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Manitoba First Nations residents sue provincial government over 2011 flooding

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WINNIPEG - Residents of four Manitoba First Nations are suing the province, alleging the government deliberately flooded their communities last year and didn't take proper care of them after they were forced to evacuate.

A handful of residents of Pinaymootang, Little Saskatchewan, Lake St. Martin and Dauphin River First Nations filed a $950-million class-action lawsuit this week.

The statement of claim says the province "knowingly and recklessly" caused the disaster in their communities by diverting too much floodwater into Lake Manitoba last spring. It also alleges the government didn't give them enough warning about the flooding.

Lawyer Russell Raikes, who represents the nine residents, said the First Nations were out of harm's way until the province started diverting too much water from the swollen Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba.

"They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said Thursday. "They were the ones who got it."

The lawsuit, which contains allegations that have not been proven in court, must be certified by a judge before it can proceed.

Flooding was particularly bad in Manitoba last year as the province struggled well into the summer to contain the Assiniboine River. Officials operated the Portage Diversion — a channel that funnels water from the river into Lake Manitoba — over its design capacity.

Provincial flood forecasters argued last year's flood was one of the worst on record and they did nothing that artificially raised water levels.

The flooding forced many residents from their homes in April and several thousand First Nation residents still haven't been able to return. Although the province has set up dozens of homes at a temporary site near the Lake St. Martin reserve, the lawsuit alleges Manitoba failed to quickly fix damaged homes and failed to provide "adequate long-term housing" for evacuees.

They deserve to be fairly compensated, Raikes said.

"It's very upsetting for people to be out of their homes," Raikes said.

"They've been out of their homes for months. They're not able to move back to their homes. They've lost their personal possessions, they've lost their connection to their community, they've lost their connection to some of their family because they haven't been able to spend time together. They're all spread out."

Raikes said he expects some 3,000 residents will likely sign on to the lawsuit in the end.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment and no statement of defence has been filed.

Matt Williamson, spokesperson for the NDP government, said the province can't comment on the specifics of the claim since it is before the courts.

"Many families have been out of their homes for a year now and it’s hard to imagine the stress they are feeling," he said in an emailed statement.

"The province has constructed an emergency channel to bring the lake down, and a constructed a temporary community close to home for evacuated families, and the province has done what we can to ensure children could attend provincial schools."

He said the province is also working on long-term solutions with First Nations chiefs and the federal government.

This isn't the first lawsuit stemming from the massive flood.

The Peguis and the Ebb and Flow First Nations filed lawsuits last year, suing the federal government, the province and its Crown utility over "unusually massive" flooding which they say robbed them of their way of life, their livelihood and their homes.

That lawsuit also alleges flood water was intentionally diverted into Lake Manitoba last spring, which pushed lake levels up and unnecessarily flooded their reserves and traditional land.

A hearing regarding that lawsuit is scheduled May 6.

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