Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Roseau gripes over evacuation don't hold water

INAC decides to stop funding after river crests, community unharmed

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As provincial flood officials have noted repeatedly over the past few weeks, the flood of 2011 has had a disproportionate effect on Manitoba's First Nations.

The vast majority of the 1,916 people who've left their homes this spring due to flooding were asked or required to leave Ojibway, Dakota and Cree communities -- most notably Peguis First Nation in the northern Interlake and Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in the Red River Valley.

Flood Fight

There's no disputing the fact First Nations face unfair challenges during floods. Unlike other Manitoba communities -- cities, towns, villages, rural municipalities and local government districts -- First Nations don't have the ability to prepare for spring floods before consulting with federal officials.

Instead, they must submit flood-preparation work plans to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which then releases the necessary funds. Every spring flood, some First Nations leaders complain about the process.

Some argue the multi-step process is bogged down by bureaucracy. Others claim it's paternalistic or even racist.

But when the time for preparation is over and First Nations start considering evacuations, the credulity of the complaints about Ottawa depends on the community in question.

Peguis First Nation, which has been inundated by the Fisher River for three years in a row, has the unfortunate distinction of being the most flood-affected community in Manitoba.

Since there's no dike along the Fisher River at the Peguis townsite, a flood automatically means an evacuation -- first as a precaution, when Provincial Road 224 gets overwhelmed, and then as a necessity, when low-lying homes are inundated.

A precautionary evacuation is advisable in any community when road access is restricted, because the elderly or infirm can be cut off from medical attention. The flooding in Peguis has gone beyond the precautionary stage for three years in a row.

The situation is completely different in Ginew, the town at the heart of Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation. After being inundated by the Red and Roseau rivers in 1997, Ginew is now protected by a ring dike.

As a result, there was no flooding in Ginew this year. The Red River did flow over Provincial Road 201 on the west side of town, creating the need to issue a precautionary evacuation for roughly 170 ill or infirm Roseau residents. But on the east side of Ginew, PR 201 remained high and dry.

Nonetheless, Roseau River officials evacuated the entire community on Monday.

"We were worried about high water and possibly losing access," said flood co-ordinator Howard Nelson, who feared the community ring dike would fail.

"There were gopher holes. We weren't certain if it was secure enough."

INAC officials, however, inspected the ring dike in March and declared it secure. So after the Red River crested on Tuesday without damaging Ginew, federal officials called off the mass migration.

On Wednesday, INAC informed Roseau River it would no longer bankroll its general evacuation but would continue to cover evacuation expenses for elders and their caregivers until PR 201 is clear of water west of Ginew.

"The decision to proceed with a general evacuation was made by chief and council," INAC spokeswoman Ellen Funk said in a statement. "When approving the general evacuation, INAC did suggest to chief and council that it be voluntary, as the flood forecast did not indicate that the threat to the community was likely to be extended or severe."

Howard Nelson said it was better to be safe than sorry. "The weather is unpredictable. You can get all the reports form Water Stewardship, but mother nature can surprise you," he said.

The flood co-ordinator has a point. But it's difficult to be surprised by a river after it has crested.

On Friday, however, Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson was so angry at INAC's decision to end the evacuation funding, he took a protest to the agency's Winnipeg headquarters.

This took place three days after a crest that did not harm his community.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 A13

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