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Ste. Agathe flood centre recalls disaster of 1997

Temporary closure highlights tough year for museums

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Jacques Courcelles holds a miniature sandbag, used to teach children about flood fighting.


Jacques Courcelles holds a miniature sandbag, used to teach children about flood fighting. Photo Store

STE. AGATHE -- It's hard to believe the Red River's Flood of the Century was 17 years ago.

Almost as hard to believe is the Red River Floods Interpretive Centre in Ste. Agathe, built to commemorate that flood, is one of several museums shuttered this year.

The closure is likely only temporary but it underscores what's been a tough year for museums. Dalnavert Museum, the restored 1895 home of Hugh John Macdonald, closed last fall. The pioneer museum in La Broquerie, 65 kilometres south of Winnipeg, also closed and has had its artifacts reclaimed by donating families and other museums.

In the case of the Red River Flood Interpretive Centre, it has never been open to drop-in traffic. Since its inception, it could only afford to receive scheduled visits, mainly from school groups.

Even school groups were denied this year because the centre is contingent on volunteers. Those volunteers, Jacques Courcelles and his wife, Nadine, had sudden deaths in their families and weren't able to run the centre. Jacques is the volunteer president of the Ste. Agathe Community Development Corporation that oversees the centre.

This year's closure is a one-off, insists Courcelles, and it will be open to schools again next year. Even so, he knows it needs to be more accessible to the general public. An average of 11,000 passenger vehicles travel Highway 75 past the interpretive centre every day, he said.

It would be more accessible if the centre was eligible for the $3,000 annual grant the province gives most museums. Just $3,000 would keep the centre open to the public during summer months, Courcelles said. The problem is the centre is not officially a museum because it does not have an inventory of artifacts that gives it museum status.

The centre is a symbol of Ste. Agathe's recovery after the devastation of 1997 flood.

It was built with $400,000 of mostly government funding, and almost 100 per cent volunteer labour. It's located in Ste. Agathe's new Cartier Park, relocated from the east side of the Red River after the 1997 flood.

The interpretive centre and park are symbolic of Ste. Agathe's determination to recover from the devastation of the 1997 flood, said Courcelles. "This was a flax field. We planted 6,000 trees, all by volunteers," Courcelles said of the new park.

The community has also built volleyball courts, baseball diamonds, a Frisbee golf course, children's playground, fire pits and camp sites. Groups can rent the site for reunions or wedding receptions, or school groups can make a day of their visit. The near-term goal is to add soccer pitches; the long-term goal to build a water park.

"There was always a bigger plan than the interpretive centre," Courcelles said.

Cartier Park is adjacent to the industrial park and shares infrastructure such as sewer and water. Riel Park is named after you-know-who. The riding of Provencher, that encompasses Ste. Agathe, elected Louis Riel as its member of Parliament three times, and three times Ottawa denied him his seat, Courcelles explained. In his place, Ottawa appointed its own representative. The name of the appointee? George-Etienne Cartier, a Father of Confederation. Hence, Cartier Park.

For school groups, the interpretive centre has miniature sandbags to teach dike-building. Children fill them with sand and then stack them so water won't seep through. Their dikes are then tested by water hoses. They also run sandbag relay races to prep kids for those snaking sandbag lines when flood waters threaten.

Among memorabilia in the museum is the flood gauge -- basically a vertical measuring stick -- from the former James Avenue Pumping Station. The centre isn't stuffed with flood memorabilia, but it has seven large panels with photos and stories on each side. The seven panels are on a platform that winds through the room, representing the meandering Red River. It seems the images of 1997 become more poignant with the passing years.

"The community was devastated in 1997 and most of that was due to complacency," he said. That is, Ste. Agathe had never flooded before. "The flood interpretive centre serves as a reminder what could happen."

If the centre were to close, that would also spell complacency but the community is determined that won't happen.

The interpretive centre and park "shows we are a resilient bunch. After 1997, we could have just accepted people moving out," said Courcelles.

In fact, the reverse has happened. With the construction of a ring dike, Ste. Agathe's population has ballooned to about 800 from 400 before the flood, he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 A13

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