Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feds finally pay hotel's evacuee bill

MANFF co-ordinators accused of drinking, trashing rooms during parties at lodge

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Misty Lake Lodge cottages near Gimli have become home to First Nation flood evacuees because they've been unable to return to their real homes since 2011. The fear of being displaced again weighs heavy on them.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Misty Lake Lodge cottages near Gimli have become home to First Nation flood evacuees because they've been unable to return to their real homes since 2011. The fear of being displaced again weighs heavy on them. Photo Store

GIMLI -- Edee O'Meera is walking on the spacious green lawn that leads to her cottage, nestled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

 

It's a 900-square-foot single dwelling at the Misty Lake Lodge, complete with washer and dryer. There are three bedrooms and a barbecue out back. Comfy, but understated.

"Look," O'Meera said. "The (front) door is open. It's freedom. It's safe. My grandchildren are in and out all day long."

O'Meera soaks in the scene and finally says, "Peace."

But for the last two years, O'Meera, a member of the Lake St. Martin First Nation displaced by the 2011 flood, has experienced no stability and very little peace. She and her three children have moved more than 20 times, including to six hotel rooms, three rentals and four months spent "couch surfing" at friends' and relatives' homes.

"An absolute nightmare," she said. "A constant state of despair and shock."

Bertha Travers, 65, hasn't been so nomadic since leaving her home behind in Little Saskatchewan First Nation in 2011. Since December, Travers has been at Misty Lake, but she believes many of the 2,000 evacuees forced out of their homes two years ago continue to experience high levels of stress -- no matter where they're housed.

'I'm worried that this place is closing down. This is my home. I want a roof over my head'

-- Misty Lake resident Bertha Travers

"There's no time to heal or recover," Travers said. "We're just being victimized again."

But that's not the worst, said O'Meera. Because this time, they believe they are being traumatized not by some faceless government bureaucrat but by their own aboriginal leaders -- namely the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters, which was given $78 million to disperse to flood victims during the past two years.

"That's the most disturbing part," she said. "I can't believe our own people are treating us like this when we're in a state of crisis and shock. They've set us back 50 years as native people, with their mismanagement and nepotism."

On Monday, the owner of Misty Lake Lodge finally got a $2.6-million cheque that had been owed for more than a year for housing flood evacuees, but the long-term fate of displaced residents -- and who is paying the bills -- remains a mystery.

Michael Bruneau said his lodge will remain open until September or longer, but only if representatives of MANFF stop bullying people to leave his hotel.

"The money is one thing. That's good," Bruneau told the Free Press, shortly after picking up the certified cheque from the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Affairs offices in Winnipeg Monday afternoon. "But why is MANFF harassing our evacuees? I know why: They hate me with a passion. They're trying to hurt me any way they can.

"I got my money. I'm happy," Bruneau added. "But these guys (MANFF) have to go."

Bruneau still questions what happened to the $78 million given to MANFF by the federal government. And why MANFF officials are still in charge of the organization, which co-ordinated the evacuation of more than 700 residents from Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Split Lake last week due to forest fires.

"I can't understand how that happens," said Misty Lake Lodge general manager Retha Dykes. "Not only should they not be in charge, they should be in jail."

MANFF officials have not answered repeated requests for comment on the allegations, which have not been proven.

Dykes and Bruneau have compiled boxes of documents outlining alleged questionable spending and invoices made by MANFF officials, including for a booze-fuelled junket to Toronto by eight senior staff and a getaway for the CEO and his girlfriend.

It's not just evacuees who are housed in places such as Misty Lake Lodge. MANFF also provides co-ordinators who are supposed to see to the health and welfare of residents in their temporary environment.

At Misty Lake, up to four co-ordinators stayed at the hotel at a given time -- plus family and friends. Only they didn't communicate with residents, said Travers and O'Meera.

"They get paid to get drunk, trash their rooms and beat each other up," Dykes said, noting police have been called to Misty Lake 28 times during the last two years, in most cases due to disputes with co-ordinators.

Last week, one of the co-ordinators punched an elder in the face and was evicted. "That was the last straw," Dykes said.

Added Travers: "We never saw them. They were here to party."

Many of the evacuees have been staying at hotels in Winnipeg, including various Canad Inns locations and the Thrift Lodge on Notre Dame Avenue. Dykes believes other businesses have been owed money but didn't go public.

"They're not going to complain," Dykes said. "Look at what happened to us. We didn't get paid for a year."

Indeed, while the cheque was finally in the mail on Monday (approximately $2 million for Misty Lake and another $724,000 for an Ashern hotel owned by Bruneau), that only covers invoices up until April for Misty Lake and June for Ashern. The tab is still running, with some two dozen evacuees remaining in Gimli.

Bruneau said he hopes to expand the number of evacuees at Misty Lake in order to keep the facility open past September.

"That's one battle of a monster war," Dykes said, of the payment. "The evacuees are still getting screwed like crazy. MANFF still needs to be replaced."

For now, at least, evacuees such as O'Meera and Travers don't want to be displaced.

"I'm worried that this place is closing down," Travers said.

"This is my home. I want a roof over my head."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 7:31 AM CDT: replaces photo

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