Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A First Nation's murky waters

As flood-ravaged community fights to leave, memories of a tragic past float to the surface

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LAKE ST. MARTIN FIRST NATION -- The long and tragic history of forcibly displacing indigenous people is of little concern to residents of one Ojibwa community who are eager to leave their flood-affected homes.

Decades of seasonal flooding have left the people of Lake St. Martin First Nation with a litany of health complaints, mostly stemming from the mould they breathe in homes Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has pledged to replace.

Chief Adrian Sinclair and many of the 504 other people who officially call this First Nation home are ready to pack up and leave for higher ground. The province has already identified two parcels of land near Highway 6 that Ottawa could devote to a new reserve.

But first, Ottawa and Manitoba must decide whether Lake St. Martin First Nation is possible to maintain in its current location, either by raising dikes or elevating homes.

Given Canada's record when it comes to relocating First Nations, the prospect of moving an entire community is unsettling, admitted Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, who visited Lake St. Martin on Friday along with other provincial officials.

"It does give me a certain degree of nervousness. But if this is what the community wants in its entirety, we need a plan to do it," Robinson said.

Such a process will require many discussions with Ottawa, he said.

"It will take some time. But from past experience, I can tell you things can move relatively quickly, particularly if there's a will on the part of government."

Lake St. Martin First Nation sits on the lake of the same name, which lies downstream of Lake Manitoba, the third largest body of water in the province.

Water from Lake Manitoba flows through the Fairford River to Lake St. Martin on its way to Lake Winnipeg via the Dauphin River. Normally, the flow is 6,000 cubic feet per second.

But this spring, with Lake Manitoba nearing the flood stage, water is flowing into Lake St. Martin at a rate of 14,000 cubic feet per second -- and flowing out at only 12,000 cfs, said Don Norquay, deputy minister of Manitoba Water Stewardship.

This has led Lake St. Martin to rise to the point where several homes and dozens of vehicles and driveways are underwater at the First Nation.

On Thursday, 75 residents were evacuated, mainly to avoid the risk of further exposure to mould, said Donna Helm, the community health nurse.

"We were asked if we measured the mould. Well, how do you measure the mould in a house that's already underwater?" she asked at the First Nation's health centre, which has doubled as the band office since the latter structure burned down.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know if you have mould in a house, you're going to have respiratory problems."

A nine-month-old from the community died last year due to respiratory issues, she said. Another child is in intensive care in Winnipeg for the same reason.

Norquay expects Lake St.Martin to rise at least another foot by the end of June, when flows into the lake are expected to increase to 18,000 cfs. This will require the community's dike to be raised by several more feet in order to withstand the effect of wind and waves.

Chief Sinclair said that's pointless, as he believes the lake water will do an end-run around the already eroding temporary flood barrier.

"This is the time to relocate," Sinclair said.

But the province insists the community must be protected in the short term, as any relocation may take months -- if it happens at all.

Manitoba Water Stewardship, meanwhile, does not have the option of using the Fairford Dam to hold back more water in Lake Manitoba, which has already risen high enough to threaten cottages.

But the agency is holding off on diverting the full force of the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba through the Portage Diversion. Norquay said the province is sending as much water as possible past the diversion toward Winnipeg, without threatening dikes along the lower Assiniboine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2011 A3

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