A Gimli hotel that has been home to dozens of flood evacuees for more than two years is closing its doors Sept. 1 because it has been unable to collect more than $3 million it says it's owed by Ottawa.
Michael Bruneau, owner of the Misty Lake Lodge, gave the bad news to the hotel's 15 remaining employees Monday.
He said he's borrowed from his other businesses -- he owns 14 hotels in Manitoba and Ontario -- and even recently mortgaged his home to keep the Gimli property afloat. But he said he's unable to keep the lodge open any longer.
'Not only financially, (but) mentally I'm done. Everybody's burned out here. Everybody is stressed out'
-- Misty Lake Lodge owner Michael Bruneau
"Not only financially, (but) mentally I'm done," Bruneau said a telephone interview. "Everybody's burned out here. Everybody is stressed out."
Bruneau said he met April 15 with officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters (MANFF) to resolve the long-standing billing issue. MANFF is the organization delegated by Ottawa to handle First Nation evacuation services.
At the time, he said, the feds ordered MANFF to pay all monies owed that were not in dispute. He expected to receive about $2 million. Instead he received a cheque in May for $538,000.
He said he has received no explanation from MANFF or the feds as to why they made only a partial payment. Neither does he know what items are in dispute. "Nobody will talk to us," he said Monday.
The lodge was once home to as many as 180 Lake St. Martin and Little Saskatchewan First Nation flood evacuees. Bruneau remodelled many of its rooms, knocking out walls, to accommodate large families. It still has more than two dozen flood evacuees, most of whom have been there since the spring of 2011.
The children go to school in Gimli. Several of the adults have found jobs in the community, including at Bruneau's hotel. Now they face eviction and a likely move to a Winnipeg hotel since adequate housing is still not available for them in their home communities.
"This is home for them. We're friends, we're family. Our kids go to school together. We have Christmas dinners together," said Misty Lake general manager Retha Dykes.
Manitoba Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said he was surprised by the decision to close the hotel. He was under the impression the hotel was working through the payment issue with Ottawa.
The Manitoba minister's main concern now is that alternative housing is found for flood evacuees still staying at the lodge. "We'll work with the federal government to make sure that nobody is put on the street," he said.
A MANFF official, who would only give his first name, Jimmy, said his organization had not received any official word from Misty Lake Lodge and would not comment. "We're not negotiating this through the media at all," he said.
A spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said the department was preparing a press statement on the issue, but none was received by deadline.
MANFF, acting as Ottawa's agent, fell behind in its payments to the hotel late last summer, Dykes said. The payment the hotel received in May covered only a portion of bills incurred last fall.
Meanwhile, several MANFF staff members continue to eat meals at Misty Lake and charge them to their rooms, even while the organization refuses to pay its bills. Dykes said until now the lodge has been loath to turf them out because it was still hoping to be paid and didn't want to antagonize MANFF. That will likely soon change, she said.
Bruneau, who once employed 60 full- and part-time staff at the hotel, appears resigned to turning to the courts to secure payment for the outstanding debts. But that will take time. Meanwhile, he said, he has no choice but to lay off his staff and close the lodge's doors.