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Feds have new plan for First Nations

Valcourt unveils reforms to emergency management

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A home surrounded by flood water at Lake St. Martin First Nation in 2011.

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A home surrounded by flood water at Lake St. Martin First Nation in 2011. Photo Store

The federal government wants to work directly with provinces and First Nations on emergency-measures reforms for aboriginal communities evacuated as a result of fires, floods and other disasters.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in Winnipeg Tuesday the federal government has put $19 million into its proposed overhaul of the federal emergency-management protocol and hopes to use the new approach on all First Nations in Canada.

"This new approach aims to establish new and advanced agreements with provinces and territories who are the first responders on First Nations where there are forest fires or floods or other emergencies," Valcourt said.

Provinces would pick up the tab and handle administration directly with damaged or destroyed First Nations for evacuations, accommodations and recovery. Ottawa would compensate the provinces.

Ottawa's new plans don't affect the handling of current crises, said Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson.

Valcourt made the announcement during a break in meetings with provincial and territorial aboriginal affairs ministers.

Some 2,000 evacuees from the 2011 flood are still out of their Interlake First Nation homes at a cost of more than $82 million.

Robinson, who hosted the one-day meeting, held the door open to Valcourt's changes for disaster assistance, saying any reforms would be an improvement.

"It's a great opportunity to revamp something that's not working very well, which we've had first-hand experience with," Robinson said. But he added Ottawa shouldn't think of the changes as a slam dunk, either.

"Nothing is going to move on that until there is ample opportunity for the provinces, the territories and the First Nations to have... some input in that," Robinson said.

The model for the federal proposal was Alberta's flood evacuation last summer. The biggest differences between the Alberta plan and the one in Manitoba is administrative.

In Manitoba, the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters acts as the middle man, handling evacuee arrangements. It submits bills to the province's emergency measures office. The province in turn hands the bills over to its federal counterpart, the Public Safety department, which runs the federal disaster financial assistance program.

Public Safety hands the bills off to Aboriginal Affairs, which must authorize Public Safety to pay the bills.

In the days after the Alberta flood last summer, the Alberta government provided immediate resources for First Nations and provided prepaid debit cards to evacuees to help with immediate financial aid. Alberta also pumped $85 million into housing and $10 million in jobs training.

"We have put in temporary relief shelters to ensure people had places to stay in before winter and are working on developing temporary neighbourhoods on the nations for the medium term until homes are repaired and/or replaced," said a spokesman for Robin Campbell, Alberta's minister of aboriginal relations. "No funding from the federal government has been received yet, but the federal government has announced that an advanced payment will be coming by the end of the fiscal year."

Both the Siksika and Stoney Nakoda First Nations in Alberta were heavily impacted. There are more than 1,000 people still out of their homes.

Steve Ashton, the provincial minister responsible for emergency measures, said Manitoba has served notice it will no longer act as an intermediary between Ottawa and First Nations in the payment of flood claims.

"We've indicated that we as a province don't want to be in a position of being the financial agent for the federal government," he said outside the legislature. "Our job is to be there to fight floods or other disasters for Manitobans."

Ashton added Manitoba will no longer participate in a convoluted process that saw it act essentially as an agent between Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada, which authorized spending but had no budget for paying out flood claims, and Public Safety Canada, which paid the bills.

Ashton said the province is pleased the federal government has recognized it must improve the delivery of disaster relief to First Nations but said Ottawa must also boost its investment in flood mitigation on reserves.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2013 A4

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