Huu-ay-aht family seeks support after fire destroys their home

Port Alberni, BC

As a summer afternoon fire raged through their townhouse, James and Annette Nookemus could only watch helplessly as 10 years of belongings and cherished mementos went up in flames. The fire occurred on July 25 in a M’akola low income townhouse complex on Gertrude Street in Port Alberni.

According to Annette, the upper floor of their unit was completely destroyed by fire. Neighbors on each side of the Nookemus unit also sustained damage.

Nookemus said that fire investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze and informed the family that the file is now closed.

Fire Prevention Officer Rick Newberry of the Port Alberni Fire Department confirmed that the cause was undetermined, which is common in uninsured house fires.

“We just do a general investigation; we don’t have the resources to spend two days investigating,” he added.

He went on to say that when insurance companies are involved, they are the ones that usually send private investigators to take a closer look at the scene.

The Nookemus’ unit is a rental and they didn’t have content insurance. They have two children; a son aged 13 and daughter age 10.

“There is nothing to be saved upstairs; belongings downstairs have smoke and water damage,” said James.

Annette is taking online courses with Discovery College to complete a Health Care Assistant certification program while James works at Walmart.

The family is staying at a local motel for at least the next two weeks. They say they paid half the cost of the room rental while Huu-ay-aht First Nation contributed the other half.

Annette says that they could be homeless for another two months, depending on if they can get another unit in one of the M’akola complexes in Port Alberni, or if they have to wait until their unit is restored.

Since the fire, friends and family have held several fundraising activities to provide support to the Nookemuses A family member has set up a GoFundMe page with a $5,000 goal. To date, nearly half the funds have been raised.

Family friend and MP Gord Johns has been checking in with the family since the fire and has made some personal donations to help them out. He said that there is no federal role when it comes to families that face this type of disaster.

“With COVID-19 sometimes we need to step outside of our traditional roles,” he said, noting that the GoFundMe account isn’t doing very well, likely due to people struggling financially during the pandemic.

“We are looking for support from the community to fill the gap,” said Johns.

By chance, Johns ran into long-time friend Kim Rai of Khalsa Aid Canada. Khalsa Aid is an international non-government organization that provides humanitarian aid in disaster areas and civil conflict zones around the world.

In 2018 Khalsa Aid donated $200,000 to Ahousaht in memory of Maggie Sutlej, a little Ahousaht girl who was taken from beneath her mother’s dead body during an attack on the village by the Royal Navy. The funds go toward supporting the community, such as child or youth programs or search and rescue equipment.

Rai, along with his friend Johns, arrived at the Redford Motel on Aug. 4 to present the Nookemus family with equipment they will need to further their education. The children were given iPads and headphones for their return to school while Annette was given a laptop computer to help her complete her program in December.

Annette says that she has been working on her assignments through her phone, but it’s hard.

“Sometimes I feel like throwing my phone,” she said.

“We are so proud of you, what you are doing to become a nurse and serve the community,” said Johns to Annette.

Rai told the family that they have learned some Nuu-chah-nulth values which are shared by Khalsa Aid.

“We hope people listening to us will help you rebuild,” Rai said to the family.

Captain Ramsay of the Salvation Army and Lovpreet Singh, owner of the local Dairy Queen, were on hand to make contributions to the family. Singh presented the family with gift cards allowing them to have some meals at Dairy Queen.

“I am here to support the family and thank Kahlsa Aid Society and the Salvation Army,” said Johns.

Johns said that neighbors on either side of the Nookemuses were also displaced for a short time but are back in their units.

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