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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 ...

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.

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“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.

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.

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.”

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.

Swept away

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

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