Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hotels wait for $2.3M for housing evacuees

Gimli, Ashern inns unpaid for months, manager says

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OTTAWA -- A Gimli hotel that has housed First Nations flood evacuees for nearly two years may have to go to court to recoup $1.7 million in outstanding bills from the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters.

Retha Dykes, general manager of Misty Lake Lodge, said the hotel hasn't received payments for housing about 65 evacuees, including feeding them, since September 2012.

Another $599,000 is outstanding for about 30 evacuees living at the Ashern Motor Hotel. The outstanding amounts for Ashern date back to June, Dykes said.

Both inns are owned by Mike Bruneau, who owns about a dozen hotels in the province. Dykes said Misty Lake is staying afloat only because Bruneau is backing it from profits from his other hotels.

The evacuees' bills are supposed to be paid by the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, which is contracted by Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada to oversee emergency measures programs for Manitoba reserves. The department ultimately foots the bill.

Nearly two years after one of the worst floods in Manitoba history forced 7,000 people from their homes in southern Manitoba, 1,948 First Nations residents are still not back in their homes. As of November 2012, the cost of housing and feeding the evacuees was $66 million.

Dykes said repeated attempts to speak to the firefighters association about the outstanding bills have gone unanswered. She said the only communications she has had from the association was a fax Tuesday afternoon requesting the lodge remove charges for certain people and for all the food, or it wouldn't pay any of the invoices.

"They wouldn't say why; they just sent a fax," she said. Dykes said all but two of the evacuees at Misty Lake and Ashern were previously on approved lists of those eligible for emergency housing, and that if some are not eligible now, it shouldn't be the hotel left holding the bag. "It's not our fault if they're not eligible," she said.

Firefighters association executive director Daren Mini could not be reached Wednesday. Sources close to the association said there is some unhappiness about how much Misty Lake is charging, and that they are gouging for food and hotel rooms because of the demand.

Dykes said the association first complained that Misty Lake's rates were too high last fall.

The hotel offered to negotiate the price based on what comparable hotels were charging for evacuees, but those discussions went nowhere.

"These are the rates we agreed to at the beginning of the flood," Dykes said. "Those rates have never changed."

She said the firefighters association has consistently been four to six months late paying its bills.

Neither Ottawa nor the province are willing to step in to solve the dispute.

Ellen Funk, the federal department's Manitoba region spokeswoman, said the government is aware of the dispute but won't get involved.

"This is a matter between MANFF and the hotel. We expect the issue will be settled according to the contract between two parties."

But Dykes said there is no contract. "MANFF never asked us to sign a contract. They never mentioned a contract."

She said the hotel has worked with MANFF and Ottawa in two previous evacuations, and though it often took longer than usual to get the money, it was always paid.

"There has never been an issue before," she said.

The provincial government is involved, as it oversees all emergency management in Manitoba and is part of a convoluted process that includes MANFF first billing Manitoba for the cost of evacuees. Manitoba pays MANFF, then sends the bill to Public Safety Canada, which is responsible for disaster financial assistance. Public Safety ultimately charges AANDC because it is responsible for First Nations.

A provincial government spokesman said Manitoba pays MANFF only when it receives invoices with attached cheque stubs showing the invoices have been paid.

Dykes said Bruneau has committed to not making any changes on who can stay at the hotel until at least June so the children involved can finish their school year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 A9

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