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Manitoba flood evacuees being evicted; hotel closing after $3M in unpaid bills

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Misty Lake Lodge's front gates are seen in a 2011 file photo.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Misty Lake Lodge's front gates are seen in a 2011 file photo.

GIMLI, Man. - A Manitoba hotel is being forced to close and dozens of flood evacuees are being evicted over $3 million in unpaid bills.

Mike Bruneau, owner of Misty Lake Lodge in Gimli, says neither the federal government nor the organization designated to care for long-term evacuees has come up with the money.

Bruneau's lodge has housed about 65 aboriginal people displaced by the 2011 spring flood. But now, after talking to his bank, Bruneau says he has no choice but to close down in September because he hasn't been paid in months.

The Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters has been given millions to care for evacuees, but the group hasn't paid him since he accused it publicly of squandering money, Bruneau said. The federal government hasn't paid him either, despite repeated phone calls, he said.

"I wake up in the middle of the night thinking this is a nightmare," the lodge owner said Monday. "How can the government have their people staying in my hotel for this long and — never mind not pay me — not even talk to me and tell me when I might get paid?"

A federal Aboriginal Affairs spokesman said the department is working on a response. Calls to the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters were not returned.

The cost of caring for the evacuees has ballooned to just over $80 million so far. Officials say it takes about $1.5 million a month to care for First Nations residents, who are still unable to return to their homes following severe spring flooding in 2011. The evacuees, scattered around Winnipeg and the province, live in hotels and rental accommodation while officials search for permanent homes.

Care for the long-term displaced has come under fire with reports that the number of evacuees grew well after the waters receded. The native firefighters association has been accused of racking up excessive bills, as well as of hiring relatives to act as co-ordinators for the evacuees.

The organization is being audited by Ottawa and has said it no longer wants to be responsible for the homeless evacuees. The federal and provincial governments have asked the Red Cross to take over.

Bruneau said he was paid faithfully for the first year, but invoices went unheeded after he complained to the firefighters group about the conduct of its co-ordinators.

In the meantime, Bruneau said, his hotel has fallen into disrepair. There are holes in his walls and damage to his carpets.

"I thought I'd be getting some money from the government to fix my hotel up as evacuees move out. Now I can't do any conferences. I have to shut it down because I can't repair it. I have no money to repair it to do the business I used to do."

The decision to shut down is heartbreaking, he said. A chef who has worked at the lodge for 25 years is out of a job, while evacuees who haven't been able to return home for several years are being forced to move once again, Bruneau said.

"I was trying to hold on," he said, his voice faltering. "It is what it is."

Eric Robinson, Manitoba's aboriginal affairs minister, said he hopes the federal government will act in "an honourable way" and ensure its bills are paid, but if the hotel has to close, evacuees won't be left in the cold.

"We're going to ensure that nobody is put out on the street," he said. "We are going to make sure that people have accommodations and have a place to call temporary home for the time being."

— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg

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