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Ottawa steps into dispute over hotel bills for flood evacuees

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Ottawa will appoint a mediator in a dispute over unpaid hotel bills for flood evacuees and it has made the agency that’s withholding funds pay some of its debt to the lodge that went public with its hotel tab.

That’s what a meeting accomplished, said the lodge owner, Mike Bruneau whose Misty Lake Lodge in Gimli and a motor hotel in Ashern are claiming $2.3 million in unpaid bills for evacuees going back several months. The Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters (MANFF) is claiming the bill is a fraction of that amount, and only goes back three months.

Tense and heated is how Bruneau and his senior executive described the atmosphere at the hour-long meeting in Winnipeg.

It brought together Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters executive director Daren Mini with Bruneau and the lodge’s manager Retha Dykes for the first face-to face meeting in months.

But Ottawa’s regional directors failed to settle the dispute, and settled for an agreement that it will appoint a mediator sometime in the next two to four weeks to find a compromise.

Meanwhile, MANFF which oversees First Nation flood services including evacuee expenses, has agreed to hand over payment for bills it had been withholding on expenses it agreed with, Bruneau said.

Bruneau and Dykes said they left the meeting feeling frustrated. They’d hoped regional officials with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development would give MANFF its marching orders to pay its debts and it didn’t.

By morning, Bruneau was following up on another piece of bad news, which he cites as more retaliation for blowing the whistle on MANFF. Last week, MANFF sent trucks after management left the Gimli and Ashern lodges for the night to remove evacuees. Most refused to go and only two families, from Gimli, were relocated to a Winnipeg hotel. Federal officials say they may issue a statement later on the results of the face-to-face meeting, at Aboriginal Affairs offices in Winnipeg Monday. MANFF has yet to respond to a request for comment.

There are nearly 2,000 evacuees from First Nations flooded out in the spring of 2011. They are scattered in hotels, mostly in Winnipeg, but outside the city, too. Bruneau’s lodges accommodate about 100 of them from Lake St. Martin and Little Saskatchewan, the two hardest hit reserves.

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