nation located in Bella Coola on B.C.’s Central Coast is surrounded by beautiful ocean and mountain landscapes.

As sea levels continue to rise around the globe, the community is earning national headlines for their home construction program after realizing houses weren't built to withstand the elements — previously designed for somewhere that's a lot hotter and drier leading to homes being condemned for moisture damage.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, one of Canada’s leading climate change advocates and the host of Power to the People, visited the nation to see how innovation in housing is empowering the Nuxalk people.

Watch past episodes of Power to the People here

“First Nations can build their own houses to suit their social, cultural, and economical needs,” said Nuxalk Nation asset manager Richard Hall.

As a residential school survivor, he said that dark chapter in Canada’s history erased a lot of the Indigenous knowledge about housing and trades that supported their ability to build in a sustainable way. Now he has 53 people working for him, which allows them to stimulate the local economy while teaching skills to the next generation.

It also allows them to prepare for extreme storms, which are getting worse with human-caused climate change. For example, winds can reach more than 160 kilometres per hour that, combined with the rainy seasons of the Pacific Northwest, can be tough on infrastructure.

Content continues below
Power to the People Bella Coola

The rainy West Coast can be tough on building infrastructure. (Power to the People)

Homes now include mould-resistant drywall, waterproof vinyl and radiant heat floors, and triple-paned windows to keep heat in or out depending on the temperatures outside.

“We get 1,650 millimetres of moisture. Our homes aren’t designed for that,” said Hall. “So with our new plan where we're creating your own siding or utilizing more practical, durable products — costing more but, guess what, promotes a better life expectancy.”

Rain not only brings a lot of mould, but creates a lot of health issues on top of the housing crisis with overcrowding seen in many First Nation communities that can lead to a lot of people becoming homeless. Bella Coola now has triplexes that house young families and a tiny house project for single men that boast solar panels.

Power to the People Bella Coola Tiny house project for single men

These tiny houses, and many of Bella Coola's new homes, are build to exceed building standards. (Power to the People)

“We're able to do all of this stuff for ourselves, and we're getting back to that utilizing all the brilliant and intelligent people that we have within our nation,” said asset manager Jalissa Moody while standing in a building that resembles the nation’s traditional big houses.

Content continues below

Laboucan-Massimo also visited the Snuneymuxw First Nation to see the Aboriginal Construction Program, which is run in partnership with Vancouver Island University.

Vancouver Island University apprenticeship program

Students take in the latest lesson about building homes that can stand the test of time. (Power to the People)

“So we've come together with our neighboring communities to partner and bring our young people forward, and we're also building a new school. We’re very excited for that,” said Chief Mike Wise.

The 10 students from various First Nations on the Island not only had a chance to give back to their community financially and help their neighbors, but they can also work on their own homes.

“They come in with next to no experience. By the time they leave the program, they're at a Level 1 carpentry apprenticeship,” said teacher Cameron Frenette.

It not only makes their communities more self-sufficient, but brings everyone along for the healing and revitalization that building sustainable homes above code offers.

Content continues below
Power to the People Bella Coola

Wood is sourced sustaibably from the local mill as the housing program brings economic prosperity to the nation. (Power to the People)

“I'm leaving this community inspired because I've learned so much about building techniques, how to make housing more environmentally sound, being able to deal with all the different elements that a community faces, but also how to make their buildings culturally based and how it's a collective work,” said Laboucan-Massimo.

Thumbnail image: The Nuxalk Nation's goal is to be completely self-sufficient when it comes to their housing needs. (Power to the People)