Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Provincial cash paid for wrong evacuees?

Papers say fire victims got flooding funds

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Documents in the hands of federal investigators allege provincial tax dollars paid hotel, air fares, security and restaurant bills for hundreds of First Nations evacuees fleeing fires last summer.

However, the money was intended for flood evacuees. Nearly 2,000 of them are still away from home.

Flood Fight

Hotel owners, meantime, were left to cover the costs of housing the flood evacuees for months and some are still owed millions of dollars in unpaid bills.

Anna Fontaine, Manitoba's director general of Aboriginal Affairs, said in email correspondence obtained by the Free Press that the issue, along with a range of other allegations, is the reason Ottawa launched an independent investigation this week into how the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters handled over $72 million for nearly 2,000 flood evacuees.

The allegations are unproven and MANFF staff are presumed innocent. Daren Mini, the executive director of MANFF, has not responded to email requests for a response to the allegations.

In Ottawa, Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, said Thursday Ottawa won't hesitate to turn the matter over for criminal prosecution if the investigation substantiates the allegations.

"These are serious allegations and any evidence to support them will be turned over to the police," Richer said.

"We will not tolerate the abuse of tax dollars. That is why we have asked an independent investigator to look into the allegations and report back to us."

The files in Ottawa's hands include MANFF documents that show the agency put $1.4 million toward hotel costs for fire evacuees, clearing off invoices to 10 Winnipeg hotels over a period of 10 days from Sept. 19 to Sept. 26, 2012.

That's just one tally on fire costs incurred for evacuees last July and August. Some 1,024 residents from six First Nations were flown to Winnipeg in evacuations that focused on high-risk people and their escorts, according to a status report as of July 23, 2012.

They included pregnant women, children, the elderly and residents with health conditions. The stays were short, lasting just days.

In November 2012, MANFF funnelled another $546,240.07 toward the cost of airfares from the north in a lump sum paid to Perimeter Aviation.

Mona Lisa Catering Services was paid $309,757.08 Sept. 14, 2012, for meal costs attributed to the evacuation. Mona Lisa was also paid for additional food bills that added up to more than $400,000 during four months, from August 2012 to January of this year.

Many of the second batch of bills are presumed to be for costs incurred by flood evacuees, though some may also include costs for feeding fire evacuees.

Of hotels that took in fire evacuees and were left covering the cost when it came to flood evacuees, one document showed MANFF owing more than $1 million to seven hotels and two security companies by the end of 2012.

The province has little recourse in how MANFF spends its money.

"The agreement isn't specific to flood evacuees so in principle it would be OK," said Jean Marc Provost, a provincial spokesman.

"We've stepped in to help the federal government administer emergency services on reserve because we believe a Manitoban is a Manitoban wherever they live. Flooding continues to hit First Nations harder than other communities in Manitoba and First Nations people deserve better."

The cost of covering First Nations evacuees for any reason, including fire and flood, is the subject of a vaguely worded memorandum of understanding between Manitoba and the federal government that predates the 2011 flood. The one-page memo, dated 2009, merely noted that Ottawa will reimburse the province's emergency measures services to residents of First Nations communities within Manitoba's boundaries.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A6

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