Residents of Lytton, B.C., say they feel exploited by a new commercial that features their community ravaged by wildfire.
A commercial for ATCO Group, a Calgary-based structures and logistics company, shows two young kids walking through a burned-out town while hauling a seedling tree in a wagon to a cover version of Katrina and the Waves' 1985 hit "Walking on Sunshine."
The young girls pass a sign that reads "School reopens today" and try in vain to dig a hole. An ATCO worker stops what he's doing and helps the young girls plant the seedling.
The commercial ends with the tagline, "For over 75 years, we've been where the world needs us."
But the company admits the story of a school reopening is a work of fiction. In reality, up to 90 per cent of buildings and homes in the community were destroyed, and residents unable to return are frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding — and, for some, the commercial is rubbing salt into those wounds.
"I think that that commercial is in very poor taste and why are they trying to capitalize on our tragedy?" Lytton resident Micha Kingston said.
She said it's tough to watch a commercial featuring young kids in Lytton when she and her daughter aren't even allowed to go into the town.
"For them to imply that the Lytton kids are just happily, joyfully wheeling their wagons down the streets of Lytton to go to school is, well, it's ludicrous and it really diminishes the suffering of all the residents who are still displaced."
She also notes that if they were allowed to go into Lytton, they would have to wear full PPE, unlike the people in the commercial.
"It's kind of like a slap in the face to see these little kids walking around," she said.
Video 'entirely fictional'
In a statement, ATCO Group said it has been working with the village and made a donation to rebuilding efforts before filming of the ad started.
"It wasn't our intention to represent Lytton but to film a story inspired by our work — which includes responding to disasters and building things like schools in Canada, Australia and beyond," the company said in a statement.
On Twitter, it said the story was "entirely fictional" and a portion of the commercial was filmed in Lytton.
According to B.C. Assessment, 97 per cent of residential and business properties were damaged in the fire, resulting in a partial write-down of those property assessments for 2022.
Public Safety Ministry Bill Blair was in Lytton Thursday to tour the damage and said the federal government is working on a request for funding from the B.C. government.
Peace River North MLA Dan Davies raised the issue in the legislature on Thursday, asking why a private company was allowed to film a commercial in Lytton before residents have been allowed to return to rebuild their lives.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said it was a decision made by Lytton council, adding that it is not something he would have done.
"They don't come and ask the province for permission," Farnworth said. "Quite frankly, I found it mind-boggling that that's what, in fact, took place."
Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said Thursday that he had not seen the final commercial but filming did not interfere with cleanup efforts in Lytton.
He said there is a small number of critics of the video, which aims to show that recovery efforts are beginning.