Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rising flood evacuee claims red-flagged last fall

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FEDERAL and provincial officials were concerned about inflated numbers of flood evacuees from Lake St. Martin as far back as early November.

Alarms were raised at a Nov. 3 teleconference of government officials and representatives of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters (MANFF), which delivers assistance to First Nations evacuees.

"We came to the conclusion we may be faced with a situation where we were getting some ineligible evacuees joining the rolls," said Lee Spencer, director of recovery with Manitoba's Emergency Measures Organization.

The meeting's agenda, obtained through a freedom-of-information request, stated MANFF was to report on First Nations evacuee numbers. Spencer chaired the meeting.

In August, the number of reported Lake St. Martin evacuees stood at 725 but the numbers continued to rise through the fall. By February, it had hit 1,157 and in March it rose to 1,268. In early November, the rising numbers sparked consternation on the part of government officials.

"That's when we came to the conclusion that action was perhaps necessary to make sure that everybody understood it just wasn't an open book. You had to deserve to be on the evacuation list," Spencer said after the province released a handful of documents Wednesday to the Free Press.

Included among the documents was a draft letter -- already referenced in previous stories -- to First Nations warning them they were responsible for creating and maintaining evacuee lists. (Aboriginal leaders have insisted the responsibility belongs to MANFF.)

First Nations are responsible for ensuring those on the lists "can be substantiated" as evacuees," according to the letter, written by Brock Holowachuk, an emergency management co-ordinator with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). He warned if the information could not be provided, First Nations might be on the hook for the extra costs.

Holowachuk emailed the draft copy to Spencer for his comments on Nov. 29 before sending it to aboriginal leaders in early December. In an emailed response, Spencer thanked the federal official for the heads-up, but said EMO had "no comment or observations."

While EMO has no part in registering evacuees, it provides funds to MANFF so it can provide services to flood victims. The feds repay EMO for 100 per cent of those costs.

As a close observer of the First Nations evacuee claims, Spencer said Wednesday the protracted nature of last year's flood -- with many people unable to return home even now -- caused severe stress to the agencies providing and overseeing aid.

"It maybe took a little while to catch on (that there were ineligible recipients) but I think they caught on and they're doing the right thing now."

Last week, Ottawa acknowledged more than 10 per cent of people receiving emergency assistance due to flooding at Lake St. Martin First Nation were not evacuees from the reserve.

The Free Press received only four documents consisting of five pages from the province on Wednesday after altering its original freedom-of-information request. Originally, the provincial government set a price tag of nearly $1.9 million to provide all of the information requested.

Spencer said there is much more correspondence between EMO, MANFF and AANDC than the public might realize.

The EMO official said he has 3,200 emails alone from the past year on the evacuee issue. "I've got almost 200 binders of 500 pages each of information from MANFF," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2012 A5

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