Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't let flood-evacuee problems kill the vision

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It was the best of opportunities. It was the worst of nightmares.

Let's go back in time to when the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters (MANFF) was first offered the job of taking care of evacuees from four First Nations in the Interlake who were flooded out because the provincial government diverted flood waters from southern Manitoba.

Perhaps the folks running MANFF should have just said, "Whoa! We're not really set up for this kind of thing."

Whatever, a decision was made for MANFF to provide relocation services, care for the evacuees and administer the millions of dollars involved in this program.

In the end, we have heard accusations about the quality of services to evacuees, nepotism and mishandling of funds, all of which reflect poorly on an organization that had been well-respected.

It's a classic example of what can go wrong, even though the people involved didn't intend for things to go wrong.

There are a lot of people out there right now passing judgment. And there are too many people who use opportunities like this to build themselves up by putting others down. The main critics here have benefitted from the revenues generated by providing accommodations and meals. It's not like the providers of these services are saints offering substantial discounts for group purchases or being full during "slow seasons."

Unfortunately, the folks at MANFF failed to exercise good judgment and got carried away down a slippery slope. An out-of-town training program that was an iffy fit under their previous funding levels became easier to justify when all this new money was around. Excessive drinking on the plane to and from the program? Incidents of this abound elsewhere in the public and private sector and often come to light from a disgruntled former employee.

But it doesn't reflect well on a publicly funded program. Ethics got stretched and, unfortunately, it got worse.

Hiring family and friends is a problem if favouritism is showed to less-qualified applicants. All things being equal, you have to make sure those hired provide a dedicated and cordial service instead of sitting around partying and ticking off the people you are supposed to help, as the allegations go.

These are just a handful of the complaints. Mistakes were made and some things done that were just plain wrong. It looks like everybody is going to stop pointing fingers and move on now, because it appears nothing illegal was done.

Definitely, we should address what went wrong and take appropriate measures to redress this. But looking at the big picture, it's most important to note that an incredible opportunity for First Nations to prove they can take care of their own affairs was lost this time around.

Here was an opportunity for First Nations people to show the world that they can be their own EMO"(Emergency Measures Organization). To prove that First Nations people can take the bull by the horns.

All the folks at MANFF had to do was say to themselves:

"Holy cow! This is a biggie! We may have never done this before, but we're smart and we care and we can find the kind of experience and expertise to help us do this."

The people who have run MANFF since 1991 have done a great job fulfilling their mandate for over two decades. They have provided training and maximized resources to save lives against significant obstacles, relying on volunteers and substandard equipment. It is too bad they weren't able to do the same with the flood-evacuation program.

A program involving tens of millions of dollars was thrown in their lap. They were overwhelmed and certain aspects of human nature that we all carry took over. Some of what happened can be explained. Much of it is not excusable. Certainly, it is all correctable.

More important, can we learn lessons from all this and develop ways to handle situations like this better in the future? Is it worth it?

Yes, because the big picture here is that having First Nations people handle their own affairs is the best way to go. We cannot, and should not, lose the opportunity for another chance.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2013 A9

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