When the Lake St. Martin reserve flooded in May, 2011, and residents were ordered to leave, most people thought this would be like every other evacuation – they'd be back in a few days, maybe a couple of weeks at most.
It's now been almost 2 1/2 years, and those residents are still evacuees, still living in hotels and "temporary" housing in Winnipeg, 225 kilometres south of their ancestral lands.
The irony is that they are living in the very city that was saved at the expense of their 140-year-old reserve. Lake St. Martin was flooded after Manitoba officials decided in the spring of 2011, during flooding considered to be the worst in centuries, to divert water from the Assiniboine River so that the province's largest city, Winnipeg, would be spared.
I have seen how the displacement of Lake St. Martin residents has affected their lives in every conceivable way.
Marilyn Marsden, for example, recounts how depressed she felt when she spent a second Christmas in her hotel room. "This is a small little room and being cooped up in here is hard," says the 56-year-old Ms. Marsden. "I've been here going on three years living in hotels."
Diane Sinclair breaks down when speaking about her daughter Alexis, who took her life weeks after the evacuation. Alexis left behind a daughter. "Alexis always used to say that she felt like she didn't have a home, like she didn't belong anywhere," Ms. Sinclair says. "I told her someday you'll have your roots settled. She'd say, 'Mom, I just want to go home.' "
There are moments of hope. I put my camera down to take in a moment of solace this spring as 16-year-old Kassidy Pelletier delivered her Grade 9 graduation speech.
"I know it's been difficult since the flood, since we've been evacuated, with everyone moving and living in different areas, people getting sick with diabetes, cancer, violence, drugs and alcohol. Among these afflictions we have to deal with death in our families... I am sure everything will work out fighting for our land because we as Anishinaabe are a strong nation and we will prevail and go home soon."
"I want to go home again" – it's a refrain I hear over and over again, with members of the reserve wondering how much longer the displacement will last.
That is still an open question. The reserve was condemned a year ago and all the homes will be torn down. The province has purchased land close to the former reserve, but it, too, has a history of flooding. The decision to move to that land will be decided by a referendum, but one has yet to be scheduled.