OTTAWA -- The organization facing controversy over its handling of Manitoba native flood evacuees will no longer be involved in what has become a multimillion-dollar headache.
The board of the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters, which is being audited by Ottawa to verify it has done what it said it has, voted late last week to pass a resolution to step away from helping evacuees and informed the provincial and federal governments Friday.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson flew to Ottawa on Monday for an emergency meeting with federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. The two governments are now engaged in talks with the Canadian Red Cross to take over the service.
"It's a pretty big story," Robinson said.
Ottawa is working with MANFF on a transition plan to the Red Cross, which will conduct an assessment of the needs of the evacuees going forward.
There are about 2,000 First Nations evacuees still living in hotels or private accommodations more than two years after floods in the spring of 2011 forced them from their homes. MANFF was tasked by Ottawa to co-ordinate the evacuations, which so far have cost Ottawa more than $70 million. Among MANFF's duties were registering most evacuees, finding and paying for hotel accommodations or reimbursing evacuees for rent paid for private accommodations, arranging food and delivering daily per diems.
Robinson said he was not surprised by the move, because MANFF has been asked to do something that, for the most part, falls beyond the scope of its abilities. MANFF's mandate is to provide training for firefighters and conduct fire-prevention work for Manitoba reserves, help prepare emergency-management plans for reserves and oversee emergency evacuations.
However, the organization is small and providing evacuation services to thousands of people over the course of two years has proven to be more than the organization could manage, one source said. MANFF has been subjected to repeated criticism for its handling of the evacuee file, however, and the federal government is currently engaged in a management review of the organization.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada insists the review is not a real audit but more a value-for-money examination.
Among the concerns were millions of dollars in unpaid bills to several hotels housing evacuees, excessive payments for food bills and allegations from some hotels MANFF staff were abusing their positions, such as hiring relatives as co-ordinators who then did little to actually help evacuees on site.
AANDC provides MANFF with $685,000 in operating funding each year. It also reimburses MANFF for most of the costs associated with evacuations including hotel fees, rent and food.
Ottawa is refusing to pay some of the costs MANFF has invoiced, including a $1-million bill for snacks from Mona Lisa Ristorante Italiano. The cost of snacks provided for evacuees in Winnipeg hotels grew from $10 per person in 2011 to almost $60 a person a year later. Ottawa deemed that price tag far beyond the scope of what was reasonable and said it would not cover it.
Retha Dykes, general manager of the Misty Lake Lodge in Gimli, said the Red Cross will be a welcome relief for her and others at the hotel.
"We would be ecstatic to deal with the Red Cross over MANFF," said Dykes. "I think this would be a welcome change for everybody."
She said the co-ordinators MANFF provides do almost nothing to help and rarely leave their rooms when on the premises.
Bertha Travers, an evacuee from Little Saskatchewan, has been pushing the governments to call in the Red Cross for months.
"The Red Cross has experience in humanitarian services and emergency management," she said. "I believe MANFF was ill-prepared (for the job.)"
The governments hope many evacuees may be able to start returning home by the end of the year.
Lake St. Martin, the one reserve that was entirely evacuated, is in final negotiations to move to higher ground adjacent to the existing land. A meeting is expected later this week to begin working on a community plan, and the residents need to vote in a referendum to accept the new location before much else can be done.
Manitoba and Ottawa have also agreed to share the $12-million cost of building new homes at Little Saskatchewan and will move 40 modular homes to higher ground near the reserve.
AANDC has also approved funds for new houses at Pinaymootang and Ebb and Flow, is working on long-term flood management at Peguis and is completing an assessment of flood damages in Dauphin River.