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No answers for how taxpayers’ money spent

Lives of 2,000 evacuees in state of flux since 2011

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OTTAWA — Eight-hundred-and forty some days, almost 2,000 people, $101 million and counting, four audits and investigations.

And zero answers.

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In a nutshell, that’s the ongoing saga enveloping evacuees from Manitoba First Nations who have been out of their homes since the spring of 2011, and the program that has funded their hotel bills ever since.

This week, a hotel owner who has battled the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters to pay outstanding bills for housing evacuees, is taking to the airwaves to try to compel the government to make public an audit of MANFF’s handling of the evacuations.

Mike Bruneau wants Ottawa to release an audit by KPMG, commissioned in April 2013 and completed last fall.

He is taking this unusual step, hoping public pressure from the Conservative base will force open the books.

This is, after all, a government that is supposed to be on the side of good management. A government that’s going head-to-head with First Nations to compel them to open their financial books up to public scrutiny.

It seems likely the reports are still in the shadows because they will not paint a pretty picture.

The government should have been aware as early as June 2012 that something wasn’t right. Aside from the whisper campaign of allegations, Aboriginal Affairs did its own internal review of the 2011 flood program, which had warning signs all over the place.

The initial report in June 2012 was alarming, painting a picture of an understaffed, poorly organized program that didn’t compel anyone to keep proper, updated lists of eligible evacuees. There was only one poor soul at AANDC’s regional office in Winnipeg overseeing things and that person, not surprisingly, was overwhelmed.

So stories of ineligible people just showing up at the MANFF registration office and asking for accommodation seem plausible.

It seems there was enough concern at AANDC about that review that shortly after the final summary report was completed in January 2013, AANDC hired a Halifax firm to do a management review of MANFF.

AANDC couldn’t confirm to the Free Press Tuesday if that was completed, what it says or if it will ever be made public.

But two months later, Bruneau went public and AANDC started to panic.

First, it hired a mediator to resolve the dispute over the unpaid bills, but when the rumours continued to swirl about MANFF staff drinking and partying on the taxpayers’ dime, about violence and property damage and nepotism, AANDC cancelled the mediator and turned it into an investigation.

It also hired KPMG to do a thorough audit of the MANFF contract. That audit was wrapping up in September 2013.

Almost a year later, not a word about what it said.

Bruneau did get some money in July 2013 when an AANDC investigator concluded he was in the right in his dispute with MANFF. He got $2.6 million in July 2013, but says he is still owed $3 million.

His Gimli hotel, the Misty Lake Lodge, closed this year in large part due to the financial pressures of those unpaid bills.

But how MANFF spent $93 million it was given to provide services to evacuees and help with flood mitigation on reserves in 2011 is anyone’s guess.

Bruneau knows the $2.6 million he was paid in July 2013 came from AANDC directly, but he says MANFF had already been given the money to cover it. If that’s true, taxpayers shelled that money out twice.

MANFF isn’t talking. The organization has said almost nothing since Bruneau went public. It voluntarily handed over responsibility of the evacuees and the Canadian Red Cross took over Feb. 1.

About $8 million has been paid to the Red Cross since February, bringing the total AANDC spending for the 2011 floods to $101 million.

Complicating all of this is that AANDC doesn’t pay MANFF directly. In a convoluted plan, MANFF bills the Manitoba government and the province recoups the money from federal disaster assistance through the department of Public Safety. Public Safety gets its money back from AANDC.

Stuck in the middle are nearly 2,000 evacuees whose homes are ruined, and plans to relocate them to higher ground are being finalized.

Footing the bill are taxpayers, who deserve to know where their money is going.

And what happens next time a First Nation is evacuated because of a flood or a forest fire? Are any other Manitoba business owners going to open their doors to evacuees from First Nations, knowing what a mess the program is and that hotel owners such as Bruneau still haven’t been paid?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2014 A4

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