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Feds order analysis of flood management

Native group under fire over unpaid evacuee bills

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OTTAWA -- The federal government has launched a management review of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters amid numerous questions about how flood management on reserves has been handled.

Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada hired Ottawa-based firm Hallux Consulting in February, looking to see if Ottawa is getting value for the money its spends on MANFF and if the services it promises to deliver are being delivered.

The review has no deadline.

AANDC spokeswoman Ellen Funk said it is not an audit.

"Management reviews are a routine but important part of the Government of Canada's accountability framework," said Funk.

The news comes as questions arise about the nature of some of the work MANFF has done, including questionably high payments for some food bills, and more than $2.3 million in outstanding bills to two Manitoba hotels.

Misty Lake Lodge general manager Retha Dykes said the hotel is owed more than $1.7 million in payments for housing and feeding First Nations evacuees since September 2012. Another $599,000 is outstanding at the Ashern Motor Hotel for costs incurred since June.

There is a dispute between MANFF and hotel owner Mike Bruneau over certain items on the invoices, including the eligibility of some of the evacuees.

MANFF wants the invoices revised or it won't pay any of them. Dykes told the Free Press Wednesday the hotel stands by the invoices, that the disputed charges are for people and food that had been previously approved.

She also said some of the outstanding charges are for four MANFF staff members hired to work as coordinators to oversee the evacuation at the hotel, but who she alleges do very little to help. About 65 evacuees are living at Misty Lake, and the entire hotel is usually filled only by evacuees. Neither the federal or provincial governments seem prepared to intervene.

On Wednesday, Funk said Ottawa expects the dispute to be settled based on the contract between MANFF and the hotel. Dykes, however, said there is no contract, just an agreement on hotel rates that were discussed when the evacuees first arrived.

A spokesman said the Manitoba government acts as a middleman to pay MANFF for the cost of evacuations, and then turn to the federal government to get that money back because Ottawa is responsible for First Nations.

The situation is more amiable with Mona Lisa Ristorante. Joe Grande, owner of the Corydon Avenue eatery, said he has been providing a variety of food since last year but the payments only started to slow down "two or three months ago." Out of the approximately $1 million worth of food he has delivered, he said he's owed about $50,000. "When they're ready to pay, they will," he said. "The majority of the time we did business, it was fine."

Grande said the hotel residents were mainly receiving skimpy sandwiches until he got involved. Now their diets include bison burgers, lasagna, pork chops and soup.

"If somebody is hungry and that's what they're asking for, that's what I delivered. If they're stuck (in hotels) for a year, they can eat like human beings rather than a sandwich with a little bit of butter and one slice of ham," he said.

Aboriginal Affairs provides MANFF with more than $685,000 in operating funding each year in return for services on reserves, including guidance for emergency-management plans on reserves, and overseeing emergency evacuations. In addition, there is a memorandum of understanding between Ottawa and Manitoba that requires MANFF to be the agency that registers evacuees and arranges for hotel stays.

MANFF has been doing that since the spring of 2011, when flooding across southern Manitoba forced thousands of First Nations residents from their homes. Nearly 2,000 of them have yet to return home, and have been housed in hotels or private accommodation off reserve.

But the process to cover the costs MANFF incurs for the evacuees is convoluted.

MANFF pays the invoices, then sends them to the provincial government's Emergency Measures Organization, which reimburses MANFF. Manitoba sends the bills to the federal Department of Public Safety for reimbursement under Disaster Financial Assistance. Finally, Public Safety sends the bills to Aboriginal Affairs, which has responsibility for paying the disaster costs for reserves, including evacuations.

Manitoba has so far reimbursed MANFF about $72 million for 2011 flood evacuations.

Manitoba Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the province should step in to ensure the payments are made to the vendors.

"These hoteliers are providing a valuable service, they deserve to be fairly compensated," said Pallister. "It's bureaucracy at its worst."

MANFF has not responded to the Free Press.

Sources tell the Free Press AANDC officials are aware of the problems in emergency management on reserves in Manitoba.

"We recognize the system needs some refining," said one source.

 

-- with files from Geoff Kirbyson

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 A4

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