3 mayoral candidates want to lead Lytton out of the ashes

Left to right, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Willie Nelson, and Denise O'Connor are all running to be the next mayor of Lytton. (Jenifer Norwell/Submitted/Tom Popyk - image credit)
Left to right, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Willie Nelson, and Denise O'Connor are all running to be the next mayor of Lytton. (Jenifer Norwell/Submitted/Tom Popyk - image credit)

Every morning Denise O'Connor looks out from her home in Lytton at the burned-out remains of the village.

She's just one of a limited number of the village's estimated 210 residents who have returned to the community following a wildfire that burned the community in the summer of 2021.

O'Connor is vying with Edith Loring-Kuhanga and Willie Nelson, the village's two other candidates for mayor, for a chance to lead the community through the next phase of the village's rebuilding after Mayor Jan Polerman and all of the rest of council opted not to seek re-election.

O'Connor says her run for mayor was motivated partly by frustration over the lengthy rebuilding process.

After the fire, the retired elementary school principal attended council meetings and started to seek out all the information she could about it. She also volunteered running the Resiliency Centre up until it closed this summer and now heads the Lytton Chamber of Commerce.

"Right after the fire… I was one of those evacuees who was very angry, and I wanted to know more information."

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

O'Connor's home was destroyed in the fire, but she says she has been able to find another place to live while cleanup work begins on her property — over a year after it was destroyed.

"I do have a good understanding of the needs of the people."

She says her focus, if elected, would be to be more transparent and accountable to voters to help them understand any delays, along with working to speed up the rebuild.

Focus on economy and housing

Edith Loring-Kuhanga says she decided to put her name on the ballot after being asked to run by some community members.

"Everybody seemed to think that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I have a lot of skill and experience that I could bring to the table to really help move Lytton forward."

As the current administrator for the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, she says she worked with staff and students throughout the last 15 months to help them adjust to the impacts of the wildfire.

Loring-Kuhanga says  her background as a longtime administrator and former chair of the Greater Victoria School Board makes her well placed to rebuild a community, given her experience managing government policy and working within a bureaucracy.

"We have a big job ahead of us … I'm up for the challenge."

She says, if elected, she would also prioritize economic development and housing.

Increase role for local residents

The final candidate is another area resident — 32-year-old Willie Nelson.

The raft guide, wildlands firefighter and hemp farmer said he wanted to bring a younger perspective to the race.

During the 2021 wildfire season, Nelson was involved in fighting fires after he watched all the river rafts burn. When the Nohomin Creek wildfire started this July, he again pitched in to help, first as a volunteer and then as part of the paid crew with the Lytton First Nation.

Jenifer Norwell/CBC
Jenifer Norwell/CBC

He says it's experiences like that which influenced his desire to build back Lytton in the most fire-smart way possible.

"This has happened before, and we never want it to happen again."

He says his focus would be on using materials like hempcrete as a solution for not only fire-proofing but also as a way to bring jobs into the community.

Nelson says he also wants to focus on making the mayor and council more transparent and accountable to residents.

He says he's been unimpressed with the handling of the rebuild process so far and wants locals to play a greater role.

"We don't need outside corporations that are making big, big contracts. This is a classic case of disaster capitalism, and the vultures are circling."

Mail-in voting an option

Voting in Lytton poses a unique challenge to residents because so many are not living in the community.

However, people are still able to vote in person or by mail if they identify as intending to return to the community, said Shannon Story, Lytton's chief election officer.

"It's pretty unprecedented to be running an election like this."

Story said voters living in another community can only vote in one location, so if they plan to vote in their current home, they won't be able to vote in the Lytton election.

All mail-in votes must be received by 8 p.m. on election day.