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Evacuees get look at deal

Higher ground for Lake St. Martin

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Lake St. Martin First Nation officials show survey maps for the new reserve. The current one was flooded in 2011.

ALEXANDRA PAUL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Lake St. Martin First Nation officials show survey maps for the new reserve. The current one was flooded in 2011. Photo Store

They just want to go home.

Lake St. Martin evacuees packed a school gym Thursday to get a first look at a $300-million settlement their leaders signed Monday with the federal and provincial governments.

Other land deals have fallen through, but this one is the first to include federal support, giving it a better shot of winning evacuees' votes at a referendum expected in September.

"We like it. Everybody would like to go home. People are sick and tired of Winnipeg; three years is a long time," elder Roderick Nanacowop said.

A total of 1,100 Ojibway residents of the Interlake First Nation remain in hotels and apartments, many in Winnipeg's North End, ever since their flooded reserve was evacuated in 2011.

"I know there's lots of water. I went there last week. I know it will dry out eventually, but I don't know how long it will take. As long as there's somewhere dry. They say it's possible," said Ernest Sumner.

He and his wife of 52 years, Gertie Sumner, sat in the front row in plastic folding chairs as the meeting about the deal ended. People seemed happy and ambivalent at the same time.

"Everyone wants to go home," Gertie said.

"We're losing a lot of elders and children here," she said, referring to deaths and suicides that have struck the community since the evacuation, as well as a troubling trend of teenage pregnancies that's now emerging.

"Even 14-year-olds are having babies," Ernest lamented. "I'd like to go home. I don't like city life."

Work crews are slated to start clearing bush from the higher ground as early as mid-August.

The first 136 homes to be built as early as next year are earmarked for the flood evacuees from 2011. Initially, there were about 700 such evacuees, a number that's swelled since then.

At the same time, provisions in the resettlement package also include homes for other band members who lost their homes due to overland flooding related to the operation of the Fairford River water structure during the last 50 years.

Evacuees said the best part of the proposed deal, to be cost-shared 50-50 between the two levels of government, is a new townsite to replace the one that was lost.

That includes a school from K to Grade 12 and some 300 homes, a church, graveyard, daycare, community centre, band offices and a water-treatment plant.

The new land, at an average 820 feet above sea level, is more than 10 feet higher than the reserve that was flooded out -- but it's still subject to flooding. That part of the deal met with shrugs.

Chief Adrian Sinclair said he expects the land to be an issue.

And he emphasized in an interview that a favourable vote depends on his people's confidence in provincial promises there will be a comprehensive drainage system for the new land.

"This is a good start," the chief said as band members filed out.

"There are some people who are negative, but you've got to expect that."

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2014 A5

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Updated on Friday, July 18, 2014 at 7:45 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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