The walking path high above the Slave River in Fort Smith is dotted with “Unstable Edge” warnings.

The signs pay respect to the infamous 1968 landslide, stretching a kilometre wide and 300 metres deep, which swept homes and trees in a section of town named the “Indian Village” down the bank when the ground gave out.

And while some people worry about the possibility of another landslide, others are still working to properly acknowledge all that was lost 50 years ago.

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Survivors who were displaced following the landslide have planned a day of commemoration activities on August 9, which will include a special mass, a book launch, the unveiling of a bench in memory of the one life lost alongside a plaque to honour the relocated families, and an evening fish fry and drum dance.

“We wanted to pay respect to the survivors who had to be relocated overnight … to the family of the late Kay Ferguson, who lost her life in the tragedy, and the people who helped the rescue operation,” said commemoration organizer, landslide survivor, and eyewitness to the tragedy Jeannie Marie-Jewell.

“We also wanted to let the community know our history. We embraced our cultural values when we were young, and once we were uprooted and left and all got displaced in different areas of the community, we lost a lot of that.”

Continued erosion

In an email to Cabin Radio, a commemoration committee volunteer – referencing a recent landslide in June that displaced the ‘Truicide’ ski hill – said she believed the same fissure is working its way toward the golf course and a trail up which paddlers hike after running the river.

The volunteer, who asked not to be named, alleged this summer’s conditions are strikingly similar to those that caused the 1968 landslide.

In the past few weeks, the Slave River rose dramatically following high amounts of rain in the Peace River and Athabasca River basins – and then dropped. This, the volunteer suggested, “creates a kind of undertow and, combined with all of the rain last month, tons of sand sitting on clay slide easily into the river.”

While Cabin Radio was unable to confirm whether an official cause of the ’68 slide had ever been determined, engineers have said another slide in 2004 was likely caused by groundwater fluctuations and ongoing erosion.

Graphs show water level and flow for the Slave River at Fitzgerald (Alberta) in 2018. Alberta Government.
Graphs show water level and flow for the Slave River at Fitzgerald (Alberta) in 2018. Data and graph: Alberta Government

Following the ’68 slide, the bank was stabilized through sloping, but some people worry that’s not enough. Other areas of the town along the riverbank, such as by the sewage lagoon, have not been stabilized.

“[The slope] is definitely moving and it’s something we need to ensure is resolved,” said Mayor Lynn Napier-Buckley. She was unsure if the Town of Fort Smith has proactive measures in place to monitor the stability of the bank, but said the Town had accessed “climate change funds” to analyze the cost of stabilizing the bank’s remainder.

Once the cost analysis is done, said Napier-Buckley, the Town will apply for further funding to complete the work. Details regarding a timeline or contract were not available.

A series of slides

Written documentation of landslides in Fort Smith dates back more than 100 years.

In 1908 the bank collapsed, dragging down many of the town’s older buildings, damaging docking facilities, and starting a warehouse fire. Slides in the 1930s and 1940s devastated portage trails between Fort Smith and Fort Fitzgerald.

The last landslide that affected town infrastructure was in August 2004.

A report by Earth Tech Canada explained the 2004 slide affected 500 metres of riverbank, destroying the town’s sewage discharge pipeline in the process.

In the report, engineer Kenneth Johnson suggested ongoing erosion “takes place over several years or decades and gradually reduces the bank stability to a state of eventual failure.”

He explained the bank then shifts and adjusts to create a “flatter profile.”

“The process then repeats itself with alternating periods of marginal stability (ongoing creep movements) and large slides,” he concluded.

For those born and raised in Fort Smith, like Marie-Jewell, landslides are just another unpredictable natural disaster the area has always faced – and commemoration ceremonies like Thursday’s show the resilience of the people who survive them.