POLITICS

Flood evacuees wary of temporary housing; hotel stays costing about $4M a month

01/26/2012 10:43 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - The vast majority of flood evacuees from a Manitoba First Nation are balking at the province's offer of temporary housing and run the risk of languishing up to two years in hotels until a new permanent location for the reserve is found.

The evacuation of about 800 members of the Lake St. Martin band doesn't come cheap. Housing about 2,000 people from eight Manitoba First Nations — including those from Lake St. Martin — has cost federal taxpayers about $30 million so far, with the tab growing by an average of $4 million a month in hotel and food bills.

Last month, the province said it had 500 people from the hard-hit reserve signed up for temporary housing at a former radar base in Gypsumville near their flooded community.

But officials say that after Chief Adrian Sinclair rejected the "dangerous plan" which he said "cannot be justified legally, economically or rationally," only 114 people have shown interested in moving. Some 40 homes have been ordered, down from the 150 homes authorities said were being ordered in December.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said the 40 units are just a start and the province is hoping to persuade more people to move by opening a show home on the site next month. Those lobbying against the move are a "vocal minority," he said.

"Some people don't want to go and there is some misinformation going around the community. By the time it gets to the fifth person, we're going to be moving them to the Arctic Circle. That's really how news travels."

The province says the chief refused to move his community after officials chose not to order homes from his company. The band has disputed that, saying the chief wouldn't have profited personally from the contract.

Hundreds of residents from the northern reserve, about 250 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, had to leave their homes in the spring because of flooding and have been unable to return. While waters have long since receded around the province, the reserve has been deemed a writeoff and officials are looking for a new permanent home.

In the meantime, residents are living in hotels scattered through Winnipeg. Their children are also dispersed throughout the city. Some attend classes in donated facilities; others are enrolled in various city schools.

Aboriginal leaders, including the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, have said the turmoil is taking its toll. They say students have missed out on school and are being exposed to drugs, alcohol and gangs in the big city.

Although Robinson said the search for a new permanent home is being fast-tracked, it is likely to take several years before a move is complete. That's not good enough for elders who want out of the city now, he said.

"It's too long for families to be continuing to live in hotels in Winnipeg."

Sinclair was unavailable to comment. But he has detailed his concerns about the move publicly and in a letter to senior provincial officials.

In a letter to a Winnipeg newspaper this month, the chief said people were initially willing to move to the former radar base, but that changed when they learned more about the proposal. The base would be an "off-reserve" housing project, so they wouldn't have the same First Nation services they had on the reserve, he pointed out.

Many also feared the "interim solution" would become a permanent one, Sinclair said. Residents want to focus on moving to a "permanent site we have selected where we can lead healthy, economically productive lives."

The site is also on a garter snake migration route which has caused some consternation.

Despite the concerns, the province has already earmarked $40 million to set up Lake St. Martin residents at the base, which will also have a playground and, eventually, a nursing station, Robinson said. Once the Lake St. Martin residents are established in a permanent home, the Gypsumville site won't go unused, he added.

It will be used as a provincial evacuation centre for any type of natural disaster, whether it be flood or forest fire.