When she realized she would lose her fight with cancer, Ruth Beardy was determined to spend her final days at home. But instead of travelling to the shores of Lake St. Martin, where she’d been born and spent most of her 76 years, Mrs. Beardy died on Oct. 20 nearly 300 kilometres to the south – on the 23rd floor of a hotel near Portage and Main.
“She wanted to go back; she wanted to be home,” explains Christina Moar, her daughter, perched on a bed in the Place Louis Riel suite her father, Willie, now occupies alone. “This was the only home she had.”
Lake St. Martin is now more a ghost town than what was once home to more than 1,400 people. The community was forced to leave abruptly in May of 2011 when Manitoba decided to spare Winnipeg from the effects of the “superflood” – the largest spring runoff in provincial history – by diverting water into several northern native centres. Residents were rushed to Winnipeg, thinking they’d be back in weeks, if not days. But the flooding was so severe that the site, a reserve for 140 years and home to native people for longer than anyone can remember, is uninhabitable – even after a $100-million emergency channel was dug last year to lower the lake level. People now face the prospect of spending yet another holiday season stranded in the big city.
They shouldn’t have to be there. Much has been done, by the band’s council and by the province, to find a new place to live. Yet it has been anything but a joint effort. Canada’s aboriginal people have a constitutional right to be consulted on decisions that affect them, yet Manitoba has spent $1.5-million to buy 3,200 acres for a new reserve site that community leaders reject. And it has invested $14-million to set up temporary housing at a third location that elders claim is infested with snakes.
In the end, Mrs. Beardy got what she wanted. She now lies in her community’s little cemetery, which on the surface seems a fitting final resting place, with its fading floral tributes and spare white crosses that glow every evening when solar lights planted years ago flicker on.
The ground below, however, is saturated. Graves become pools as quickly as they are dug, and “you have to bury the people in the water,” says Florence Wood, 65, a member of Lake St. Martin First Nation who intended to retire there after spending many years away. But those plans have been pretty much abandoned. “Where my house stands,” she says, “is all mud.”
Chief Adrian Sinclair and his council say they have found a spot for a new home that is much better than what the province is proposing. It is high and dry and located several kilometres from the lake that gives the community its name, but that’s just fine, Mr. Sinclair says: His people have had quite enough of living on the water.
The cost of sheltering more than 2,000 evacuees from Lake St. Martin and five neighbouring reserves is approaching $70-million and the New Democrats under Premier Gregory Selinger grow increasingly exasperated.
The federal government will eventually cover the costs of sheltering and feeding the evacuees. It is also responsible for establishing reserves and ensuring the welfare of those who occupy them. But thus far Ottawa has shown little interest in discussing where Lake St. Martin’s displaced residents will wind up.
That, according to Paul Martin, is not good enough. “When somebody has a fiduciary responsibility,” says the former prime minister, who now spends much of his time working to improve aboriginal education and business opportunities, “they also have a responsibility to talk to the people to whom they have that responsibility.”
The big flood of 2011 marked the breaking point, but Lake St. Martin’s problems began half a century earlier.
In 1961, in a bid to protect agricultural and recreational land in the area, the province built a control structure on the Fairford River, which flows from Lake Manitoba through Lake St. Martin before emptying into the great expanse of Lake Winnipeg.
The effect on Lake St. Martin, as well as such neighbouring native communities as Fairford, Little Saskatchewan and Dauphin River, was immediate. When the weather was dry, water that normally flowed through the reserves was held back to keep Lake Manitoba from dropping. When it was wet, the smaller lakes were inundated to keep the larger body of water in a range deemed best for the residents around it.