WINNIPEG - Months after their reserve flooded, hundreds of evacuees from a Manitoba First Nation are still unable to return to their homes and Canada's national chief says living in limbo is taking a toll.
Water is still more than two metres higher than normal in the remote aboriginal community of Lake St. Martin, north of Lake Manitoba. Evacuees from the reserve are still scattered around Winnipeg, staying in hotels. Some students are only now attending school in two church basements while others are enrolled in various schools around the city.
National Chief Shawn Atleo said the longer the evacuees are estranged from their community, the more the First Nation's culture and children are at risk.
"The elders are being disconnected from their way of life," said Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations. "They're finding being in the urban setting is creating some risks for their young people, both the exposure to drugs and alcohol, as well as the criminal element and the gangs."
The youngest evacuees are the most vulnerable, Atleo added.
"They've missed a lot of school. They're disconnected in different parts of the city. There is no sense of stability and there is a real vulnerability that we'll lose young people to negative forces."
About 800 people from the lakeside community were evacuated in May. Provincial officials have said the community is virtually a "write-off" after this spring's devastating flood.
Many of the homes are beyond repair and have developed mould issues after years of chronic flooding. Chiefs, the province and Ottawa have been looking into a temporary home closer to the reserve while studying possible sites where the community could relocate permanently.
But Atleo said things are not happening quickly enough. The people of Lake St. Martin need to be fully involved in deciding their own future, he added. Outside officials should not come in and tell them where they should live or what kind of homes they should have, Atleo said.
"It means cutting red tape and breaking down the barriers that exist under the Indian Act ... so they can get on with rebuilding their lives."
Provincial officials say they are doing all they can to get evacuees out of Winnipeg hotels and into more stable housing. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said the province has purchased land near the flooded reserve and has ordered temporary homes for the site.
But Robinson said every time government officials feel they have an agreement with Lake St. Martin leadership about where residents will live or the type of temporary housing the province will provide, something changes.
"When we get to a certain point, they change their mind at the last minute. What are my negotiators to do?," Robinson said. "It's frustrating as hell."
In the meantime, Robinson said it's the kids who are suffering.
Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair could not be reached for comment. Jeff Solmundson, with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, referred questions about new homes for the evacuees to the province and the band council.
"While the department has been involved in discussions about the new interim location for Lake St. Martin First Nation, the province and the First Nation are better able to speak on those efforts," he said in an email.
Although flood waters have receded across the province, levels on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin are expected to remain high. For weeks this spring and into the summer, the province struggled to contain the swollen Assiniboine River by operating the Portage Diversion — a channel that funnels water from the river into Lake Manitoba — well over its design capacity.
That pushed water levels up on the two lakes, which cut off roads and caused considerable damage when spring storms whipped up waves that slammed into homes and cottages. The province is currently constructing a $100-million, eight-kilometre-long channel to siphon water from Lake Manitoba and adjoining Lake St. Martin into Lake Winnipeg.