The people of Lake St. Martin First Nation have become refugees in their own country, but their leaders must share much of the blame for the appalling situation that has continued to strand some 700 people in Winnipeg hotels and rental accommodations.
The flood that forced them off their reserve on the east side of Lake Manitoba last year was not their fault, but the band's leadership has refused reasonable offers of accommodation by the provincial and federal governments, which could have reunited them as a community.
The real victims in this sorry mess, however, are neither government nor the band's executives, but the children who are pawns in a wider power struggle.
The band's young people missed some schooling last year when floodwaters swamped their reserve. The new school year had just begun in rented accommodations in Winnipeg when fire officials closed the building because it didn't meet the fire code.
The band should have ensured the former junior high school met the requirements for occupancy. The oversight means about 84 students may be distributed among public schools in Winnipeg, although the province has offered to create a school within a school to keep them together.
Chief Adrian Sinclair is blaming government, but the line of attack is wearing thin. The province and Ottawa were also attacked for dramatically cutting the per diem paid to evacuees. The band neglected to say that every family is still receiving full income assistance from Ottawa. Band members who worked for the First Nation are receiving salaries. Their rent is fully covered. The per diems were intended to temporarily cover incidental costs.
The province has converted a former military base near Gypsumville, near the band's reserve lands, into a temporary community. Some 60 new homes were moved there, with plans for more if the need arose, but only 13 are occupied.
The rest have followed their leaders' dictum to stay put while negotiations continue for a permanent settlement, and possibly a new reserve. The band fears if it moves to Gypsumville, talks will stall and they will be stuck in a place they claim they do not want.
This and other rationalizations for remaining in Winnipeg are red herrings, but they reflect the tradition of mistrust that often characterizes aboriginal relations with the federal government.
A just-completed engineering study is expected to reveal whether the existing reserve can be saved. If so, more time will be needed to consider the possibilities.
In the meantime, the band should do the right thing and reunite the community in temporary homes at Gypsumville, where nearby schools and services can help meet their needs.