Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hotel owner, native group get mediator to settle debt

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OTTAWA will appoint a mediator to settle a dispute over unpaid hotel bills for First Nations flood evacuees in Manitoba.

Federal officials have also ordered the agency that's withholding funds to pay some of its debt to the lodge that blew the whistle on the issue.

Hotel owner Mike Bruneau said those are two matters federal Aboriginal Affairs officials settled at the first face-to-face meeting he and his senior executive have had with Daren Mini, the executive director of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters (MANFF).

Bruneau owns Misty Lake Lodge in Gimli and a motel in Ashern, which together claim MANFF owes them $2.3 million in unpaid bills going back several months for evacuees living there. MANFF has claimed its owes only a fraction of that amount and the debt goes back only three months.

Tense and heated is how Bruneau and his senior executive described the atmosphere at the hour-long meeting in Winnipeg.

Ottawa's regional officials settled for a mediator after they tried and failed to get the two sides to agree an anything.

The appointment of a mediator is expected in the next two to four weeks.

Meanwhile MANFF, which oversees First Nations flood services, including evacuee expenses, agreed to pay bills it was withholding on expenses it agreed with, Bruneau said.

He and Misty Lake Lodge general manager Retha Dykes said they left the meeting feeling frustrated. They had hoped Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development regional officials would order MANFF to pay off the full range of debts in dispute.

Bruneau said Tuesday he's glad he blew the whistle on unpaid hotel bills for evacuees.

"I'm going to make a stand," he said. "Someone's got to stop these guys."

Bruneau was handed more bad news Tuesday confirming reports last week he's losing more aboriginal business after MANFF redirected it from his Gimli hotel to Winnipeg hotels.

Last week, MANFF sent trucks to move evacuees out after management left the Gimli and Ashern lodges for the night.

Most evacuees refused to go, and only two evacuee families in the Gimli motel were relocated.

Federal officials say they may issue a statement later on the results of Monday's face-to-face meeting at the Aboriginal Affairs offices in Winnipeg. MANFF has yet to respond to a request for comment.

There are nearly 2,000 evacuees from First Nations flooded out in spring 2011.

They are living in hotels, mostly in Winnipeg but also outside the city.

Bruneau's inns accommodate about 100 of them from Lake St. Martin and Little Saskatchewan, the two hardest-hit reserves.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2013 A5

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