A Manitoba First Nation has lost its bid to have Ottawa continue paying evacuation benefits to people forced from their homes by flooding in 2011.
Lake St. Martin First Nation was seeking an injunction of a decision to cut off benefits for evacuees who still do not have homes in the Indigenous community.
“The LSM (Lake St. Martin First Nation) cannot succeed because it has failed to meet its burden of establishing irreparable harm,” Federal Court Justice Cecily Strickland wrote in a decision dated Jan. 29. “The motion is therefore denied.”
The First Nation said it had been told that benefits would be discontinued at the end of last month, although an extension was given until the end of January.
Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair said he is shocked by the ruling.
“That was pretty hard to accept with the amount of evacuees that we’re going to be leaving on the streets here in Winnipeg without rent and housing,” said Sinclair. “It’s a very hard decision to take.”
Members of the band were forced to leave their homes when water was diverted from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba to reduce the risk of flooding in Winnipeg.
Water from the lake then flooded the community and caused extensive damage. All housing and infrastructure on the reserve needed to be replaced.
A lawsuit by Lake St. Martin and three other First Nations affected by the flooding alleged the province “knowingly and recklessly” caused the disaster.
It was settled in 2018 when the federal and Manitoba governments agreed to pay out $90 million to about 7,000 people from the communities.
As Lake St. Martin was rebuilt in a new location at a higher elevation, most members lived in Winnipeg with support from evacuation benefits. As homes and infrastructure were constructed, most returned home and their benefits stopped.
As of November, however, 992 evacuees had still not returned.
Lawyers for the federal government argued there are enough homes in the new First Nation to accommodate community members.
According to numbers in the court decision, there will soon be a total of 310 houses in the rebuilt community plus an additional 40-unit apartment building for a total of 350 homes.
“There will now be 1191 bedrooms available for 1297 evacuees, their children born since 2011, and children who have since turned 18,” Strickland wrote.
“It is reasonable to think that some of these evacuees will be couples who will share a bedroom and small children who will be able to do the same.”
She noted that this significantly exceeds the preflood housing of 182 homes and it was on this basis that the federal government determined that there was sufficient housing to accommodate all evacuated residents, as well as children born since 2011, and that benefits could, therefore, be ended.
“The difficulty I am faced with is that there is little evidence to support the LSM (Lake St. Martin) First Nation’s position that evacuees have nowhere to return to on reserve and will be rendered homeless if evacuees benefits are terminated.”
Sinclair said he disagrees with the court’s assessment.
“All the houses in the reserve are taken and they’re maximized to the space that they’re required to for each family,” said Sinclair.
“A lot of people want to go home. The problem is we just don’t have enough housing.”
Indigenous Services Canada said as of Jan. 9, 475 evacuees have returned to the rebuilt Lake St. Martin community. The government said there are 130 evacuees whose benefits will continue until the end of March when their homes are to be ready.