The chief of a Manitoba First Nation that was evacuated in 2011 after being deliberately flooded by the province is asking the federal government to investigate whether "inappropriate" behaviour on the part of Indigenous Affairs officials has deprived his people of a suitable community.
In letters to Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Chief Adrian Sinclair of the Lake St. Martin First Nation urges Ms. Bennett to stop talking with staff in her department about efforts to create a new reserve, and to meet with him and his council to "discuss this whole scandalous situation."
First Nations representatives who have discussed the matter with Mr. Sinclair say he and his council have been warned by government officials against talking to the media. But, in the letters to Ms. Bennett, the chief says the actions of departmental officials have "led to an unjust situation" and "we are, at this time, being pressured to enter into unconscionable agreements which are contrary to our best interests."
The letters ask the minister to place a moratorium on any decisions by the new government until it has conducted an "independent investigation."
When asked how Ms. Bennett would respond to the letters, her spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the Indigenous Affairs department takes allegations and complaints seriously and has a process to ensure they are examined properly and appropriate action is taken.
The construction of a new community of Lake St. Martin began last spring on a property called the Halaburda land, which is adjacent to the flooded reserve. The long-term plans for the $250-million project include 250 new townhouses – 33 of which are to be built before next summer.
Like the reserve, the Halaburda land is also supersaturated with water. The construction crew has had to dig through several feet of scrub and peat moss to get to a place where foundations can be constructed. And a large system of drains and pumps will have to operate year-round to keep the buildings dry.
The construction follows a memorandum of understanding that Mr. Sinclair signed in July, 2014, with the federal and provincial governments that outlined a settlement package for the displaced members of his community.
But a referendum of former reserve residents, which is required to put that proposal into effect, has never taken place – perhaps because it is unlikely to pass. The community members are aware that the land to which they are being moved is not much better than the place they left behind.
Myrle Ballard, a former resident of Lake St. Martin who has completed her PhD in natural resources and environmental management, conducted a study in 2013 of the various sites being contemplated for the new reserve and found that the Halaburda lands were deficient in almost every respect and inferior to most of the alternatives.
"They are draining the land as we speak, and you don't have to be a civil engineer or a rocket scientist to figure out that, if you have to drain land, that means it's wet, it's a swamp," Dr. Ballard said recently. "They are going to build the houses, it's going to start flooding, and they are going to get mouldy."
Lake St. Martin, a community that was once home to 1,600 full-time residents and another thousand members who lived off-reserve, was flooded in May, 2011, by the Manitoba government to shield Winnipeg from the effects of the largest spring runoff in provincial history.
It was agreed a short time later that the reserve would never again be habitable and a new site had to be found. But, 4 1/2 years later, most of the evacuees are still living in Winnipeg – many of them in hotel rooms – and the cost of the evacuation has gone well over $120-million.
Although the flood was caused by the province, it is the federal government that is responsible for establishing reserves and protecting the welfare of those who occupy them. Disagreements about which level of government will pay for the reserve's relocation, and battles with the First Nation's leadership, have prolonged the community's disruption.
The government of Manitoba purchased the Halaburda property in 2011 for $1.5-million without the knowledge of the First Nations leadership.
That same year, Mr. Sinclair and his council found a parcel of land for sale – 30 metres higher than the old reserve – that they considered an ideal location for the new Lake St. Martin community. But government officials insisted publicly that the the First Nation could not decide where to relocate.
After more than two years of failed negotiations, the chief and council passed a resolution in 2013 accepting the Halaburda lands as the site of the new reserve despite the vehement opposition they had expressed previously.
Last year, the provincial and federal governments announced a $495-million plan to construct a channel that is expected to ease some of the flooding around Lake St. Martin, and other nearby First Nations.
But, as construction on the new reserve progresses, controversy persists.
"Our experience indicates that some Indigenous Affairs officials are deeply implicated in the causes of the problem. Others are indifferent," Mr. Sinclair wrote in a letter to the new government. "This problem can be resolved only with political intervention."