POLITICS

Ottawa to provide First Nations quicker access to disaster relief funding

11/19/2013 01:06 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
WINNIPEG - Canada's aboriginal affairs minister says the federal government is working aggressively to end one of the longest, most expensive flood evacuations in Manitoba and make it easier for all First Nations to get help after a natural disaster.

Bernard Valcourt said Ottawa is streamlining how disaster relief is delivered to aboriginal communities so they get funding more quickly. It is also spending $19 million to help them with emergency preparedness.

Valcourt said the steps will help reserves after a disaster, although flood-prone provinces such as Manitoba have said the federal government must spend much more on mitigating damage in the first place.

"I truly believe that this new approach that I'm introducing today will put the emergency management on reserves on better footing and protect the well-being of First Nation residents much, much more effectively," Valcourt said Tuesday at a meeting of a federal-provincial aboriginal affairs working group.

"We want First Nations to be able to get the same type of good response and services that other communities are getting."

Valcourt made the announcement in Winnipeg where about 2,000 aboriginal evacuees are still displaced following Manitoba's 2011 spring flood. Their food and shelter has cost Ottawa about $88 million so far and the tab is rising about $1.5 million a month.

Valcourt said it's hoped that streamlining aid and improving emergency preparedness will avoid protracted evacuations in the future. Part of the plan involves inking agreements such as the one Ottawa has with Alberta, which allowed that province to quickly respond to flooding there last summer, he said.

"We are working aggressively in co-operation with the province and the First Nations to hopefully return these people to safer sites," he said. "It's hard to put a dollar value on the health and safety of people. (The evacuation) is expensive but that points to the importance of working with the provinces.

"We hope that the kind of initiative we are introducing today will eventually save taxpayer dollars."

Steve Ashton, Manitoba's emergency measures minister, suggested the federal government should invest heavily in flood prevention on reserves if it wants to save money down the road. He pointed to land belonging to the Peguis First Nation, about 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg, which is chronically flooded and needs at least $19 million alone for basic flood mitigation.

That kind of investment could save millions in costly evacuations and relocations, Ashton said.

"The complete lack of investment over the years in on-reserve mitigation and other resources, they've been doubly hard hit," he said. "What really matters is what happens on the ground. For us, mitigation is a priority."

Ashton said provinces are still used as a middleman, which slows everything down.

"Right now, there is about a 10-step process in doing the financial work related to anything on the First Nation side," he said. "It doesn't really change that. What we feel needs to be done is for the federal government to have a direct responsibility for First Nations."

Aboriginal communities have been hit hard, particularly by flooding, in recent years.

Floodwaters forced about 1,000 members of the Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary, to leave their houses and seek shelter in emergency centres last June. A temporary neighbourhood is under construction and the provincial government is spending $83 million to repair damage.

In Manitoba, the 2011 flood devastated some communities. It scattered residents throughout Winnipeg and the province. They are living in hotels and rental accommodation while officials search for permanent homes.

The Lake St. Martin reserve has been declared virtually uninhabitable and officials have been working to find a new home for the First Nation.

While the provincial ministers and native groups welcomed the disaster-relief promise, they were disappointed by Valcourt's continued rejection of their call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Valcourt talked more about tackling social problems, said Michele Taina Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada.

"He gave me the response that they don't believe in inquiries because ... everybody knows the root cause, and he was talking more about prevention," she said.

"We strongly believe in prevention also, but what about all those families? We have thousands and thousands of families who have no idea where their daughters or sisters or mothers went."

The provincial and territorial ministers also said they would continue to press Ottawa for help in improving economic opportunities and high school graduation rates for First Nations — work that would include improving schools on reserves.

"I don't think a child gets a favourable feeling going to ... a school, nor would they feel good about the education they're receiving, having to go to facilities that are mould-ridden in some cases," said Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.

— With files from Steve Lambert