Yet only 13 of the 65 houses at the base are occupied, and the province is looking for a way out. It has given holdouts still in the city until Dec. 15 to indicate if and when they plan to move in, and empty homes are already being given to other bands in need.
Eric Robinson, the provincial Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, says Lake St. Martin clearly requires a permanent home: “I think we need some decisive behaviour and I think I have demonstrated that, the federal government has demonstrated that as well, and now we need the first nation to be decisive as well.”
And it is. Mr. Sinclair and his council have set their hearts on a 7,000-acre expanse of rust-coloured grassland punctuated by stands of white birch and spruce that they say is perfect. To bureaucrats who privately complain that the band seems to feel it has a right to make the final decision, the chief says: “They shouldn’t have flooded us out in the first place – they left us hanging with nothing.”
With an elevation more than 30 metres above that of the existing reserve, Site 9 is close to Highway 6, the main north-south route from Winnipeg to Thompson – ideal for roadside commerce to provide revenue to the band and employment to its people (especially given complaints that, in the process of lowering Lake St. Martin by nearly a metre, the much-ballyhooed channel has drained away much of its precious fish population).
Mr. Sinclair envisions a gas station, a restaurant, a clothing store, Tim Hortons, a lumber yard and a place to set up the community’s 65 video-gaming machines, currently in storage. “And a funeral parlour that sells caskets,” he says. “That’s a real money-maker.”
But the province says that, even though the land is high, too much drainage work is needed to make the site viable – and it contends that the federal government, which has the final say on what becomes a reserve, has rejected it. The community will not relinquish the old reserve even as it seeks a new one, and Manitoba says Ottawa will not approve a property that is not connected to it because two separate sites would be too expensive to maintain.
Ottawa denies having said that, but neither has it acknowledged the selection of Site 9.
Mr. Sinclair blames the refusal to accept his people’s choice on the fact that neither the government that caused the flooding nor the one that is supposed to protect aboriginal people wants to take full responsibility for the plight of Lake St. Martin. And the province, he adds, does not want to be stuck with the land that it went ahead and bought.
At the same time, there are signs of animosity between Manitoba and Ottawa. Provincial officials argue that, because they are willing to discuss the situation, they have undergone greater scrutiny – and unfairly taken more blame – than Ottawa has. Despite repeated requests, federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, a native of Winnipeg, declined to be interviewed.
When he was prime minister, Mr. Martin negotiated a series of accords to improve the lot of aboriginal people, but they were discarded when the Conservatives took power. He now feels that, the Lake St. Martin impasse notwithstanding, provincial governments are stepping up.
Because they deliver health care and education, and “end up with a lot of the problems in their own backyards, in their cities,” he says, “they understand the issues far better … the importance of supporting first nations as they attempt to take hold of some very difficult situations.”
But the same cannot be said of their federal counterpart. “I think, if you talk to most of the first nations,” Mr. Martin adds, “Ottawa just doesn’t seem to return their phone calls.”
Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the involvement of governments, federal or provincial, in the forced relocation of indigenous communities has a very “dark history.”
Mr. Nepinak says he warned governments not to presume that they had a right to decide which land would become the new Lake St. Martin reserve, yet “right from the start, the province [felt] it could dictate to the community where it was going to relocate – and that has been unacceptable.”