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Christina Moar in the Winnipeg hotel room where her mother died last month: ‘She wanted to go home – and this is the only home she had.’ (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Christina Moar in the Winnipeg hotel room where her mother died last month: ‘She wanted to go home – and this is the only home she had.’ (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

ABORIGINAL AFFAIRS

Flooded out to save Winnipeg, Lake St. Martin residents now feel forgotten Add to ...

Born when the reserve supported farming as well as fishing, Betty Travers, 73, recalls that “we used to have cattle. Across the river, there was a pasture and the first floods were all over there.” Gradually, “our cattle became sick. Their hoofs came off and we had to sell them all – what was left of them.”

Over the years, the land became permanently sodden. Crawl spaces under homes filled with water and septic tanks popped out of the ground like corks. Even roofs began to rot.

Then came last year’s superflood. Homes that were not in good shape to begin with – walls subjected to decades of black mould had been painted repeatedly just to hide the stain – were left complete writeoffs. Now, having been uninhabited for so long, they provide shelter for weasels, mice, frogs and other vermin. Some have been vandalized.

The federal government had said for years the reserve should move to a better location, talk that was sporadic and unproductive until hundreds of people were suddenly living in hotels.

A month after the evacuation, the province and community representatives jointly examined a series of sites to see if they were suitable as a new home. As far as the band was concerned, a parcel identified as Site 9 stood out, and Mr. Sinclair quickly informed both governments.

Instead, six months later, the province quietly purchased a tract adjacent to the old reserve. Lake St. Martin officials say they learned of the deal from the property’s former owners only after the papers had been signed.

Not only is this site little better than what was flooded, Mr. Sinclair argues, it should not have been bought without his knowledge or that of his council.

Then the province paid nearly $14-million to acquire mobile homes and turn the nearby site of a former radar base, a Cold War relic, into an interim home while a permanent one is being built. At first, Mr. Sinclair agreed, as long as certain conditions were met. Community elders told him the property was on the path that garter snakes use by the thousand to reach their wintering ground. So he asked that the housing not be installed until last fall’s migration was over and be moved to a permanent site before this fall’s began.

But then, as the province was making the base habitable, the chief received words of caution from a Cree community to the north that had been relocated to temporary quarters near The Pas in 1962 after a hydroelectric project flooded its land. Fifty years later, the Cree were still there.

Mr. Sinclair started to worry. He had agreed to propose that his community move to the base if the province could provide assurances that it was moving ahead with an acceptable plan for a permanent location. But no work was being done elsewhere, and he was concerned as well that there had been no environmental study of the old radar site.

In any event, Mr. Sinclair says, he felt he had no authority to tell his people where to go; the decision was theirs to make.

He also dismisses any suggestion that his reticence stemmed from the fact he and a business partner were not chosen to supply the mobile homes. In fact, documents supplied by the band show that a community trust established for Lake St. Martin, not its chief, was to take 51 per cent of the profit from any such deal, with 49 per cent going to the partner, a local lumber dealer who knew how to build homes and had assisted the community after the flood.

The colourful, vinyl-sided housing now at the base is spacious, modern and far from the big city, where many people from Lake St. Martin say they are made to feel like outsiders, or worse – freeloaders and criminals. In March, when the houses were ready, some decided to take the offer despite any misgivings. But many have since moved back to Winnipeg, complaining of excessive supervision by non-native security hired to oversee the place and heavy-handed rules – no pets, no game brought back from a hunt, no visitors after 11 p.m.

Provincial officials call reports of such restrictive rules “both false and unsubstantiated” and dismiss the snakes as a myth. They say neither side is without blame for the mistrust that has developed, but insist they have done as much as they can to make the interim site livable.

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