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This article was published 18/5/2016 (406 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government’s effort to rebuild four communities so evacuees from flooded First Nations could return home is disorganized, poorly resourced and plagued with delays, an audit of the program found late last year.
The audit of Operation Return Home paints an unflattering portrait of how Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada stepped up after thousands of indigenous Manitobans were forced out of their homes in May 2011. The audit reviewed INAC’s response to the flooding between April 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2015.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was unavailable for an interview Wednesday but said in a statement it is time for the government to fix what is wrong.
"For Operation Return Home this means we need to change our approach, listen to the concerns from the First Nations, and get on with rebuilding communities — they have waited for far too long," she said.
In May 2011, flooding on Lake Manitoba caused damage throughout the Interlake region, and forced the evacuation of more than 3,200 people from 18 First Nations. About 1,300 people were able to return home, but as of May 10, there were still 1,933 evacuees from four First Nations.
Ottawa has spent $136 million housing evacuees, and is spending $1.58 million every month as the evacuation drags on. INAC expects the last evacuee won’t return home until 2018.
For the first two years, responsibility for the evacuees was shifted from one directorate to another in Manitoba’s regional office. Although the audit doesn’t cover that time period, during the first two years a number of major problems developed, including inflated lists of evacuees and mismanagement by the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, which was registering evacuees and administering emergency accommodation and food assistance. In the spring of 2013, INAC audited MANFF, and eventually MANFF withdrew its services and was replaced by the Canadian Red Cross.
In late 2013, INAC established a separate project, dubbed Operation Return Home. The project charter outlining its governance, structure and goals wasn’t in place until February 2014, almost three years after the flooding.
Despite the charter, there continued to be a lack of clear understanding about who was responsible for what, no formal links for the project staff to get help from other parts of the department, and even a lack of regular meetings. The executive senior committee, which was to steer the operation, didn’t meet between April 2015 and September 2015, the audit found.
While a temporary project office with six staff was created in April 2014, most of the people with the seniority or expertise needed to get things done were not working full time on the project. Furthermore, that expertise didn’t exist in Manitoba, said the audit.
"A project of this size and complexity has not been previously undertaken in the Manitoba region," wrote the auditors in the report.
The audit also found while INAC headquarters staff were supposed to play an advising role to Manitoba region staff to help out, it only happened informally and not often enough.
The audit said if the department doesn’t fix the problems, the delays will get worse and the cost of rebuilding the communities will exceed the budget.
Despite the problems, progress has been made, much of it in the last year. Lake St. Martin, which accounts for 1,196 of the 1,933 evacuees still living away from home, had work begin last year on roads, as well as sewer and water systems, for its new community. The reserve is being moved to higher land adjacent to the former community. The home sites will start to be prepped this summer and will be ready for construction in the fall.
In Little Saskatchewan, 60 new homes should be completed later this year. In Dauphin River, new modular homes were delivered last September and work is ongoing on a temporary school and temporary waste water systems.
In the meantime, most evacuees have been moved from hotels into rentals. Thirty-two people are in extended-stay hotels and another 15 in regular hotels mainly due to special needs that could not easily be accommodated elsewhere. They have their rent paid for and receive $4 a day in per diems.
It’s expected to cost upwards of $500 million — split equally between Manitoba and Ottawa — to rebuild the communities.
Timeline of evacuations:
March 2011: Provincial government opens Fairford River Water Control Structure to deal with high water levels on Lake Manitoba, sending excess water into Lake St. Martin. Federal governments pledges more than $2 million for temporary dikes to protect Lake St. Martin, and additional funds for Dauphin River.
May 5, 2011: Evacuation of Lake St. Martin begins due to flooding. In this month, more than 4,000 people from at least eight First Nations are forced from their homes due to flooding. In Lake St. Martin, more than 80 per cent of homes and buildings are destroyed. Federal government expects it will be six months before most can return home.
July 2011: Manitoba and Ottawa begin working on a plan to buy new land for Lake St. Martin to move onto, since the existing reserve has been destroyed by repeated floods.
August 2011: Lake St. Martin signs a memorandum of understanding with the provincial and federal governments for a plan to have community members return home. An audit of the existing reserve is undertaken to determine if anything is salvageable. The answer, for the most part, is no.
December 2011: Provincial government buys modular homes to house evacuees.
March 2012: Questions raised by Winnipeg Free Press about why the number of evacuees continues to go up almost a year after the flooding began. Ottawa begins review of evacuee lists and determines 170 people who claimed to be evacuees from Lake St. Martin were ineligible for assistance.
December 2012: Modular homes purchased for Lake St. Martin are now pledged for Little Saskatchewan First Nation after very few LSM evacuees moved into them. Province to spend $4.3 million to move them. Together, Ottawa and Manitoba spent about $6.6 million on the 40 homes. It doesn’t happen.
May 2013: Lake St. Martin, the provincial and federal governments reach an agreement regarding a new site for the community adjacent to the existing reserve.
June 2013: The Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters is audited by the federal government for its handling of the evacuees from the floods. This same month MANFF votes to withdraw its services and the Red Cross takes over.
July 2014: Lake St. Martin signs a deal with the federal and provincial governments to relocate and rebuild the community on higher land. The price tag is about $300 million.
June 2015: Ground is broken on the first step of rebuilding Lake St. Martin, with road construction, ditches and piping. Contracts are signed to build a new sewage lagoon and water treatment plant and work begins to build 150 new homes.
This same month Little Saskatchewan First Nation chief and council sign a band council resolution supporting the building of a new road and 60 homes, cost-shared by Ottawa and Manitoba. The homes are to be finished this summer.