High and dry?

Members and supporters of Lake St. Martin First Nation gathered at the Manitoba Legislature on Monday, Nov. 26, in attempt to demand answers from the provincial government on when they will be able to return to their homes. The people of Lake St. Martin are also unsure of where, specifically, their new homes will be.

Approximately 25 individuals were gathered, holding signs and listening to speeches on the steps of the Legislative Building. They have been displaced from their homes on Lake St. Martin First Nation since May, 2011, following a massive man-made flood. Since that time, the provincial government has assisted the people in settling temporarily, mostly in hotels in Winnipeg. They have not been given any answers as to when they will be able to move into a permanent residence. They are also unsure where they will be relocated.

Several proposed sites exist, including one very close to the original Lake St. Martin community. Many community members, however, prefer a spot called Site 9, Grahamdale. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Lake St. Martin chief Adrian Sinclair spoke about the community’s preferred site.

“This is higher ground, it’s dry, and it’s not contaminated. All of our infrastructure was destroyed on contaminated land and saturated land,” said Sinclair. “[Site 9, Grahamdale] is dry land, and there is bedrock here. There would be no flooding here.”

In the meantime, the province has created a temporary village for Lake St. Martin band members at an abandoned military base just outside Gypsumville, but only a small handful of families have moved in. Sinclair claims the community has faced pressure to accept the site, but says it is an unacceptable living arrangement.

The military base site reportedly cost the province $14 million to acquire and convert into a livable space. Sinclair was hesitant to move the community there, however, because of word passed to him from other communities and Aboriginal Elders that the site of the base was infested yearly by droves of snakes numbering in the thousands.

The province has since given members of Lake St. Martin a Dec. 15 deadline to decide whether they would like to move into the old Gypsumville base.

The relocation issue was discussed during a question period on Nov. 26 in the chambers of the Manitoba Legislature. Premier Greg Selinger and his government were criticized for failing to listen to Lake St. Martin’s requests for relocation to Site 9.

“We don’t have a preconceived notion of what piece of land they should settle on,” said Selinger. “But we want to make sure that the land that is settled on is high and dry.”

The federal government, which is responsible for overseeing issues related to First Nations reserves, has been very quiet on the issue of relocating Lake St. Martin, even though it is expected to pay for the cost of living during evacuation.

A meeting between First Nations representatives and members of the federal and provincial governments was expected to take place on the Wednesday following the rally on Nov. 28. A spokesperson for the provincial government told the Manitoban that the meeting resulted in “concrete next steps to consider options for a long term solution to avoid chronic flooding of the community.”

The spokesperson stated that, while they have been in contact with Lake St. Martin since 2011, only the federal government can convert new land to reserve status and the province does not have any jurisdiction over reserve design.

“We continue to support First Nations evacuees and are actively working with first nation leadership and the federal government on long term solutions.”

In May 2011, about 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes on Lake St. Martin First Nation due to extreme flooding. The flood was caused by the diversion of spring runoff into northern Manitoba – the province made the decision to artificially redirect the flow of water because it otherwise threatened to flow into Winnipeg.

Lake St. Martin was one of six First Nation’s communities in the Interlake area that were forced to evacuate their homes. The other five were Little Saskatchewan, Dauphin River, Peguis, Ebb and Flow, and Pinaymootang. A total of 3,098 people were moved.