But the federal government is culpable too. “They had a responsibility to step forward and to help,” he says. “not just with respect to the flooded-out lands but with respect to the consequences of having to live in the urban environment.”
According to Mr. Nepinak, the two governments point to the millions they have spent on the displaced. “But they should have been at the table right from the start, willing to negotiate and figuring out ways of fast-tracking a new reserve.”
Clearly, neither Ottawa nor the province is happy with all the money being spent. Last month, evacuees received a notice, bearing no letterhead or signature, saying the $23 a day they were receiving for food and expenses other than rent will fall to $4 – what they would receive had they moved to the radar base.
Shocked, the people wonder how, unable to fish or hunt, they will get by in Winnipeg? And why was such a radical move done anonymously?
Manitoba officials say the letter was generic because the reduction was a joint decision, and neither government wanted to face the backlash. Ottawa, however, says that is not true – the call was that of province alone. (Manitoba also points out that anyone who collected welfare before the flood can continue to do so, although not everyone was.)
Mr. Sinclair insists that he and his people will somehow stick it out in Winnipeg until they can move to Site 9. Gazing across the property, he says he can easily envision the community being happy there. “You see how beautiful the land is, how high it is?” he says, gesturing to a broad swath where horses now graze.
And yet, he adds, they will not give up the existing reserve, even if it is little more than a swamp: That is where their ancestors are buried – both in the cemetery and in unmarked graves all along the water’s edge.
But there is no going home. The province plans to raise the 100-year-flood mark by five feet, ruling out new construction on all but 15 per cent of the reserve.
Meanwhile, all but a few existing homes sit empty. The two-bedroom house band councillor Mathew Traverse once shared with his wife, six children and three grandchildren is uninhabitable. The ceiling tiles are falling off, the floors are covered in the flotsam of a hasty departure, and the smell of mould is so strong that his fellow councillors will not enter.
But to the wistful Mr. Traverse, this is where the family used to feast after a successful hunt, where he used to teach his children the importance of living off the land.
“The 2011 flood just destroyed this house. It just destroyed us,” he says, struggling to keep his emotions in check. “We need a reserve and we need a reserve soon. We are Anishnabe, we are proud people. Why is it we have to fight all this way for something that should have been given to us, that should have been ours?”
Back in Winnipeg, Christina Moar has new worries. Currently living in a rental unit, she wants to return to the hotel to be closer to her father, who does not hear well and could, she fears, fall victim to unscrupulous strangers.
Whom does she blame for her predicament? She says she has no idea, but pauses and adds, “The people who say no to letting us get the land for a new reserve.”
Next week, federal and provincial officials are finally to sit down with the Lake St. Martin council in an attempt to solve a problem 50 years in the making. In a recent letter to Mr. Duncan, the federal minister, Mr. Sinclair made it clear how he and his people feel the negotiations should play out.
“If the last 18 months have taught the first nation and the federal and the provincial government anything,” he wrote, “it is surely that decisions made by either or both governments based on inaccurate or inadequate information, speculative reasoning and assumptions, and in secrecy, can and do have disastrous consequences.”
In other words, a little consultation would go a long way.
At the peak of last year’s flood, 3,098 residents had been removed from six aboriginal communities in Manitoba’s Interlake region. Since then, roughly one in three has gone back, leaving stranded:
1,056 - Lake St. Martin
358 - Little Saskatchewan
212 - Dauphin River
185 - Peguis
102 - Ebb & Flow
19 - Pinaymootang
Total - 1,932
Source: Province of Manitoba