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'Not fit for human habitation'

Academics pan new site for flooded First Nation

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A Lake St. Martin resident steps on sandbags on the  flooded First Nation in 2012. Researchers say the reserve's new site is just as prone to flooding as its old one.

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A Lake St. Martin resident steps on sandbags on the flooded First Nation in 2012. Researchers say the reserve's new site is just as prone to flooding as its old one.

University of Manitoba academics warn a new relocation site for First Nations flood evacuees is just as prone to flooding as the reserve that was submerged in the flood of 2011.

Natural Resources Institute associate professor Shirley Thompson and research associate Myrle Ballard say Lake St. Martin evacuees are about to be relocated on land they'd lose to the next major flood.

After nearly two years of land deals that fell through at the last minute, representatives for the federal and the provincial governments and Lake St. Martin announced in May they had a new place to live.

The new site, a combination of provincial Crown land and land purchased from two farming families, sits next to the existing reserve but on slightly higher ground. Both levels of government dismissed the academics' misgivings and First Nations leaders could not be reached for comment.

Residents of Lake St. Martin were forced from their homes in May 2011 and have been unable to go home. Chronic flooding over several years left most homes uninhabitable and the ground saturated. Ottawa has spent more than $70 million housing and feeding evacuees from Lake St. Martin and five other First Nations since the 2011 flood. About 1,074 are from Lake St. Martin.

The two academics have stepped forward with the following misgivings:

The ground is higher, yes, they said, but not by much. Provincial agricultural soil surveys show the land is poorly drained and peaty. With construction of the province's two $250-million flood-fighting channels in the area, the academics believe ground-saturation levels will rise and with it the risk of overland flooding.

"On a multitude of levels, it's poor. There is no possibility for cropping, the site needs major drainage and usually when the soil is too poor for agriculture it's because it's been flooded," Thompson said.

Locating a community of 1,000 or more people there would be costly and ultimately futile, she said.

"The cost of building houses and roads is going to be very high. They would have to build up the land or build differently, with no basements or on stilts," Thompson said.

In the end, everyone might lose their homes in the next major flood, Ballard warned.

Ballard was born on Lake St. Martin and has relatives among the evacuees but she made a life for herself in Winnipeg and won't be relocating. Still, the deal to move to the site next to the flooded reserve upsets her.

"Yes, they're going to get new homes but if you build on a site that's wet, those homes are going to mould. They'll be right back to square one. They're building on a site that's not fit for human habitation," Ballard said.

Lake St. Martin evacuees, like other displaced First Nations residents, have suffered a host of social problems after two years in a life of concrete and city lights.

Teenagers used to rural life have been lured into street gangs and the community is disintegrating, a phenomenon that Thompson and Ballard documented this year in a study and a video presentation.

Both blame those social consequences on poor provincial management of the 2011 flood and its impact on the Interlake.

The two say that the province's agricultural soil surveys offer a different set of facts from their own social conclusions but they're just as bleak.

The federal government said in an email from the office of the aboriginal affairs minister that: "The lands in question were assessed by the province to have superior drainage capacity than the other pieces of land. Our goal is to ensure that the community is rebuilt in a suitable location that will not be subjected to future flooding. "Our government will continue to work with the Lake St. Martin First Nation leadership and the province of Manitoba to make this happen as quickly as possible."

The provincial government said in an email that a number of factors, including elevation and the ability to create proper drainage, were considered when the selecting the site. "In fact, if the land were to flood again in the future, the federal government would have a responsibility for repairing the damage and thus have not made the decision without due consideration."

"This land is high ground safe from flooding from Lake St. Martin (on average this land is over about 20 feet above the lake). The First Nation has commenced development planning for their new community on this land," the province said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2013 A5

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