Gimli's Misty Lake Lodge could stay open for First Nation flood evacuees after all, its owner said Sunday.
Hotelier Michael Bruneau has shelved plans to close the lakeside conference centre, which has been used to house those displaced by the 2011 Lake St. Martin flood.
While he contends he's owed another $300,000 on top of the $2.6 million Ottawa guaranteed last week for housing the evacuees, he said the federal offer is large enough for him to have a change of heart over Misty Lake's future.
Bruneau said after meeting with hotel staff and evacuees at the lodge this weekend, he decided to keep it open past Sept. 1, which he said last week would be Misty Lake's final day.
"It's the smartest thing to do, is to stay open for evacuees," Bruneau said Sunday.
Late Sunday afternoon, Misty Lake general manager Retha Dykes issued a statement on Bruneau's behalf to confirm the decision.
"I have spoken and confirmed with both the Lake St. Martin and the Little Saskatchewan First Nations chief and council regarding their band members who are evacuees. They are in full support of these evacuees to remain at Misty Lake," Bruneau's statement said. "Misty Lake will continue to make these people feel at home."
In telephone interviews Sunday, Bruneau sketched out the reasons for his change of heart and added a couple of conditions to his offer.
He said he needs a minimum 50 registered evacuees to keep the lodge afloat. He estimated there are a couple dozen now at the lodge, down from a peak of 180 at the height of the flood crisis. He employs nine of the evacuees at the hotel.
There are about 2,000 evacuees from First Nations swamped by the 2011 flood. They've remained in hotel rooms and private accommodations, mostly in Winnipeg, as Lake St. Martin and Little Saskatchewan resettlement plans are worked out.
Bruneau said he wants to deal directly with federal authorities on evacuee assistance, bypassing the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters (MANFF), with which he has squared off over billings.
On Friday, the Free Press obtained a letter sent to Bruneau from the regional office of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada that favoured Bruneau in his contract dispute with MANFF, which oversaw evacuations from First Nations during the flood.
The July 18 letter came after a full review of the dispute that has pushed Misty Lake Lodge to the brink of closing over unpaid MANFF bills.
Ottawa's decision comes with an order issued to MANFF to pay Bruneau the money for lodging and other claims related to the evacuees who were housed at Misty Lake Lodge and at a hotel in Ashern that Bruneau owns.
He said that after two years as an evacuation centre, his lodge is in poor repair and beyond its former use as a lakeside conference centre.
"The smartest thing to do is to stay open for evacuees. We're willing to be a standby emergency centre for evacuees, but we won't deal with MANFF," he said.
Bruneau said Sunday he's heard the $2.6-million federal cheque may come as early as today.
He said he feels more secure after receiving support from the First Nations' chiefs and councils than at the height of his dispute with MANFF.
Meanwhile, a flurry of emails between between MANFF and hotel officials showed their dispute is as heated as ever.
In one email over the weekend, a MANFF official threatened to pull out all the evacuees still at Misty Lake Lodge.